In honor of Romero Lives!, the city's month-long George A. Romero tribute, Pittsburgh City Paper presents 31 Days of the Undead, a series of reviews and essays about zombie media. Look for new posts going up every day from now through Oct. 31.
Based on a short film by co-director and writer Yolanda Ramke, the 2017 thriller drops viewers into a post-apocalyptic Australia where parents Andy (Martin Freeman) and Kay (Susie Porter) travel down a river in their houseboat with baby daughter Rosie. Despite the peaceful set-up, it quickly becomes clear that the two are fighting to survive in the aftermath of a zombie outbreak. When Kay becomes infected, the family reluctantly returns to land in the hopes of reaching what they believe is one of the few remaining hospitals. Instead, a widowed and infected Andy is left wandering the wilderness with Rosie strapped to his back, hoping to find for her a suitable caretaker before he turns.
What he finds instead is Thoomi (Simone Landers in an incredible debut), a resourceful Aboriginal girl dealing with her own loss. As they traverse a terrain full of shambling undead (Thoomi calls them “ghosts”) and other dangers, it soon becomes clear that Thoomi and Andy must work together if she and Rosie are to survive.
In true zombie movie tradition, there are no easy answers to the cause of the outbreak, which leads to some scathing political commentary. In one flashback, an Aboriginal elder (played by veteran actor David Gulpilil) foretells that man has made the land sick, and that sickness will soon spread to the people. While it’s never explained outright, it doesn’t take much to connect his words to the many abandoned gas fracking sites encountered by Thoomi and Andy during their journey.
The struggles of its two main characters also serve as an indictment of Australia’s white colonialist history, racist treatment of indigenous people, and toxic macho culture, represented none-too-subtly by Vic (Anthony Hayes), a ruthless surviving gas worker, and a gun-toting father. While Andy may try to act as the patriarchal savior (a trait bolstered by Freeman, who brings a heartbreakingly unflappable quality to the character), the other two men represent the more nefarious side of that drive, as they both feel entitled to exploit or destroy the most vulnerable.
While it’s refreshing to see a film take on such heavy issues, it sometimes plays out in ways that are a little too on-the-nose. As if to hammer on the country’s continued dismissal of its problematic past and future, one of the key zombie traits is that they literally bury their heads in the sand, a confounding detail that adds nothing to the scare factor and feels thematically superfluous.
Even so, the movie concludes with a send-off that honors its emotional father-daughter narrative and its new take on the zombie.
Cargo is now streaming on Netflix.