Bringing something new to a zombie film is a considerable challenge. One solution is character-driven narratives. They add warmth to films about the dead, focusing on survival at a human level rather than the futile search for an impossible cure.
This is the path followed by Cargo, which premiered at the Adelaide Film Festival in 2017 and was released on Netflix in May 2018. The film stems from a seven-minute short film written by Yoland Ramke, who also directs this remake alongside Ben Howling. It focuses on a white family of three – parents Andy (Martin Freeman) and Kay (Susie Porter), and their one-year-old daughter, Rosie – trying to find a sanctuary in the heat and quiet of an Australia contaminated by zombies. When Kay is bitten and dies at the start of the film, Andy is consumed by a single purpose: to keep his daughter’s heart beating and uncorrupted blood flowing through her veins.
Such a plot would not be nearly as dramatic if Andy had not himself been bitten by his infected wife and been given 48 hours to live before turning into a zombie. Although the film is elevated by Freeman’s acting, this race against time is inadequately paced. Extending Cargo’s seven-minute predecessor into a 100-minute feature siphons energy from the plot, resulting in a film which meanders between mildly suspenseful scenes and character encounters that dilute the urgency of Andy’s mission.
While the gruesome symptoms of Andy’s infection increase, they never present a real danger for infant Rosie. Instead, Cargo concentrates on outside threats such as the violent Vic or other fellow zombies. This results in the flattening of the father-daughter relationship, which is reduced to the traditional pattern of the male protector and innocent daughter needing to be saved.
It is difficult to emotionally engage with the family tragedy. Freeman is convincing as a determined father bravely facing his inevitable mortality and the possibility of harming his young daughter. But he hardly displays any grief after losing his wife, even though the family is depicted as a loving unit on the verge of finding a safe haven. Since Cargo focuses more on the zombie film’s human dimension, it was a missed opportunity to neglect the emotional tragedy of losing a family member .
These flaws could have been mitigated by the presence of other, more nuanced characters, but Cargo frequently resorts to stereotypes. The racist and shallow Vic, for example, is a worn-out archetype. Paradoxically, the original short film is more effective in its characterisation: because we do not know anything about the father or his familial relationship, it is easier to envision multiple, multi-layered backstories. The complete absence of dialogue in the short film intensifies the survival instinct and the inevitability of death, something that the feature-length film diminishes.
Despite these issues, Cargo makes an interesting postcolonial comment through its Australian setting. Although it gives no reason or context for the disease, the voices of native Australians give some clues. They understand the disease as the consequence of corruption and colonisation of their homeland. According to the chief of the natives, ‘Clever Man’, it is ‘this country, changing’ that is making people ‘sick’.
Cargo gradually shifts from the white family’s overbearing perspective to that of native girl, Thoomi (Simone Landers). The film makes clear distinctions between cultures: white and native characters are never together. The one exception in the case of Thoomi, who ultimately helps Andy in his journey. This final interaction hints that the bridging of culture and gender may be possible, but such hope arises only as the film ends. We do not know if life in Australia will continue with Rosie and Thoomi – we can only hope so.