I think that it’s pretty safe to say that if you ask any major filmmaker working today what was one of the first steps they took to get a career in the film industry, one of them would definitely be making a short film. Whether they made them professionally in film school or made it in their spare time with a group of friends, every director out there today started off making a short film or two before they made that leap to feature-length productions. However every now and again, a filmmaker may look back on one of the short films that they had made and decide that they want to flesh it out into a feature film. Quite a number of successful directors over the pass few decades have done exactly this to verily degrees of success (Neil Blomkamp with DISTRICT 9, George Lucas with THX-1138, Andy Muschietti with MAMA, James Wan with SAW, Wes Anderson with BOTTLE ROCKET, Sam Raimi with THE EVIL DEAD etc.). The latest ones to join that list are Australian filmmakers Ben Howling & Yolanda Ramke with their debut feature film the zombie horror/drama CARGO, which is an expansion of their acclaimed short 2013 Tropfest Film Festival short film of the same name (which you can check out here).
Set in a post-apocalyptic Australia after a viral pandemic had swept across the world turning people into flesh-eating zombies, the film follows married couple Andy (Martin Freeman) & Kay (Susie Porter) and their infant daughter Rosie as they travel across the outback trying to find a safe zone away that was set up by the military. Sadly their world is shattered when while looking over an abandoned boat for supplies, Kay gets attacked by a zombie. As Andy tries to save Kay by driving as fast as he can to the safe zone, they get into accident on the road. After Kay dies from her wounds and comes back as a zombie, she bites and infects Andy. Knowing that he both only has 48 hours until he becomes a zombie himself, Andy sets off across the outback with his daughter Rosie to find someone to take care of her before he eventually turns. Along the way Andy & Rosie meet a young Aboriginal girl named Thoomi (Simone Landers), who is on her own quest to find her tribe’s shaman Daku (David Gulpilil) to help heal her father, who has recently has become one of the undead. After some reluctance, Andy takes Thoomi under his wing and together they go on a journey to find Rosie a home.
I must admit that while I didn’t get a chance to see the original 2013 short film that CARGO was based on prior to my screening of it (although I did right afterwards), I was already fully aware of the short’s reputation beforehand due to having read about it a few articles on some horror websites and seeing footage of it featured in the 2014 zombie themed documentary DOC OF THE DEAD. Based on what I read/saw of it alone, I can definitely see how the original short film definitely captured everyone’s attention all over the world after it premiered at Australia’s most famous short film festival Tropfest back in 2013. When I heard that the two filmmakers behind the short Ben Howling & Yolanda Ramke planned on adapting it into a feature-length film, I was very curious to see how it would turn out. Even though the original short film only ran for about 7 minutes, its effective premise was definitely one that could easily stretched out into a whole film if done correctly. So how the film turn out? Well, I’m happy to report that I found the feature-length version of CARGO to both a compelling and moving zombie film.
In their film time handling a major feature film, I thought that debut directors Ben Howling & Yolanda Ramke (the latter of which also wrote the screenplay) both a did really good job with CARGO. You can tell from beginning to end that this film was indeed a true passion project for the two filmmakers, as it such a confidentially made film in a lot of ways. While they know how to create both the thrills and chills that we expect to see a zombie film, they brought some really unique aspects to CARGO that definitely help it stand out as a whole in the sub-genre. The first one being besides being a zombie film, it also an emotionally charged story about the love between a parent and their child and the things we will do to protect them. To me it was this was aspect that I found truly effective, as it really made the film such a compelling and moving experience for me as a viewer. Even though I’m not one myself, I can see a lot of people who are parents out there really respond and relate to this part of the film. It’s really powerful stuff that gives the film its heart and soul. Another thing that I really liked was how the filmmakers incorporated Indigenous Australian culture (especially mythology, mysticism and spirituality) into the story as well. I thought these elements were really fascinating and they provided some pretty interesting new layers that we haven’t seen before in a zombie film.
Now when it comes to getting good performances from their cast, directors Ben Howling & Yolanda Ramke definitely knew how to get really strong work out of everyone involved. However there’s no doubt in my mind that this film belongs to British actor Martin Freeman (best known for his roles in TV’s SHERLOCK, THE OFFICE and THE HOBBIT film series), who plays the lead role of “Andy”. Freeman was just absolutely terrific and I found his character’s journey throughout the film to be both powerful and heartbreaking. Plus he’s back a strong supporting cast, who are just equally good in their roles. The stand outs among them were definitely young newcomer Simone Landers, who was wonderful in her first major film role as “Thoomi” and Susie Porter, who gave a truly heartbreaking performance in her limited screen time as “Kay”. Also the score was really well done, Geoffrey Simpson’s cinematography was breathtaking and the ending was very emotional. Now even though there were a lot of things about CARGO that I really liked, there were some aspects that I found to be pretty flawed. While both the first and third acts were pretty strong, I found the film’s second act to be rather sluggish and disjointed. It seemed like the filmmakers didn’t know what to do in this section and they added some unneeded padding to stretch out this party of the story until we got to the stronger last half. Plus it didn’t help that this second act introduce us to a standard ‘human villain’ character called “Vic Carter” (played by Anthony Hayes), who I thought was rather weak. While Hayes is fine in the role, it’s the character himself just found completely unnecessary. Also I felt that some of the supporting cast could have been utilised more (legendary aboriginal actor David Gulpilil was very underused in his role) and the filmmakers do resort to some of the standard zombie film clichés/tropes that we’ve seen many times before on throughout.
Overall while it may not be the most truly original zombie film ever made, CARGO is still a really well made and engaging one that marks as a solid debut film from first time directors Ben Howling & Yolanda Ramke (I’m looking forward to seeing what they both do next!). While I’m sure that there is a lot of people out there who might be getting a bit tired of the zombie sub-genre lately (which is totally understandable), I can say right now that CARGO is definitely one of the strongest recent entries into the sub-genre. If you’re a big fan of the zombie films as much as I am, this film is definitely worth checking out for sure. I guarantee that by the end of it, you’ll also be misty eyed like I was.
Review by Bede Jermyn