cargo

 

cargo
Into the unknown

Cargo begins with so much potential. A zombie plague. A family struggling to survive. The wilds of rural Australia. A top-notch cast to bring it to life. It packs a real emotional punch inside a small story. And then…it loses momentum and falls back on several common stereotypes and sentiment to fill in the gaps. Cargo is a good movie, but it should have been better.

Some small spoilers ahead

Set in an Australia ravaged by a zombie-creating virus, Andy, Kay, and their infant daughter Rosie, are struggling to find a safe haven from the end of the world. When Kay is attacked and infected they must change their plans to get her help. But she turns, attacks, and infects Andy before they find any, and he is left alone to save Rosie before he also turns into the undead.

cargo
Family is where you find it

Martin Freeman is his sincere, exceptional self as Andy, a man out of his element and trying to keep his family alive. Suzie Porter is a great match as his wife Kay, strong and determined and brave in the face of inevitable disaster. And newcomer Simone Landers is completely convincing as Thoomi, the young Aboriginal girl trying desperately to save her own father before she joins up with Andy and Rosie.

The small cast is filled out by Bruce R. Carter and Natasha Wanganeen as Thoomi’s parents, and David Gulpilil as the tribal elder Daku–the Clever Man. Kris McQuade, Anthony Hayes and Caren Pistorius are other struggling survivors.

Cargo is all about family

Cargo is not actually scary–the effect it produces is more unsettling and sad, with some very striking monster reveals. But as an addition to the already-loaded zombie genre it works, and works pretty well.

Some of the strongest scenes in the movie are the early ones between Andy and his wife, as they struggle to make increasingly urgent life and death decisions, first as healthy humans and then as infected pre-zombies. The later development of a family bond between Andy and Thoomi is also surprisingly touching and believable, if at times throwing a heartbreaking amount of emotional weight onto the child.

cargo
Other monsters

Cargo also chooses to touch on major social issues like racism, funding cuts to resources in aboriginal areas, and environmental concerns about fracking. Given the characters involved, it makes sense to be aware of the issues even if they are not dealt with in depth. There is, after all, a zombie apocalypse going on.

However, the other side of acknowledging the issues is turning them into cliched plot devices. The racist, survivalist gas-line worker and the Aborigines shown as noble savages are reduced to stereotypes, and cheapen an otherwise compelling plot.

And another thing…

Unfortunately, with such a small cast and limited focus, Cargo’s 105 minutes prove too long to spend on telling the story. In between genuine character development and forward plot motion, the pacing lags. There are too many long shots of Andy trudging through the outback with his daughter strapped to his back and slow-motion scenes of Aboriginal warriors destroying the undead. While the scenery is beautiful, less of would have been enough.

But there are also some wonderful details.

The government-issue medical kits are a great, grim touch, with their basic fact sheet, wristband timer, mouthguard, cuffs, and spring-loaded spike for ending it all. The variations on the old zombie theme are bizarre and intriguing, with the copious, sticky pus and the need to hibernate in the dark. And the carrot and stick trick is brilliant, if a bit overwrought at the end.

Carrying on

The real strength of Cargo is the intimate drama of it, and the 2013 short Cargo was based on was as tightly put together as anyone could wish. Stretching it to feature length required some padding and diluted the raw power of a man’s determination to save his child. In the end Cargo is a movie that, while beautifully made and touchingly acted, ends up being less than it should be because it thought it needed to be more.

Pontypool changes zombies
Pontypool changes zombies

With The Walking Dead’s new season on the horizon and its prequel gaining steam, it’s only natural to have zombies on the brain. But the undead come in many forms and from many causes, some of which are less obvious than an infected bite. In Tony Burgess’s Pontypool Changes Everything the danger of zombiehood comes though the corruption and failure of language.

“The virus bit wildly at the exterior shimmer of the paradigms, jamming selection with pointed double fangs. A terrible squealing ripped beneath the surface of the paradigms as they were destroyed” (148)

Pontypool Changes Everything is an unusual entry in the zombie novel field, not only because of its premise. Tony Burgess creates a great deal of mayhem without splattering everything in sight, and relies on a dreamlike narration style using a series of unstable, infected, or damaged-beyond-repair narrators. His prose is slippery and surreal. Words flow, although they are not often the words one would expect—but Burgess still imparts a certain lyrical sense. “The anonymous wind gathers its speed in turns around a cannon bone and tears across the ice of a frozen pool. It feels the behavior of more famous systems and is consumed by the complexity of its origins, breaking into mad daggers and splintering into the phantoms of horses” (13). Much of the novel reads almost as a prose poem rather than straight prose. It is at once a challenge and an exceptionally well-developed means of creating the proper atmosphere.

Which is not to say that Burgess always shies away from stating things plainly:

“He grows alarmed and, moving closer to the figure on the ice, notices blood spreading out from its face. Leaning over the body he sees that, in fact, there is very little face left. By the aggression of the act and the senseless snatch of missing face, of missing life, Les knows that a human being has done this” (22).

He allows his characters to know what a zombie is, and to recognize one when they see it. It doesn’t help them, but at least they know what they are facing.

Burgess is unclear about whether or not these zombies must die before they change—in one instance a zombie dies and immediately comes back, in another Burgess describes how a zombie’s heart stops and it dies for good. And here, “a zombie that has been lost in the woods for almost a week is lying face down on a long bed of ferns…this creature uses up its last tiny breath and passes, imperceptibly, from living thing to dead thing” (216). Pontypool’s human characters also use “zombie” and “cannibal” interchangeably, constantly blurring the line between the living and the dead. Burgess makes frequent note of the normal background of human violence that goes on despite a zombie plague in progress, much of it committed by his chosen narrators. Normal humans, Pontypool reminds us, can be a dangerous and unstable lot.

Pontypool changes Ontario
Pontypool changes Ontario

Burgess taps into the alienation of zombiehood in his description of the infection’s onset: “The first thing he says, as a man with a disease, is also his first symptom: ’How is the part I get for?’” (36). It is reminiscent of dementia, and as uncomfortable to witness, or endure. These zombies sink first into the despairing state of being unable to communicate. “There is nothing detectably wrong with his thoughts; however, he has struggled all afternoon with a strange inability to control the words he uses” (44). The lack of connection eats away at the poor afflicted creatures, caught in the state between human and zombie.

Eventually, the meaning of their language is lost entirely, and the zombies can only bleat what they hear in a macabre twist on the myth of Echo and Narcissus:

“Over the roof where the sky lets the house pass into the front yard, four men with rifles surround two full-blown zombies. The soldiers look up, spooked by the voice calling Helen coming in over their heads. The zombies echo the voice in words they bark at the soldiers: ‘Helen!’ ‘Hello!’ ‘Help!’ They are agitated by the alliteration and their barks become frenzied: ‘Helly!’ ‘Hello!’ ‘Helen!’ ‘Hessy!’” (69).

Zombies are a staple of horror, now, as ravenous aggressors. But they used to be much sadder creatures, slaves to terrible masters, without agency, free-will, or desires of their own. They were not even driven by hunger. They existed only to obey. Burgess’s afflicted zombies incorporate some of that previous hopelessness into their more familiar violence. His monsters first must be alienated, cut off from each other by the inability to communicate, before they lapse into monstrosity: “…The plague first manifests itself in the infected person as a kind of déjà vu, with an accompanying aphasia” (148); “The person would eventually slip into a depression and exhibit ghastly physical symptoms…This usually marked the end of the person’s exile from the living” (149). It is indistinct whether death marks the turning point, but it is clear that turn, they do.

Saturn Devouring His Son--Goya
Saturn Devouring His Son–Goya

With language’s ability to carry reliable, recognizable meaning corrupted, “The patients at this advanced stage turn into violent zombies. Cannibals. They knock people to the ground and bite away at their mouths. They devour skin and flesh, throat and tongue. Finally both…are destroyed by a single violent whip of the head that breaks their necks” (149)

There is something inescapably lonely in Pontypool’s difficult tale of zombie-induced social chaos. To be infected is to be cut off from each other. To survive is to cut oneself off from each other. The cleverness of the means of transmission cannot outweigh the despair of the outcome.  It is not because of the zombies. It is because of the isolation.

Pontypool Changes Everything is a sad story, told through the points of view of incredibly broken people. As the narrators perish in turn, Burgess becomes more concrete in his descriptions of the disease and its eventual outcomes. His almost-closing chapters are structured as a litany of government and community reaction to the crisis:  “To combat contagion all form of communication is banned. Speaking, listening, reading, even sign language are punishable at the brute discretion of Ontario’s own licensed assassins” (254). Interspersed with the zombie carnage are snapshots of ordinary human depravity, some of it opportunistic, all of it lost in the reactionary confusion. The outcome is severe: “By January, the population of Ontario is only two thirds of what it was, and there are no zombies left alive” (261).

This is much the same proportion of people lost to the Black Plague in the fourteenth century. It is a shock to the system, and enough to shift the pattern of society. By that standard, Pontypool does change everything.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter and Pinterest, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

 

Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?
Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?

As summer draws to an end, our fancies may once more turn to the shambling, hungry undead. If your interest in all things zombie extends beyond “It’s a virus!” or “It’s a fungus!” to what could actually cause typical zombie behaviors, Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain by Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek might be just the book for you.

Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? is a much more genteel read than the title suggests. Honestly, I was expecting something more gratuitously zombie. You know, actual zombie autopsies, or necropsies, or experimentation—some such horror-movie splatter. Fear of the Walking Dead isn’t going to tell us how these creatures work. We need to know, if we are going to make it!

But this is not, after all, the nuts-and-bolts toolkit of Max Brooks’s The Zombie Survival Guide. There is no hard-core practical survival advice to be had here, despite the final chapter that purports to offer some based on the concluded causes of zombification.

Instead, this book serves up a simplified but thorough overview of brain structure and function illustrated with a mix of real-life case studies, silly, zombified artwork, and examples from a variety of zombie movies. Both Timothy Verstynen and Bradley Voytek are neuroscientists, university professors, and zombie buffs, which perhaps explains their desire to share their combined passions for neural function and the shambling undead with a lay population.

And they know that their combined passions may come off as a little odd: “You are about to read a book about the zombie brain. Just think about that for a minute. Let the thought really soak in. Reflect on the decisions you’ve made in your life that led you to this point” (7).

Zombies, brains...braaaaiiins
Zombies, brains…braaaaiiins

But who am I to say they’re wrong?

The title immediately reveals their frame of reference and sense of humor. After all, puns are an underappreciated art form (and yes, my friends, that is sarcasm). Inside, the chapter headings continue the punny word play: “Gray’s (Undead) Anatomy”, “Tongue-Tied and Twisted”, and “Hungry, Angry, and Stupid Is No Way to Go Through Unlife” all provide a pretty clear picture of their approach to their subject.

Verstynen and Voytek employ a variety of carefully curated zombie styles to make their many points. George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead and its several sequels, Return of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, World War Z, Warm Bodies, and a slew of other movies are invoked for easy examples of zombie behavior that illustrate the many possible ways a brain can go wrong. And there are a lot of ways, because, after all, “the brain is a pretty complicated piece of goop” (203).  Physical damage, tumors, wiring issues—all can produce a zombified condition even without a wild virus or radiation.

In addition to the Hollywood hit parade, Verstynen and Voytek provide a huge number of real-world references for their proposed methods of action, listed at the end of each chapter. They cite everything from neuroscience and anatomy texts to Nature, The Lancet, and Salon articles to support their positions. If you are so inclined, you can use the accumulated references to give yourself a very nice introduction (and then some) to behavioral neuroscience and its associated psychology.

My only real complaint about the book is that the authors are frequently self-aware and self-referential, and at times downright twee about it: “Obviously, these are complex, unresolved scientific issues well outside the scope of what a couple of goofy, zombie-movie-loving neuroscientists are capable of answering” (100). This quirk only serves to draw attention away from the meat of their information and place it firmly back on themselves. However, the overall tone of the book is playful, and their frequent disclaimers about being zombie-movie-loving neuroscientists can be safely skimmed over without loss of context.

And again, while Verstynen and Voytek provide their readers with a quick, snappy overview of the workings of the brain and related nervous system and endocrine functions, I was left somewhat wanting by their explanations of zombie behavior. As they freely declare, “We’re playing it safe and using a weasel word” (159). There are many traditional undead behaviors to choose from, and while Verstynen and Voytek sort the symptoms into “fast zombie” and “slow zombie”, there are some explanations that feel a little shoe-horned in for form’s sake, and presented without real conviction. Yes, I know I’m being picky about the precision of their proposed zombie brain damage mechanics. But I want to suspend some disbelief, here!

But let’s face it, my complaints are merely quibbles. And quibbles aside, if you are interested in how the brain works, this book will explain it pretty clearly and with great enthusiasm. And if you are writing the Great American Zombie Novel, this book will also provide terrific expository material for you to chew on. Fast zombies, slow zombies, semi-aware zombies—they are all in here, in all their gory glory, with appropriate scientific explanations for their behaviors. Dig in!

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter and Pinterest, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!