It seems appropriate that as a genre, zombies have simply refused to die. Horror trends being run into the ground is nothing new — remember found footage? — but the fact that we’re all still willing to tolerate the zombies in our films is perhaps a testament to just how the genre can be at its best. Case in point, Cargo, a film with enough creativity and innovation to fuel another season’s worth of collective interest in The Walking Dead. Directed by Australians Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling and based on their critically acclaimed short film of the same name, Cargo is a fascinating example of just how far the definition of horror as a genre can be stretched. It’s also good, and will no doubt serve as a point of inspiration to Australian filmmakers for years to come.
In Cargo, civilisation has collapsed, and the dead are walking. With no hope of rescue in sight, Andy and Kay Caine (Martin Freeman and Susie Porter) have holed up with their infant daughter in an abandoned houseboat — until dwindling supplies force them to venture out into the deadly Australian outback in the hopes of finding safe haven. Interspersed through these early scenes is Thoomi (Simone Landers), an indigenous girl who soon sees her path intertwined with that of Andy’s family.
Cargo feels noteworthy for its extensive depiction of indigenous cultures and spirituality, topics that are rarely depicted by feature films. There were a small number of moments that could arguably have been handled better, but the movie’s overall representation of these subjects is surprisingly well done, and Cargo largely avoids the pitfalls that a movie like this might otherwise have stumbled into.
Much of Cargo’s success as a short film undoubtedly came from its original approach to zombies at the time. As a feature, Cargo aims for something similarly fresh, by offering a horror movie that frequently shirks the chance to scare. There’s incredible tension to be found in its premise, of course, but Cargo is more interested in telling a compelling story than it is scaring its audience. Zombies aren’t used as an explicit source of fear from scene to scene, so much as they are an ever circling threat that feeds into a feeling of inevitability and hopelessness. Likewise, there’s no shortage of unease, yet only a few genuine scares — and the denouement is remarkably quiet and character driven for a film that bills itself as horror.
And yet it works. The desperation and despair radiating from Freeman’s character is palpable, and it’s perhaps thanks to this — alongside a more subdued approach to the genre and an understated finale — that Cargo hits its audience like a fist to the gut. It’s almost a shame Cargo shies away from frequent scares, because the few scenes that don’t are remarkably effective — but Ramke and Howling’s subtle, relentless direction feels integral to what makes this film tick, building Cargo’s characters and conflicts in a way that jump scares and rampant terror could only have distracted from. Scary or not, this is horror that’s well worth your time. Cargo is a genuinely good movie, a tremendous debut, and one of the best Australian films I’ve seen in years.