'Cargo' Review: Martin Freeman's Zombie Drama Outdoes 'The Walking Dead' [Tribeca]

Netflix's "zom-dram" Cargo – what's essentially an Australian The Walking Dead spinoff – boasts far more inspiration from survival instincts over typical rotter squashing. No tactical military platoons, just a father and child fighting against outbreak paranoia. Supplies are scarce, native tribes echo ritualistic thinking and do I detect a hint of anti-fracking commentary? Man's mutilation of Mother Nature pits industrial complexes against respect for cavernous and magnificent brushlands in this greed-poisoned flatlands march. An environmentally sound subgenre take that's powered by 2018's strongest horror theme: parental fears and intergenerational unrest.

Martin Freeman stars as Andy, whose plan is to float down river systems with wife Kay (Susie Porter) and daughter Rosie (Lily Anne/Marlee McPherson-Dobbins) until reaching a hopefully still functional military base. Their houseboat offers habitable protection, but rations will only last a few days more. Andy drops anchor near a capsized sailboat, hits stockpile paydirt, Kay returns alone to make one last pass, and that's when tragedy strikes. Kay is bitten, which sets Andy on a quest for hospital aid across Australian terrains filled with wandering zombies – in addition to tribal warriors, psychopaths and atmospheric elements.

Directors Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke (who also wrote Cargo) express vivid scenic sensibilities that make sprawling use of lush but ravaged South Australian backdrops (Flinders Ranges, for example) – credit to cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson as well. Dusty yellowish trails lined with skeletal shrubbery remains sear under blazing rays of sun, heating tension as Andy hikes between plotted climax pit stops. Helicopter overheads expose more greens and massive mountain ranges, expert B-roll that tells a story of isolation on its own, as landscape details pop with warmth and direness. Australia is filmed not just as a setting, but a character with singular personality, even when details might be nothing more than intertwined tree roots and soiled ditches.

Defensive action isn't that of, say, Wyrmwood: Road Of The Dead, a more comically gruesome zombie goof-off from down under. Ramke's story makes use of vital elements that allow Cargo to avoid following one straightforward path. Andy does a lot of savannah shuffling, but characters and aversions raise stakes higher than obvious dangers. Anthony Hayes embodies a Dead Rising miniboss type in Vic as this rifle marksman who complicates Andy's trajectory on multiple occasions. There's also Andy's own race against time (more ways than one), Rosie's constant care, native prisoners who are used as caged zombie bait...the list goes on. Don't expect aggression in-line with George Romero's Land Of The Dead, but that's not to suggest genre sleepiness either.

This next point might originate from my own personal frustrations with The Walking Dead, but I have to commend Cargo for utilizing a toddler in ways that don't endlessly frustrate. Rick's Judith was nothing more than a nuisance – rarely developed beyond "someone protect the baby" and always involved in the show's least interesting parts. Andy's Rosie is this giggly bundle of joy who's calculated into every possible scenario, especially when developing Andy as a father throughout his protective nightmare. Children can so easily torpedo horror fare, but in this case, Rosie is used to elicit adorable swoons or provide a perfect foreground focus while daddy stabs Mrs. Zombie in the background (out of focus).

Then again, can any force truly sink a Martin Freeman vessel (hell yeah I'm part of the Screamin' Freemans fan club)?

Andy must fight adversity that no parent should and grapple with realities and accept fates not yet spoiled. He's part Superdad, part survivalist, and part negotiator. Freeman's ability to remain on-edge but adoring for Rosie's sake is of the actor's signature wholesome sheen, ring-leading a veritable circus of supporting accomplices. MacGyvering his way out of imprisonment with intestinal rope and strong zombie herds, dashing towards his proverbial finish line as odds pile up like World War Z corpse towers. But most surprising? Some of the film's best scenes only involve Freeman and his nugget co-star, a testament to Andy's leading qualities.

Horror fans, do not fret because your gore is not forgotten. Restrained and saved for emphasis? Sure. But bloody gashes and piles of guts pack a punch that positions death as a final bow, not some slaughterhouse highlight like in other grindhouse affairs. Ramke builds an entire outbreak mythology around Containment Assistance packs, zombie habits such as burying their heads (like ostriches), plus mouth and eye excretion symptoms like slathered-on honey. We're immediately transported to a world that's dealing with epidemic prevention, albeit not very well. And on top of it, we get a perspective from Thoomi's (Simone Landers) aboriginal tribe who believe zombies still have souls to be honored. For how simple Cargo may seem, its treatment of subtext is both rich and meaningful – something The Walking Dead has never been.

I don't mean to keep throwing The Walking Dead under the spike-tired dystopian bus, because other zombie dramas have tried the same thematic capitalization and failed (What We Become, for example) – Cargo just does it better. For the most part. Are beats sometimes predicted? Early emotional turns are "defy zombie movie rules and pay the price," but necessary in leading into emotional angles that flourish despite the stench of walkers. Once time starts ticking down (infected have 48 hours before turning), Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke make proper use of fleeting minutes in the face of familial oblivion. Sometimes slow, sometimes expected, but on the whole, Cargo out-dramatizes The Walking Dead with an Aussie's pep in its step. Blessed be this father, daughter and their unholy pursuers.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10