The various sub genres of horror, like everything else, go in and out of fashion. The slasher. The possession movie. The ghost story. The monster movie. The zombie film. For much of the 2000s, the zombie dominated the horror genre. Think of the impressive box office success of films like 28 Days Later (2001), Dawn of the Dead (2004), Shaun of the Dead (2004) and the high TV ratings of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” (2010).
Yet, for the last few years, the zombie genre has waned. Lately, horror has focused more on the internal and the psychological, specifically films like Hereditary, A Quiet Place, Get Out, and to some extent, It. Frankly, I can’t even think of the last time that I saw a zombie film in the theaters. Even “The Walking Dead,” which was a ratings Juggernaut for so many years, may be facing its apocalyptic sunset since Andrew Lincoln, aka Rick Grimes, and Lauren Cohen, aka Maggie, have announced that this season will be their last season, and they will only appear in six episodes. How can the show function without Rick and Maggie? Like a staggering corpse, it needs to be put out of its misery. It had a long, good run.
The more recent horror films that are doing well deal with socio/political issues (Get Out), or deal with the terror that is bringing a child into this world, specifically A Quiet Place, and, to some extent Hereditary. This has been the trend of the last few years, and based upon the United States’ political turmoil and polarization, coupled with the threat of climate change and other big issues, it is not likely this trend is going to subside anytime soon.
This brings me to a newish zombie film that I recommend: Cargo, an Australian film directed by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke. Cargo is currently streaming on Netflix and well worth your time.
The plot of the film is rather simple. A father, Andy (Martin Freeman), tries to protect his infant daughter after an epidemic spreads and turns people into zombies. Yes, this formula has been done time and time again, but Cargo works so well because it focuses on character, on Andy’s anxieties of raising a child in an unforgiving, uncertain world. The visuals of the film are striking, nightmareish, and sometimes surreal. The zombies are not your typical rotting flesh corpses; instead, they have green fungus growing from their skin. Read into that any environmental metaphor that you may.
Zombies have survived for decades and decades because they have managed to evolve. They started out on the silver screen as a monster that alluded to Haitian and West African voodoo lure/myths. They then became Romero’s slow-walking flesh-eaters, until they become something even more menacing, relentless, and faster in 28 Days Later and the Dawn of the Dead remake.
I am not saying that Cargo is going to remake the genre. It doesn’t have enough mass appeal to do that, but it does show that zombie films can still work and work well when they focus on character and a believable plot, like a father trying to protect his daughter. The fungus aspect gives the familiar monster a new angle that taps into deeper environmental concerns. As the zombie trend that dominated so much of the 2000s finally wanes, the creature will need to evolve again to suit the times and the larger global anxieties. Cargo provides a path forward for the flesh-eating, familiar creature.