Rating: 4.5 / 5
The zombie genre has become big business, with countless movies, television shows and books taking advantage of its popularity. But, as the co-directors of Australian movie Cargo have acknowledged, that makes finding a way to stand out from the crowd a difficult proposition.
By focusing on relationships rather than gore, and using the stark but beautiful Australian landscapes as a backdrop, they’ve succeeded in finding a fresh take on a well-worn concept, giving a uniquely Australian flavour to the familiar virus-created zombies that fans of shows like The Walking Dead will be familiar with.
From the start, there is a haunting sense of isolation and subtle hints of off-screen catastrophe that create a convincing world, but the film avoids the usual spectacle of a collapsing society, instead focusing on individuals and their responses to the end of the world and what they do to try to survive.
But for Andy (played by Martin Freeman), his own survival is no longer the issue. Already infected, he is fighting against time to find someone to care for his infant daughter when he is gone. As the clock literally counts down his remaining hours, he becomes increasingly desperate to fulfil this final mission.
Freeman’s powerful performance as an ordinary man trying to save his daughter, even as he deals with his own grief and illness, is an anchor point that the rest of the cast can work around, bringing out the best in the other actors. Newcomer Simone Landers is particularly notable in her acting debut, playing Toomi, a young First Nations girl, who wants nothing more than to have her father back.
A strong supporting cast provides excellent support, with the no-nonsense Etta (Kris McQuade) and the enigmatic Daku (David Gulpilil) making the most of their screentime, while the deeply creepy yet tragic Vic (Anthony Hayes) provides a convincing anatagonist.
The slowly budding friendship between Andy and Toomi, and how she teaches him the depth of an unfamiliar culture, is extremely powerful, with some moments of genuine humour. And it’s the skilful interweaving of First Nations culture that elevates this movie above many other films in the genre, as we see how the zombie plague is just another in a long line of threats to the traditional way of life, leaving them uniquely suited to survive.
While Cargo doesn’t completely escape some of the weaknesses of the genre—for example, characters making dumb choices that come back to bite them—the excellent cast and the strong storytelling manage to rise above them. At its heart, Cargo is a film about the power of love and the importance of family, providing inspiration and hope amongst the horror—without even using the ‘z’ word.
Highlight: The stunning landscapes that make this a uniquely Australian apocalypse
Red flag: Horror, language, violence