TRIBECA Review: "Cargo" is a Zombie Film That'd Make George Romero Proud

I feel like there is a new sub-genre of films developing called The Refreshing Zombie Film™. You know the type, it’s basically everything that the current slate of zombie films categorically aren’t: no gratuitous gore, relies heavily on social commentary, pulls focus from the zombies to the survivors and their plight to right the world after it has capsized, and is, for lack of a better term, quiet. The Refreshing Zombie Film™ is the polar opposite of The Walking Dead, clapping back at the nihilism that the genre has relished in for the better part of a decade. These are the films you have locked and loaded for your friends and family who ask you, “Hey, what zombie movie should I watch?” Train to Busan gave us the most electric Refreshing Zombie Film™ two years ago and now we have Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling’s Cargo, a zombie film that would make Godfather of the Dead George Romero proud.

Set in the Australian outback, Cargo follows Andy (Martin Freeman) in a race against the clock to save his child. You see due to some unforeseen incident, the world has been infected with a zombie like virus that produces a sticky resin-like substance from your mouth and eyes, not to mention the whole going crazy and eating people bits. After tragically losing his wife, and finding himself scratched too, Andy has 48 hours to get his baby daughter Rosie to safety before he turns to and does the unthinkable, and the nearby Aboriginal Tribe is his best chance. Andy is aided by Thoomi (Simone Landers) a young Indigenous girl he encounters on her own quest to find The Clever Man (Walkabout’s David Gulpilil) who he hopes will help him make contact with the tribe before he changes completely.

The entire cast is absolutely pitch perfect, especially Simone Landers as Thoomi in her film debut. Also remarkable were the four (!!!) baby actors that were used for Rosie. The child is adorable, natch, but the creatives were able to perfectly capture the inherent curiosity of a baby that is in direct contrast to the atrocity that is happening in the world around her. If there was ever a time for the Cannes Film Festival to give an award for Best Baby Actor, now is the time.  But I have to take a moment and marvel here at Martin Freeman. By the very nature of the characters he’s played, Freeman typically is always the straight man second to a charismatic lead (Sherlock, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Office) but in Cargo he gets to play in a character that we don’t typically see him in. While uncertainty is still a trademark for his charm, he has this raw nebbish power that’s exciting. Between Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s Ghost Stories and this, genre seems to have a knack of bringing the best out of people, especially Freeman

While not shy about the fact that it is a zombie film Cargo is energizing because their usage feels so fresh. They are rarely seen in full view, never the focal point even when they are on screen. The Zed word is cleverly never uttered (they are referred to as Virals in the credits) and this film argues that we still can mine tension out of this tired ghoul, and that may come from merely keeping them in the shadows.

Luckily this film doesn’t rely too heavily on “The Evil of Man” zombie subplots that’s been wrung dry by current media like The Walking Dead. Cargo uses one character, Vic, as the proxy for these tropes but it doesn’t linger in these bleakness. Don’t get me wrong, an apocalyptic story is foundationally bleak, but the hope the film asks you to take away is not just that bonded communities are the pillars to rebuild society, but rather compassion is what can truly ever help us return to normality after our bedrock has shifted. Cargo is an apocalyptic film filled to the brim with hope for the survival of the human spirit. And especially now in 2018, we need to be reminded of that.