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Australia 2018
Directed by
Ben Howling / Yolanda Ramke
105 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars


Synopsis: In Outback Australia, a family flees a deadly virus that turns people into the walking dead.

If you’re not into movies about flesh-eating zombies you‘ll probably be well-advised to steer clear of Cargo, the first feature from the directorial team of Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, the latter’s script being an adaptation of her own short film of the same name. Not that Cargo is a genre-typical gore-fest. Quite to the contrary, it’s an intelligent, elegantly-made film. Still, a zombie is a zombie is a zombie.

In essence the plot is the staple fare of countless zombie/vampire movies: in the aftermath of some kind of cataclysm  X,Y and Z try to escape the attention of flesh-eating ghouls who have been infected with a deadly and viciously contagious virus which seeks to replicate itself a.s.a.p. Cargo’s point of difference is that it is a whitefella disease and the local Aboriginal population has largely managed to steer clear of it.

“X” is Andy (Martin Freeman) and “Y’ is Kay (Susie Porter), with “Z’ being their baby daughter, Rosie, and the film follows their attempt to find an outpost of civilization. Early in the piece we also see a young Aboriginal who will, we safely assume, intersect with them at some point. Sure enough, after a tragic accident Andy find himself alone in the bush with his child and the indigenous  youngster, Thoomi (Simone Landers), joins his search for a safe haven. Most of what follows, including an encounter with a seemingly affable survivor, Vic (Anthony Hayes), is familiar stuff with the exception of Vic’s strategy of caging people in the bush including, most pointedly, an Aboriginal, Cleverman (David Gulpilil), as bait for the zombies

If all this is realized with admirable craftmanship by co-directors Howling and Ramke significantly assisted by Geoffrey Simpson‘s splendid cinematography of the Australian landscape it still doesn’t amount to a lot. The genre, after all, is, I assume, favoured by audiences to love to be shocked and disgusted. Take that out of the equation and you need to replace it with something. That something is, apparently, the idea that Aboriginal culture offers the only real salvation for the soul-less and ultimately self-destructive white man. Well and good but this is not developed in any substantial way but is instead simply assumed as a generic narrative device which we might call “indigenous people's wisdom”.

Cargo falls between two stools, eschewing the low-brow delights typical of the genre but not delving deep enough into its alt-genre potential as an allegorical Outback drama. Even so, it’s an impressive debut feature which at the production level has only a couple of flaws. The first is Martin Freeman. There appears to be no justification for his casting, his permanently worried expression was perfect for The Office but looks completely out of place here. The second is the baby (played with remarkable sang froid by two different sets of twins) which over the course of the film never once eats or complains about it. For a film that by and large takes a realistic approach to its subject that is an ongoing puzzle.




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