Cargo: Zombie tale has a pulse but no brains

Publish Date
Friday, 1 June 2018, 11:09AM

By: Ari Mattes

Since the 1970s, some of the best horror films have been made in Australia. Something about the vastness of the continent, and its geographical remoteness from the northern and western hemispheres, lends itself to the kind of existential explorations of alienation that underpin the best examples of this genre.

Peter Weir's The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) remains one of the great horror comedies, viciously lampooning small-town Australian life. Russell Mulcahy's Razorback (1984) fully embraces the surreal-gothic potential of the Australian landscape, and the intense terror of Wolf Creek (2005) must have caused a few backpackers to reconsider their trips Down Under.

But only one zombie film of note springs to mind, the Spierig Brothers' brilliantly inventive Undead (2003). Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke's recent Cargo, released in Australian cinemas and to Netflix , is another.

Whereas the Spierig Brothers tackled the genre with energy and mirth, Cargo is a much more sombre affair, favouring dramatic realism and an understated visual approach.

The result is mixed. The first half hour is brilliant, slowly building up tension and suspense, but once the narrative kicks into full gear, the film becomes far less satisfying.

It's not that it's a bad film, it is moderately enjoyable, but given the renowned cast — it stars Martin Freeman, Susie Porter (excellent in a limited role) and legend of the Australian screen, David Gulpilil — and the potential of the genre in an Australian context, it could have been a lot better.

The narrative follows Andy (Freeman), who has to kill his wife Kay (Porter) after she turns into a zombie, as he travels across country with baby Rosie on his back (his "cargo") and befriends teenaged Thoomi (Simone Landers).

His wife bites him, so he knows he has only 48 hours remaining as a human, after which he will become one of the intestine eaters (there is a lot of blood and guts in this).

His mission, in his time left as a human, is to get Rosie to the Aboriginal people to whom Thoomi is returning.

This group have returned to a "traditional" way of living off the land, and are best equipped to repel the zombies. They are presided over by Daku (Gulpilil), who appears from time to time looking ghostly and saying little.

There's a touch of the noble savage myth about this whole subplot, and the images of blackfella magic are frequently accompanied by mystical-sounding music.

The most interesting encounters are between Andy and Toomi and several brain-eaters but, unfortunately, these are few. Instead, the action is driven by their encounters with several stock Australian film characters.

There's the ethereal-woman in the outback, Lorraine, who seems too delicate to live in such an environment (played by a wooden Caren Pistorius). There's tough-as-nails Etta (Kris McQuade), an outback teacher with a heart of gold.

And there's delusional tyrant Vic (played by Anthony Hayes, in a stilted performance) who is preparing to control Australia's natural resources once order is restored. He gets his kicks doing really bad things like kidnapping indigenous people and keeping them caged to attract zombies he then massacres for sport.

These are cliches, indeed, but this shouldn't matter for this kind of genre film. And yet, with Cargo it does. Because it seems to strain so hard for a sense of gravitas (built through its dramatic verisimilitude and realist style), these cliches become terribly visible and disrupt the viewer's pleasure.

It's like the film-makers have deliberately not embraced the ludicrous potential of the subject matter and there is thus an awkward tension between its sombre tone, the absurdity of its premise, and the flatness of its cliched narrative.

The American zombie film, emerging in its contemporary form with the George Romero films beginning with Night of the Living Dead (1968) is generally considered a critique of consumerism in the post-Vietnam era, and the most interesting element of Cargo is its attempt to reimagine the genre in an Australian context that reflects anxieties about the land and its destruction.

The film features scenes, for example, of old fracking sites, and the fact that the whole thing becomes a kind of battle between a power-hungry mining type and indigenous people could have provided grounds for social and political commentary. But the treatment is unnecessarily sentimental, and it doesn't feel like there's any genuine emotional potency by the end.

Alas, Cargo seems like a made-for-Netflix movie. It makes sense, then, that it is premiering on Netflix — watchable but forgettable, after its dazzling start. It feels like it lacks the legs to sustain the length of a feature.

Cargo will be best served, I suspect, by the small screen.

• Ari Mattes is a lecturer in Media Studies, University of Notre Dame Australia.

This article was first published on and is republished here with permission.

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