CARGO is not to be confused with Cargo, the not particularly good Swiss ALIEN/MATRIX mashup from 2009. But I don’t think many people saw that one, so the mixup is unlikely. Netflix’s Cargo is, to put it simply, an Australian zombie film. Put not so simply, there’s surprising depth to this particular genre reworking.
Following the outbreak of a highly infectious virus, a couple (Martin Freeman and Susie Porter) and their baby daughter attempt to travel across a zombie-ridden Australia to safety. But how far through the apocalypse can you get with a baby on your back?
The end of the world is no reason to stop passive-aggressively arguing with your partner. I mean, why would you? It’s such a human reaction to the world going to hell in a handcart. Freeman and Porter play this aspect of long-term relationships beautifully and not for a moment do you doubt their affection for each other and passive-aggressive ribbing is coming from a very real place in and amongst all this sci-fi/horror madness. You don’t see babies in zombie movies very often, unless you’re Zack Snyder and you want to do a particularly dark “turning” sequence. Unless you’re a fit and able adult, you’re a bit of a liability in any kind of post-apocalyptic landscape, so Freeman of course spends most of the movie with his infant daughter strapped to his back.
The idea of public health guidance being issued by a government in the event of a zombie epidemic is scarily plausible and a neat new element to the genre’s bag of tricks. Presumably there’s some sort of government in existence in a bunker somewhere, but our perception of this story’s world is kept intimate and hypothetical. Advisory literature with cheerful diagrams, an ominous countdown-to-losing-your-humanity Fitbit, easy-on restraints to protect your loved ones from you and a handy self-euthanasia kit are all included in the government’s zombie goodie bag.
This is a world where the survivors have become used to this epidemic, continuing to live by taking precautions and keeping moving. Unfortunately at some point, you’re going to have to put your baby down and that makes you a target. At some points we even semi-functioning relationships between zombies and humans, family members that don’t, or can’t, let a terminal illness come between them. This is a fascinating (arguably the most philosophically engaging) aspect of zombie mythology that doesn’t get anywhere near enough attention in popular culture. If you lost a loved one to the virus, could you really let go, and how can we be sure they’ve lost everything that’s “them” in the process?
It must be so hard for filmmakers to make zombies feel fresh. Here we have sap-leaking zombies and zombies with their heads buried in the ground like ostriches. They’re certainly different , visually distinctive undead, even if I don’t really understand every aspect of their being or how they exist within this world (not that I don’t think an exposition-light genre film isn’t refreshing).
Despite a lack of explanation, this future makes chilling sense. In a country like Australia, of course the cities would fall first and fast, leaving the Outback, usually seen as inhospitable, the only relatively safe place. Of course people would stockpile not only to survive, but to profit when the going got better. Of course a zombie outbreak wouldn’t affect people’s prejudices one jot.
Finally it’s great to see Indigenous Australians getting to be active and awesome on film: here they become the crack zombie-hunters usually portrayed by white alpha males in films like this. They finally get their moment to charge in and save the day. Cargo is the shot in the heart that zombie movies needed; deeply personal, intimate and from a different perspective, and it marks Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke out as filmmakers to watch. SSP