By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Martin Freeman, Anthony Hayes and Simone Landers
Directed by Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling
Written by Yolanda Ramke
The new breed of post-zombie-apocalypse films in which the ghouls are backgrounded in favor of the few humans struggling to survive amongst them is expanding to the point where it can be considered a subgenre unto itself. Joining such fine recent examples of the form as HERE ALONE and CURED is CARGO, an Australian feature screening at the current Tribeca Film Festival in New York ahead of its Netflix premiere May 18.
Expanding on their viral short of the same title, filmmakers Yolanda Ramke (who also scripted) and Ben Howling demonstrate that they’ve really got the goods. Their taut, economical direction draws us right into the saga of Andy (Martin Freeman) and Kay (Susie Porter), a married couple with a baby daughter we meet slowly cruising down a river through the Australian Outback. The tenets of undead/infected cinema are by now familiar enough that Ramke and Howling can eschew unnecessary exposition; one gesture from a man on the shore tersely sets up the danger of their situation, and when Kay asks, “What if we’ve outrun it?” there’s no need to elaborate on what “it” is. The circumstances are dire, yet the couple maintain a flirty sense of humor that humanizes them amidst the concern for their survival.
Their trek is intercut with a young aboriginal girl, Thoomi (Simone Landers), fending for herself on land, where she has figured out a way to handle at least one of the “virals” (as they’re billed in the end credits; CARGO never uses the z word). Shooting on simultaneously beautiful and forbidding Outback locations (the talented Aussie veteran Geoffrey Simpson was the cinematographer), Ramke and Howling establish the protagonists and their circumstances with a wealth of telling details and revealing moments of behavior. When the occasional viral lurches onto the scene, the duo also demonstrate that you don’t need loud musical stingers to get a good jump out of the audience.
The first half hour of CARGO is a marvel of pure visual storytelling and character development, and even when more supporting players are introduced and the plot gears begin turning, it maintains focus on how individual humans deal with the country-wide (and apparently worldwide) tragedy that has descended upon them. As Andy, whose driving desire to protect his family is particularly threatened by one stakes-raising development, Freeman enacts a compelling Everyman hero, and Landers, a grade-schooler making her movie debut, is a natural as the resourceful and resilient Thoomi.
Others in the strong cast are Anthony Hayes as Vic, a soldier who has found his own, sometimes dubious ways of living life among the dead; Caren Pistorious as Lorraine, his apparent girlfriend; and a number of indigenous performers (among them David Gulpilil, whose career stretches back to Peter Weir’s THE LAST WAVE) portraying the native community from which Thoomi has strayed. The juxtaposed depiction of two different cultures dealing with the horrible pandemic is part of the thoughtful approach Ramke and Howling have taken to the walking-dead genre—in which the prospect of becoming one of the virals is just as strong a source of the terror as becoming one of their victims. With CARGO, these filmmakers prove most impressively that you don’t have to spill a lot of guts when you can bring heart and soul to the zombie realm.