Netflix's New Zombie Thriller 'Cargo' Is Slow But Not Totally Brain Dead
The once volatile debate that pitted "fast zombies" vs. "slow zombies," which intensified with the release of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later in 2002 and Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake in 2004, has calcified in the last decade. Speed, agility, brain-eating preferences, and relative cleanliness don't really matter: Audiences just love zombies, whether its on TV shows like The Walking Dead or in blockbusters like World War Z. As long as they chew on flesh and can serve as an amorphous metaphor for various societal ills, they're welcome! But what do we do when the actual stories being told about these undead men and women begin to slow down to a painful crawl?
That's the tricky question that plagues Cargo, a carefully shot and leisurely paced thriller that debuted on Netflix today. It stars Martin Freeman as Andy, a scruffy dad living on a houseboat with his wife Kay (Susie Porter) and their adorable baby girl Rosie. Though the opening image of their boat wading through peaceful waters of Australia might call to mind a tourism commercial, their lives are far from idyllic. A violent pandemic, the exact scope of which is never explained or discussed in true The Road fashion, has made much of the Outback unlivable. Andy is not on vacation or enjoying an early retirement. He's surviving.
Instead of front-loading the story with exposition, the film's writer Yolanda Ramke (who also co-directed with Ben Howling) uses a handful of brief encounters to give us a sense of how dire the situation is. After a pink balloon floats through the sky, Andy spots a child's birthday celebration going on and waves to the family holding the gathering on the riverbank. The other dad flashes a pistol at him in a way that implies he shouldn't plan on RSVPing: This is a private party.
Later, Andy stumbles upon a seemingly abandoned sailboat, where he picks up additional food rations for his family. His wife wants to abandon the houseboat, which she describes as "older than both of us put together," but Andy wants to remain on the path. Unsurprisingly, the zombies wandering the landscape have other plans for him. In a series of well-executed sequences, Andy goes from being the captain of his own ship to wandering the desert with his baby strapped to his back, a nasty wound on his arm, and a fancy watch counting down to 48 hours on his wrist. You'll never guess what happens when the clock runs out.
If the vague outline of the story sounds familiar, there's a reason for that. (Other than the movie replicating a handful of popular zombie tropes.) Cargo was adapted from Ramke and Howling's viral Australian short film of the same name from 2013. The clip currently has over 14 million views on YouTube and while it hardly replicates all the story beats as the feature version, it accomplishes quite a bit in 7 minutes. Like many short-films, it feels like a calling card: striking visuals, minimal dialogue, and some stilted acting. Given the durability of zombie stories and the potential financial upside of making a low-budget horror film, it's not hard to see why it was eventually expanded into a longer movie.
But was there enough grizzled, highly-snackable meat on the bone? Ramke and Howling make some smart choices in adapting their own work -- the twists on zombie mythology, like having the undead burrow their heads in the sand, are clever -- but their best decision was to cast Freeman. Though he had a supporting role in Edgar Wright's irreverent zombie classic Shaun of the Dead, the 46-year-old English actor isn't exactly known for popping up in horror films. (He did recently have a part in the spooky anthology film Ghost Stories.) Whether he's rolling his eyes at Ricky Gervais' boorish antics on The Office or battling a CG dragon in The Hobbit series, Freeman is a master of the measured, slow-burn reaction. He underplays everything, which comes in handy in a genre where actors are often tempted to scream their heads off. Even as zombies approach, he keeps his grimace in place.
Similarly, Simone Landers, the actress who plays Andy's eventual Aboriginal traveling companion Thoomi, manages to keep the story grounded with a subtle, winning performance. The friendship that emerges between her and Andy, one that grows out of being chained together by a lunatic isolationist, becomes the heart of the story almost by default: There's not that much going on in the margins. Ramke and Howling often pull the camera back to emphasize the desolate beauty of the land, evoking the dusty imagery of classic survival narratives like Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout but not exactly capturing the same lyrical quality. The land is barren. Does the story have to be?
As it closes in on an unavoidably bleak ending, Cargo fails to generate much suspense, choosing mood and ambiance over bullet-ridden shootouts and violent beheadings. The restraint is admirable and some will likely find the final images moving, but it's also dull. As a movie about parental anxiety and familial sacrifice, it could stand to take a page from John Krasinski's more high-octane thriller A Quiet Place, which needles its audience with precision and rushes from one set-piece to the next. Cargo is too content to stroll through the wilderness. Sometimes it's better to start running -- no matter how fast the zombies are.