It could be a typical family vacation. A houseboat merrily churns down a river, with Dad at the helm while Mom spoon-feeds their adorable infant daughter in the cabin. On the shore, Dad sees another family celebrating a birthday party, and waves cheerily.
The other father pulls out a gun.
This is the world of “Cargo,” an Australian horror movie that manages to do something fresh with the overdone zombie genre. The film premiered last Friday on Netflix.
Written by Yolanda Ramke and directed by Ramke and Ben Howling, based on their 2013 short film of the same name, “Cargo” takes place in a world where a pandemic has decimated the population. Once infected, people have 48 hours before they turn into bloodthirsty maniacs. The government has helpfully issued emergency packets to the populations, which include a stylish watch with a 48-hour countdown mode, and a DIY suicide kit.
“Cargo” takes place far from civilization in the middle of the Australian outback. Martin Freeman of “Sherlock” plays Andy, the father keeping his wife Kay (Susie Potter) and infant daughter Rosie on that houseboat, far from civilization. Andy works to project an air of cheerful competence, trying to convince himself that he cannot only save his family but give his daughter some semblance of a “normal” life.
That all goes by the wayside when Kay is killed and Andy is infected. That gives him 48 hours to find someone to take care of Rosie before he goes full zombie. The ticking clock gives “Cargo” a measure of suspense, but the tone of the film is more of quiet sorrow than thrilling violence.
Instead of the nonstop carnage of “The Walking Dead,” “Cargo” gives the audience time to contemplate what we’d do for our family in a no-win situation like this. Freeman, known more as a light comic actor, effectively underplays in this more dramatic role, coming across like a normal guy struggling to hold it together in very abnormal circumstances.
“Cargo” also uses the zombie genre to comment on the human condition, in particular the exploitation of native populations. In one horrible scene, Andy comes across a white survivor, a former fracking engineer, who uses aboriginal people to lure zombies in. Such abuse mirrors how white colonists treated the indigenous people of Australia.
“Cargo” has its share of scary moments, and the film deftly suggests the horror of a worldwide pandemic with just a few key details. But it’s definitely more of a PG-13 kind of horror movie, focusing on the emotional toll of living in Zombieland rather than the body count.
Also on streaming: Whether the weather is sunny or rainy this Memorial Day Weekend, it will be great weather for streaming. On Saturday, Amazon Prime is releasing its miniseries adaptation of “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” Joan Lindsay’s classic novel about four young women who go missing while on a school picnic. “Hanging Rock” was also made into a terrific film in 1975 directed by Peter Weir.
For the kids, on Friday Netflix is premiering the new season of “Trollhunters,” the delightful Guillermo Del Toro-created animated series. And on Sunday, Netflix will feature the first episode of its talk show “The Break With Michelle Wolf,” featuring the comedian who made a splash at the White House Correspondents' Dinner recently.
And if you didn’t pony up the big bucks to see Steve Martin and Martin Short’s show at Overture Hall last year, their new comedy special, “An Evening You Will Forget For the Rest of Your Life,” also premieres Friday on Netflix.