Cargo (Ben Howling & Yolanda Ramke, 2013)

In the sixth of 12 posts, film critic Neil Fulwood flies us across the globe to Australia in search of the ultimate zombie movie…

Welcome to Australia, home of Ayers Rock, Paul Hogan, and various lagers made popular by 1980s advertising campaigns. Australia, whose vast tracts of wilderness provide the backdrop to a truly original zombie film.

Cargo has a running time of just seven minutes. The script is almost wordless, the imagery haunting, and the emotional imperative genuinely poignant. A woozy opening montage establishes the aftermath of a car crash. The driver (Andy Rodoreda) drifts back into consciousness to find his wife (Alison Gallagher) zombified and clawing at him from the passenger seat. His terror-struck jolt back to reality and his attempt to extricate himself from both seatbelt and crumpled hunk of automobile get Cargo off to an urgent start. Within seconds, the stakes have risen immeasurably: he’s marooned in the middle of nowhere, unprotected against any further attacks, his infant daughter is strapped to a baby carrier on the back seat, and the patch of red seeping through his shirt indicates that he sustained a bite.

None of the characters are named. The wrecked and abandoned car is one of the few symbols of modernity the film trades in. The man and his daughter set off into the wilds. Cargo abandons the standard imagery of the genre within two minutes. The atmosphere owes more to Nic Roeg’s Walkabout than anything by George A. Romero or Lucio Fulci.

Other films have given their heroes motivation beyond mere survival – Michael trying to win back his fiancée in Rammbock, or Shaun his girlfriend in Shaun of the Dead – but neither achieve the primal immediacy of Cargo. The magnitude of the father’s responsibility informs every frame. Grace notes in the film show him trying to improvise playthings to quieten the baby’s cries, then juxtaposes these with the changes to his physiognomy as he begins to turn. This is not to mention the plastic bag of entrails he carries on a stick in front of him as distraction from the live cargo papoose-slung on his back.

Most zombie films present variations on the same scenario: a small group of mismatched survivors holed up in an isolated location who try to fight off the zombie hordes while the pressure cooker environment brings internal tensions to the surface. And it’s easy to see why film after film embraces the formula: the siege element is an easy win in terms of creating tension, while a claustrophobic setting lets the rivalry/antagonism/infighting subplots write themselves. Confining the action to one location is also budget-friendly, and zombie flicks are generally low budget productions.

Cargo takes a different and intellectually confident approach to its material. There are only two survivors, one already under a death sentence, the other utterly vulnerable. There’s no locked-down farmhouse or shopping mall, with the undead battering at the doors; there’s a huge open landscape instead, with an off-screen threat that could come from any direction. And there’s no cynical commentary on the self-destructive nature of the human condition. Quite the opposite: Cargo is ultimately a tragic but hopeful film, an understated hymn to the best of who we are.

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One thought on “Cargo (Ben Howling & Yolanda Ramke, 2013)

  1. Pingback: Doomsday (Neil Marshall, 2008) | Dawn of the Unread

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