Adapted from their viral short film of the same name, Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling’s Cargo opens on a series of wide shots of the Australian Outback. A beautiful place shot through with rot, the landscape looks almost Martian—palls of black smoke and bare ashen trees dotting the hills. Winding through it is an olive-drab river, as still as paint, its green banks stippled with tufts of yellowing grass. Along that river, Andy (Martin Freeman) and his wife, Kay (Susie Porter), and their infant daughter, Rosie, travel by boat. Their vessel looks like a hulking foursquare funicular: on its bottom deck, laundry flaps on the line, and up top a set of plastic patio chairs are set out. The plan is to head for a military base, but an excursion to purloin cargo from a wrecked yacht brings their boating trip to an abrupt and ultimately tragic halt.
In the post-apocalyptic world of Cargo, the undead shuffle about with eyes that seem to weep marmalade, a symptom of a mysterious disease that’s swept across Australia. If the living are contaminated, they have 48 hours before they become undead. After being bit by a zombie, Andy finds himself with a baby strapped to his back, and a countdown timer clasped to his wrist. Throughout Andy’s feverish pilgrimage to wherever he can ensure Rosie’s safety, the filmmakers reveal their debt to John Hillcoat’s The Road. But where Viggo Mortensen’s ghostly inanition made him feel otherworldly and alien, Freeman, eyes wide with bewilderment, is the everyman in extremis.
Before long, Andy and Rosie come across a couple of survivors, Vic (Anthony Hayes) and Lorraine (Caren Pistorius), who’ve built themselves a fortress-like homestead of corrugated iron, circled with barbed wire and chain-link fences. In John Maclean’s Slow West, Pistorius’s character is a vision of modernity; those bright shots of whitewashed wood and dishes of butter were a gleaming domestic future in stark contrast to the wilds of the frontier. Here, Lorraine welcomes Andy with a clinking china tea set, a fossil of civility in a world of ruin. Pistorius plays Lorraine with the same furrowed focus as she played her character in Slow West: a survivor sidelined, annealed by savage heat.
Vic is a suppurating wound on the world. He lures the dead to cages with slops of flyblown meat, and snipes them from a distance. Elsewhere, he scavenges for gas and jewelry, foreseeing the return of order: “When this country gets back on track, people are going to want things,” he says to Andy. “Make hay while the sun shines.” To which Andy replies: “Sun’s not shining, Vic.” Soon after, he meets Thoomi (Simone Landers), an aboriginal girl who ran from her tribe, and tends to her undead father in the bush. Landers’s gloomy saucer-eyes betray a quiet knowledge and an accusing flicker.
In Vic, Cargo’s theme is writ large: that this plague might just stem from a deeper moral decay. “Frack Off!” reads a sign Andy finds near a mine. “There’s not much left. They cut our funding years back,” says Etta (Kris McQuade), a lone survivor in an abandoned government shelter, speaking of the nearby hospital. And an old sage, Daku (David Gulpilil), warns, “They’re poisoning this land you know. This country’s changing. It’s sick. We all get sick. You get sick too.” In an amusing conceit, the undead are sensitive to bright light and bury their heads in the sand, as if punished to purgatory for complacence.
The viewer might feel a similar urge, so thickly is this moral malaise laid on and so light are the thrills. Cargo makes the mistake of benching its menace, banishing the undead to blurred shots on the horizon, while doggedly pursuing its theme. It’s as if the film doesn’t want to lower itself to genre. Cargo could learn a lesson from that genre’s master purveyor, George A. Romero. The social subtext in Romero’s films was delivered with his knack for intravenous visual poetry. Think of the opening of Day of the Dead: peeling, crumpled dollar bills stirring in the breeze like dead leaves. Think of Dawn of the Dead: escalators ferrying decaying queues to the upper reaches of a shopping mall as if over the River Styx. All of this, in a few fleeting shots, and never at the expense of real fear. In delivering its moral pabulum, Cargo forgets to frighten us. In focusing on its subtext, all else goes blurry.