Monday, May 21, 2018

On Netflix: CARGO (2018)

(Australia/UK - 2018)

Directed by Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling. Written by Yolanda Ramke. Cast: Martin Freeman, Anthony Hayes, Susie Porter, Caren Pistorius, Kris McQuade, David Gulpilil, Simone Landers, Bruce R. Carter, Natasha Wanganeen, Andy Rodoreda, Marlee Jane McPherson-Dobbins, Lily Anne McPherson-Dobbins, Finlay Sjoberg, Nova Sjoberg. (Unrated, 104 mins)

With its setting in the desolate Outback and the presence of veteran Australian cult hero David Gulpilil in a supporting role, it would be easy to snarkily dismiss the zombie apocalypse saga CARGO as THE WALKABOUT DEAD. It would seem that the last thing the horror genre needs is yet another zombie movie, but some recent offerings--like TRAIN TO BUSANTHE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS, and now this--seem cognizant of that and do things to stand out from the crowd. CARGO, a Netflix pickup, begins in a standard fashion but as it goes on, it stays focused on character and atmosphere, with the zombie sightings and flesh-chomping kept to a minimum. A feature-length expansion of a seven-minute 2013 short film by directors Yolanda Ramke (who also scripted) and Ben Howling, CARGO opens on a boat found and commandeered by Andy (SHERLOCK's Martin Freeman) and his wife Kay (Susie Porter). It's the aftermath of a viral pandemic, and every day is a struggle to find safe food for themselves and their one-year-old daughter Rosie (played by two different sets of twins) and avoid attracting the attention of the undead, here called "diggers." We soon learn, when Kay is attacked, that a bite from a digger usually gives the victim 48 hours before turning. Her wound, however, is so deep that the time is accelerated and as she turns sooner than expected, with an odd, mummified webbing forming over her eyes and face, she attacks and bites an exhausted Andy, who fell asleep while keeping watch on her. After mercy-killing what was once his wife, Andy, carrying Rosie on his back, ventures on foot to find some viable safe haven for his daughter before the inevitable happens.

They meet others along the way, most notably Thoomi (Simone Landers), a teenage aboriginal girl who regularly cuts herself and smears the blood on a tree to keep her turned-to-a-digger father distracted and not interested in attacking her. When Andy later encounters the seemingly affable Vic (Anthony Hayes), he's horrified to find that he rounds up aboriginal locals--including Thoomi and her grandfather (Gulpilil)--and keeps them as caged bait to attract diggers for him to kill in the hopes that they still have cash and jewelry on them that could come in handy in the post-pandemic Bartertown that the Outback has become. It doesn't take long for Vic to become the clear antagonist here, though he does disappear for a long stretch once Andy helps Thoomi escape and the trio moves on. As the clock ticks down and constant obstacles get in their way, a genuine sense of family develops between Thoomi, Andy, and little Rosie (I'm not sure which of the four Rosies are doing what, but in some scenes--and there's probably a lot of outtakes--this little girl's expressions, natural responses, and on-camera discipline are quite remarkable, and it's obvious Freeman spent some time bonding with at least one of them). With Thoomi desperate to get back to the family from which she and her father were separated during the outbreak, Andy's purpose in his dwindling hours becomes clear: to get Thoomi and Rosie--the "cargo" of the title--to safety.

CARGO would've looked great on a big screen. It's filled with breathtaking aerial cinematography that shows off the vast sense of forever that is the Outback. But its heart is on a smaller scale, and it's one of the most character-driven zombie apocalypse films you'll see. Freeman and young Landers are terrific, and while it feels familiar in the early going (especially for fans of 28 DAYS/WEEKS LATER), it gradually finds its own voice and establishes its own zombie mythos, whether it's the specific time or the webbing over the eyes as the victim's turn to digger reaches completion, an unsettling touch that may owe a debt to INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. The inherent racism of Vic--who's revealed to be a really despicable bastard--allows for the kind of social commentary that's reminiscent of the best work of George A. Romero. That's not to imply CARGO is anywhere near the caliber of Romero's original DEAD trilogy, but it's a film that's worth a look even if you're suffering from zombie fatigue. It has to use the tropes and the template (you might also be reminded of THE ROAD and maybe even SHOGUN ASSASSIN), but it very much becomes its own beast the more it goes on, leading to some serious drama and a surprisingly moving, heartbreaking finale.

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