Netflix Zombie Movie 'Cargo' Transforms Martin Freeman

Snot and eye goop are underrated horror fluids. We've seen zombies puke viral fluids, seen their drooling mouths. And, of course, we've seen blood, lots of blood. Cargo has snot and eye goop, which I just learned is called "rheum."

Crusty rheum, streaming down zombie faces like bugs smeared on a windshield, is just the most obvious of many well-considered tweaks to zombie standards in Cargo, which calls its zombies "virals." Each viral goes through a series of disease stages after infection. Even after viral goop completely impairs a carrier's vision and their senses are overwhelmed by delectation with human flesh, Cargo puts them through aberrant and varied symptomatic reactions. Their transformation is marked by an almost larval impulse: to bury their heads in dirt, in preparation to be reborn as predators. When humans aren't around, they hibernate, leaning against walls and lowering their metabolic rate.

Another recent Netflix acquisition, the French-Canadian Ravenous, had zombies who habitually gathered and made shrines of furniture, as if trying to make sense of the human world their minds have left behind. In Cargo, based on a short film of the same name, the zombies haven't so much lost their humanity as become a new species. In each case, we see zombie indies attempting to stake out new territory in a glutted genre of horror.

Despite the considerate changes, in both makeup and behavior, Cargo's zombie behavior is still familiar, as snarling, enthusiastic actors herk and jerk toward Andy (Martin Freeman) and his infant daughter Rosie. But Cargo isn't about survival and there's little suspense in who will live and die, because Andy is already doomed. Early in the movie he's bitten and must set out across the Australian bush to find a safe place in an unsafe world, so he can zombify knowing his daughter has a shot at surviving.

Empty landscapes are as much a threat to Daisy as the virals. Netflix

Despite a literal race against the clock, in this case a 48-hour countdown timer provided by the government (alongside a suicide spike), Cargo isn't especially adrenal. There's a surprising lack of urgency to the plot, with Andy even getting a decent night's sleep at one or two points, despite having less than 48 hours left to live. A detour to establish a human villain—a crack shot with a preposterous plan involving caged bait and looting zombies one by one—never amounts to much excitement.

Neither zombie horror or zombie action, Cargo doesn't often satisfy on the genre's more sensational vectors. There are no hordes, few gouts of creative gore and a limited sense of danger. Cargo is worst when it tries for the genre's more booming and broad tropes, essentially submitting to the subgenre's well-worn grooves.

Still, one of the lowkey pleasures of Cargo is how Andy bumps into a nice person or two, rather than the zombie genre's typical insistence on complete societal barbarism. The countdown aspect, with Andy seizing up, becoming steadily more similar to the zombies chasing him, isn't about creating a zombie version of Crank, but instead becomes a high-stakes search for family (best dramatized by the sickening fate of another family Andy bumps into). Cargo becomes a genuine rarity: an affecting zombie drama.

Teaming up with Thoomi, an indigenous girl who watches over her zombified father (very nearly Andy's situation in reverse), Andy's path seems destined to coincide with the local Aboriginal Australians. There's a thin layer of Peter Weir-esque mysticism hanging over Cargo, particularly when Andy runs into a caged "magic man," though its indigenous characters aren't overly exoticized. Instead, the Aboriginal people's ability to live off the land allows them to retreat from society. Thoomi's spiritual concerns become a point of contact between her and Andy, as Andy attempts to guide her through grief, even without fully understanding the specifics of her culture's traditions.

Really, you're here to watch Martin Freeman snarl, seize up, fall to the floor, claw at the dirt, look longingly at flesh and wipe rheum from his eyes as he plays out one of the most dramatic zombie transformations in horror movie history.

Between The Hobbit movies, Sherlock and Black Panther, Freeman is such a ubiquitous face that it's easy to forget how often he's the guy along for the journey, standing just to one side of the action, perhaps commenting ruefully. Not so with Cargo—it is utterly Freeman's movie, with no sign of the slight ironic distance that defines many of his other characters. Instead, he's all anguish, all nerves and uncertainty and desperation. Andy contemplating the suicide spike, knowing the people he's found for Daisy aren't quite right, provides the dramatic heft that defines Cargo. And don't forget, Freeman's not just a father, but an incipient zombie too. He may not be as sweetly curious as Day of the Dead's Bud or Return of the Living Dead's Tarman, but Andy's struggle to stay human, his daughter strapped to his back, ranks him among the more memorable zombies in horror history.