The zombie movie genre, much like the reanimated cadavers it depicts, has been shuffling forwards with deadly intent and thrilling audiences ever since Bela Lugosi slipped into the skin of "Murder" Legendre, a white Haitian voodoo master who commands a crew of the undead, in White Zombie (1932).
We can thank George Romero for turning them into the flesh-craving cannibals we fear today with Night of the Living Dead (1968), Sam Raimi for giving them a nasty biting wit with The Evil Dead (1981), and Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright for making us laugh out loud at their ghastly antics with Shaun of the Dead (2004) – all seminal moments in the genre's evolution.
In fact, Wikipedia's list of zombie flicks can fill 20 computer screens – so it's no mean feat in 2018 to bring a fresh dimension to the killing field – which makes Cargo, the new post-apocalyptic movie starring British actor Martin Freeman, well worth watching when it comes to Netflix from this Friday.
One of the busiest and most popular actors of his generation, Freeman, 46, already enjoys a global fan base thanks to his star turns as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit movie trilogy, as Dr Watson in the Sherlock television series opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in the titular role, and most recently as intrepid CIA agent Everett K Ross in the Marvel box-office phenom Black Panther.
In Cargo, Freeman dials it down to an intensely personal, grassroots tale of survival as Andy, a father stranded with his infant daughter Rosie in the Australian Outback in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, where the afflicted are referred to as Virals.
In the aftermath of this violent pandemic, he soon becomes infected with the virus – and the countdown begins for him to protect his precious daughter and find her a safe haven before he changes forever.
The fresh twist here is the presence of indigenous Australian survivors and how they sway Andy's desperate plan, say directors Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, whose seven-minute short, also called Cargo, inspired the full-length feature by garnering more than 13 million YouTube views since 2013.
Click to watch the seven-minute short:
“As Australian filmmakers, we were very interested in delving into our collective national history in an effort to bring something fresh to the table,” Ramke says. “The addition of an indigenous dimension, which includes a pivotal role for a young actor in the form of Thoomi, offered up some thrilling opportunities.
“The appeal was twofold. First, it struck us as an entirely credible notion that, in such a global catastrophe, a community of indigenous people with strong ties to living off the land might be best equipped to endure and flourish. Second, it provided a rich allegory for the zombie virus itself and allowed us to question what it means to be a zombie from a spiritual standpoint via the indigenous belief of ‘soul stealing’.”
Thoomi, the 11-year-old indigenous girl played by Simone Landers in her acting debut, may be Andy’s only hope of saving Rosie, who could perhaps find a home with her flourishing tribe.
But there’s a snag – Thoomi is on a quest to cure her own infected father by returning his stolen soul – and has no desire to return to her people. Andy and Thoomi are clearly each other’s salvation – but will they find a way to work together?
“My favourite image, the one that made me want to do the film,” Freeman says, “is the idea of a man carrying his baby on his back and an 11-year-old girl by his side, who he doesn’t really know, who he has to not only protect, but also be protected by. That’s the abiding image for me.”
“Thoomi is tough, independent and caring,” Landers says. “She is loyal and I like those qualities about her.”
Watch the Cargo film trailer:
Horror aficionados will appreciate the provenance of Cargo – and the presence of producer Kristina Ceyton, who made a big splash at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014 with The Babadook, her oddly named, gruesome film treat about a single mother who battles her son's fear of a monster lurking in the house.
“On almost every continent, western influences have attempted to stamp out indigenous values and belief systems, asserting that industrial and technological progress are the exclusive ways forward,” Ceyton says.
"In Cargo, Ramke and Howling pose the question; what happens to these societies when an unforeseen pandemic arises to level the playing field? By relying on their ancestors' skills, knowledge and practices, the traditional lifestyle of indigenous Australians may suddenly offer society its best chance to rebuild."
“One thing that really beautifully tracks through this story is that it’s about, on one hand, a little girl who has to let go of her father and, at the same time, the story of a father who has to let go of his child,” says co-producer Samantha Jennings.
“Those two narratives cross over and echo each other, because it is, overall, a film about all of us needing to let go and sacrifice ourselves for family and community to survive.”
Freeman says that while Andy and Thoomi get off to a rocky start, their relationship evolves into one of deep trust.
“That is part of the reason I liked the script, that it was this English guy and this indigenous girl who needed each other – but it wasn’t some white liberal’s dream about, let’s make the indigenous girl the noble all-knowing wise one. It wasn’t that, it wasn’t stripped with a lot of white guilt.
“It was this little girl who knows some stuff he doesn’t know, he can help her and together they can maybe survive this thing.”
“I really like the honesty of that, of them being quite wary about each other at first and then getting to some sort of understanding. I mean, what I just said could be a cliche, but we did it in such a way that it didn’t smack of patronising anybody, and it wasn’t too saccharin.”
Cargo is available for streaming on Netflix from Friday