Thanks to George A. Romero’s game-changing “Night of the Living Dead,” the horror genre loves to imagine a world decimated by the decay of civilization, where humanity fears the primal darkness that lurks inside, waiting to be unlocked by a mysterious outbreak or freak accident. But the zombie resurgence that overtook television, video games, and films over the past decade has grown predictably stale. We know how to survive a “World War Z” scenario, and zombie films need to offer a lot more than heroes escaping harrowing situations where the undead are grabbing for them from every direction.
“Cargo,” Netflix’s latest horror offering, manages to elevate itself above “The Walking Dead” ennui by taking a page from 2016’s highly successful “Train to Busan,” with a similarly complex father-daughter relationship at its core. Co-written and co-directed by Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling, “Cargo” was expanded from a short film the pair released to great success in 2013, which became a TropFest finalist and earned over 13 million views on YouTube. With “Cargo,” Howling and Ramke offer much more than cheap emotional manipulation by exploring Australia’s history of colonization, as well as growing fears over climate change and fracking. From Romero’s original zombie series to the films it inspired, this type of horror succeeds when it laces its scares with biting social commentary, and “Cargo” utilizes this formula to great success.
Set in the Australian Outback, the film opens with Andy (Martin Freeman) and his wife Kay (Susie Porter), who live on a houseboat with their infant daughter, Rosie. With barely enough food to survive, Andy and Kay must make a choice — keep drifting downriver in the hopes of reaching an army base, or head onto land in the hopes of finding survivors and supplies. Andy is determined to stay on the water, and the discovery of an overturned yacht full of supplies seems like a godsend. But there was also something sinister inside, which Andy doesn’t mention to Kay when he return. And when Andy heads down for a nap, Kay decides to salvage some more supplies on her own. It doesn’t go so well: She’s bitten.
With the clock ticking on Kay’s survival, Andy is forced to head inland with his family, in the hopes of reaching a small hospital marked on their map. Kay is adamant that he leave her behind and keep going with Rosie, but Andy can’t say goodbye to his wife yet. It’s a frustrating decision rich with the kind of condundrum this genre offers up with regularity: If someone we loved was doomed, could we leave them behind or kill them before they turned? The choice might seem logical enough, but Andy’s reluctance to give up on his wife has a credible degree of pathos. When the world becomes unrecognizable, giving up hope can feel like a death sentence. But once Andy is bitten by Kay, he must fight to protect his daughter from the dangers that lurk in the Outback, as well as the disease threatening to consume him.
When Andy comes across fellow survivor Vic (Anthony Hayes), who worked on the gas lines, he muses that fracking might have released something that contaminated the country. While Andy is worried about his daughter’s future, Vic sees the outbreak as a means for opportunity. Vic routinely rounds up and cages Indigenous people, including Toomi (Simone Landers), a young girl trying to find a cure for her father, who has turned. Vic uses the Indigenous people as bait for the zombies, and then picks them off from a distance with a sniper rifle, so he can loot the undead corpses of their jewelry and wallets.
Vic isn’t sure if the outbreak will be solved, but if it is, there will be a need for goods — and he can control that market. It’s a blunt, but effective commentary on Australia’s history of colonization, where Aboriginal tribes were seen as a means to an end by white colonizers who didn’t think twice about exploiting their survival skills to conquer the unruly landscape. But while Vic represents the worst of Australia’s past, Andy is just as culpable. He’s horrified to see Toomi caged up like bait, but says nothing. Andy and Vic are two sides of the same coin; his silence makes him complicit.
“Cargo,” perhaps conscious of the saturation of zombie movies in recent years, plays its hand smartly when it comes to the creatures. The audience is introduced to them slowly at first, often seeing them at a distance, or in a few smartly tense moments — but , thankfully, it doesn’t offer much in the way of predictable “The Walking Dead” conundrums, where the protagonist is trapped on all sides by swarms of walkers, and escapes impossible odds unscathed. Andy has been doomed from the outset, and this lends the film a bittersweet poignancy as the audience already knows his ultimate fate. Still, those seeking some action won’t be disappointed, as Toomi’s tribe slay the undead with sharpened spears in predictably badass fashion.
Taking a page from “A Quiet Place,” which also explored parenting under unique apocalyptic circumstances, “Cargo” stands out from the pack by asking viewers to imagine what they might do if they knew their life was doomed, but they could still offer their child hope. As the world continues to become a dark and unrecognizable place, that seed of hope just might be the key to overcoming insurmountable odds, whether it’s a zombie infestation or the chance to right the wrongs of the past in the hopes of a better future.