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Cargo: The Rebirth of Australia’s Undead

“There were 200 km/h hurricane winds, the police were on television telling people to leave their workplaces and go home; meanwhile, we were in a tunnel shooting this ridiculous zombie scene.”

We like to think of our survival skills as an innate compartment of our minds, locked away to serve us well come society’s collapse. Cargo, an Australian post-apocalyptic zombie flick starring Martin Freeman and set in the arid Flinders Ranges, examines a world where urban society dies and Indigenous Australians survive.

Debut feature filmmakers Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling developed Cargo from a seven-minute short which went viral in 2013. It charmed audiences with an endearing presentation of a father’s undying will to protect his baby daughter from his zombified self. When it came to stretching the concept an extra 98 minutes, Ramke knew she wanted to create a zombie film that didn’t languish under genre status; instead hoping to express a subversive human element inspired by obsessive watching of The Walking Dead.

“We weren’t initially tied to the idea of it being an Australian-set film, but then we started to think about what potential that might have in terms of the landscape as an antagonistic force,” Ramke explains. “Thinking about the kind of voices we might like to include in the film, we worked logically from location; who might be equipped to wait out a scenario like this? What haven’t we seen before? And what we hadn’t seen was Indigenous survivors relying on more traditional means of survival in a world like this.”

The resulting film is an intricate drama nestled within the stylistic thorns of the zombie genre. Cargo follows the travails of Andy (Martin Freeman), whose quest to protect his infant daughter in the South Australian outback against his impending zombification collides with a young Indigenous Australian girl named Thoomi, played by the spritely Simone Landers. To respectfully depict an Indigenous Australian composite, Ramke and Howling consulted Ngarrindjeri and Adnyamathanha elders in the region, asking permission to use their language in the film. The film’s humanistic forces culminate in a poignant social allegory that doesn’t need to resort to tacky didactic monologue.

“One of the things we really liked was the idea of Martin (Freeman) being an Englishman in this landscape. The idea of amplifying that fish out of water feeling in the film – thematically, that tied back to the Indigenous threads of the story, having an Englishman in this landscape have these encounters with those characters and the subtle things that might evoke for an audience,” Ramke says.

Freeman’s star power is of obvious benefit to the film, having honed his own craft in a range of seminal roles, ranging from The Office to the meteoric blockbusters of The Hobbit series, however hisraw talent has never have been as clear as in Cargo. Freeman deftly handles the every-man quality of Andy with a subtle nuance that pushes everyone around him. For Simone Landers, aged 11 at the time of shooting in 2016, working with Freeman was an incredibly helpful experience. “He was the best person you could ever act with as a beginner... he also helped my grandma when she had a sore back on set,” Landers recalls brightly.

Freeman’s mischief on the set of The Hobbit – “he had brown hair in that one, that was surprising,” Landers quips – was previously made infamous in a three-minute compilation of him giving the finger to the camera. The goofs returned on Cargo’s set, with a cheeky caveat for Lander’s untainted ears. “Every time Martin swore, he had to give me $2. I think I ended up making about $120, he swore at everything,” she laughs.

Landers hails from the shores of Stockton in NSW – “everyone’s close, it’s basically the safest place you could live in,” she tells me – and is a charismatic talent in the film, with heartwarming optimism. “I did all my own stunts. I put a lot of work into it...My fantasy now is to act with Will and Jaden Smith,” she says. Landers isn’t exaggerating when she says her performance was hard fought; the six-week shooting period was marred by a miniature apocalypse to match the film.

“We thought, shooting in the desert, we’re going to have pretty good weather because that’s historically what they’ve had, but over the course of our six-week shoot there, they had their wettest winter in seventy years,” Ramke laughs. “We were in the middle of a once-in-a-hundred-year storm that took out power to the entire state. There were 200 km/h hurricane winds, the police were on television telling people to leave their workplaces and go home; meanwhile, we were in a tunnel shooting this ridiculous zombie scene.”

In the conditions, it would have been easy for Ramke and Howling to pitch their zombie dystopia as the torrid abyss – yet it strangely almost acts as a travelogue for the landscape’s dry beauty. Freeman has bluntly rebuked the idea that Cargo is a zombie film in the press, claiming "it's a film with some zombies in it, that's the absolute truth of it,” to the Sydney Morning Herald. For Ramke and Howling however, the garish and gory sub-genre offers hefty thematic weight.

“There’s something really powerful about seeing the result of that virus, with humans degraded and deteriorated in that way. There’s a real sadness to that sort of zombie mould, seeing humans descend,” Ramke says. “By having zombies, you have that shorthand where people know what he’s going to become by the end of it. I think these films blend the best of both worlds with relatable personal stories and the escapism of a genre setting,” Howling adds.

It’s telling that Howling and Ramke don’t ask if people were scared by the film after preview screenings. Instead, they’ll ask if it made them cry.

Cargo hits Australian cinemas, and available on Netflix around the rest of the world, now.