Don’t dismiss Cargo on the basis of it being a zombie flick. This gripping and surprisingly moving feature debut from rising talents Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke transcends its genre and is one of the best Australian films of the year.
Cargo is one hell of a feature film debut from Australian directors Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke. They have form, having scored a viral hit on YouTube in 2013 with their short zombie film of the same title (I haven’t seen it).
If the word “zombie” is enough to send you running (or yawning) in another direction, just hang on a moment! Dismiss Cargo on that basis and you’re going to miss one of the best Australian films of the year – if not the best.
While there is no shortage of undead blank-eyed creatures lurching around drooling for blood, the word “zombie” is never uttered. There’s a reason for that. Cargo transcends its genre, incorporating themes of family, environmental exploitation, greed and indigenous reconciliation. That doesn’t mean it’s ideologically driven. It works brilliantly as an imaginative, tense and gripping horror-thriller. The drama is uncompromised by extra-dramatic agenda; the themes arise naturally out of the narrative and setting.
Howling and Ramke demonstrate a maturity far beyond what might be expected of debut feature filmmakers in their management of the story, which reveals itself gradually, effortlessly, almost as if writing itself.
The opening setting is a remote river somewhere in the Australian outback. Andy (a perfectly cast Martin Freeman, who delivers as always), his wife Kay (Susie Porter) and their baby daughter are floating along in a houseboat at leisurely pace, but it is soon evident that this is no family holiday. They are running critically short of food, and on spying another family on the banks, are warned off with a rifle.
Turns out it’s a post-apocalyptic scenario, brought on by an untreatable zombie-producing pandemic that takes 48 hours to run its course. The few white survivors are in self-preservation mode, trust confined to family. They have no wider community, whereas the indigenous population have united in adversity, and are faring far better. Those who have not been stricken by the disease have returned to traditional ways. Further, they are taking action to rid the region of zombies, assembling in tribal extermination squads to systematically hunt down and burn them.
When the pandemic takes Kay and infects Andy he is left with a mission impossible: to secure a permanent protective sanctuary for his child within the 48 hours he has left. Clinging to hope but without a plan he wanders furtive and fearful, baby on his back, through a zombie-infested outback landscape augmented by a dramatic atmospheric electronic soundtrack that draws on didge and other aboriginal musical palettes.
Ironically, his greatest threat is not the zombies but a gun-totin’ piece of white trash, Vic (Anthony Hayes at his nastiest best). While the zombies are slaves of blood lust, Vic is driven by greed and just as soulless. He has forfeited his morality – that which makes him human – for bucks, which he’ll stop at nothing to acquire. He has a post-pandemic grand plan to claim the fracking mines that spike the desert surrounds, and in the meantime lures the zombies with human bait, pops them off, and loots their corpses.
The contrast between Vic and the local indigenous people resonates beyond the film. Like many a miner before him, Vic sees the environment as something to exploit, a means to wealth, while the aborigines, in the absence of the once dominant whites, are in the process of reclaiming their traditions and the land that partly defines them. There’s a deeply affecting poetic justice at play here.
Andy provides balance. He is a good white man, although doomed, and Thoomi (newcomer Simone Landers – terrific), a teenage aboriginal girl he teams up with, comes to see that. They are bonded by their joint efforts to survive and to protect loved members of their families. The final outcome for the innocent white child in their care is both ironic and profoundly moving.
When was the last time you were moved, really moved, by a zombie flick?
Cargo is not without its flaws. The tension slackens off at one stage, and some of the internal logic doesn’t bear close scrutiny in hindsight. But these are minor gripes. This is exciting filmmaking from two rising new talents. Go see.
Movie Website: http://www.umbrellaentfilms.com.au/movie/cargo/
Australian release date: Cargo in Australian cinemas from May 17, 2018
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