When filmmakers Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke unleashed their 2013 short film, Cargo, on an unsuspecting world, it showcased a talent that did something original with the tired zombie trope. Low in character development, it still packed a hell of an emotional punch. Five years later and the duo have fleshed out their central premise into a full feature-length presentation.

Set in present day Australia, a savage virus is sweeping the country. Once bitten by a carrier of said virus, you have roughly 48 hours to say your goodbyes and take advantage of government issued euthanasia packs that have been doled out. Amid this panic, on a houseboat, floats Andy, played by Martin Freeman (Black Panther), his wife, Kay (Susie Porter, Hounds of Love) and their baby daughter, Rosie. Despite slowly running out of food, Andy remains adamant that they can sail to safety if they just keep pushing forward. When the unthinkable happens, Andy, now bitten, must get his daughter to safety before he turns into one of the many diseased monsters that prowl the outback. Along the way, he encounters numerous Aussies also trying to make their way in this societal collapse, including the sinister tradie Vic (Anthony Hayes) and young Thoomi (Simone Landers).

Whilst Andy is shown to be pragmatic in his nature, Cargo doesn’t necessarily allow us to warm to him from the beginning. Guided by the desire to protect his family, Andy’s blinkered approach means that he stubbornly refuses to listen to his wife’s very sensible queries. In fact, before he gets bitten, it’s fair to say that Andy is a tad smug. It’s an interesting introduction to the man you’ll soon be championing as he takes his first steps into the outback, but it just about works. Andy is a man who clearly needs to be in control and, with his life diminishing, an arc is set up where he finds himself having to reach out for support. Freeman’s performances have always felt natural and his everyday man approach resonates as an Englishman trapped in Australia, a country he will now never escape. Equally excellent is relative newcomer Simone Landers, as a young indigenous girl trying to protect loved ones of her own. Landers must carry a lot of emotional weight for a large part of the film and she does so with aplomb.

Umbrella Entertainment

Whilst this is more of an emotional drama that happens to have zombies in it – think The Walking Dead, but interesting – Howling and Ramke bring various chills and shocks to the table which will satisfy those who can’t go 90 minutes without a bit of bloodshed. Their human-shaped creatures are at once familiar, but original. Like the best undead, the reasons for their continued existence is left unexplained. Though, considering the frequency with which we see the Government’s skull-piercing needles they’ve handed out to the public, it makes you wonder if the higher ups had their hand in it somewhere.

Where Cargo lets itself down is in its portrayal of its indigenous characters. Thoomi’s family, including Daku (David Gulpilil), are shown to be borderline superpowered, taking down the violent infected whilst barely breaking a sweat. Later, a kindly teacher, played by Kris McQuade, tells Andy of how the Indigenous population of her town sensed there was going to be trouble before anyone else. Even Thoomi’s interactions with Andy sometimes wobble into a slightly uncomfortable parlance where, taking in the above, she and her family come across as mystical creatures rather human beings trying to survive just like everyone else. It’s clear that no offence is meant on the part of the filmmakers, and this is perhaps even an overanalysis by this critic. However, like 2016’s Red Billabong and its indigenous characters, it did play on my mind for some time after leaving the film.

With that full disclosure out of the way, however, Cargo is still an emotional ride worthy of seeking out. It has a hell of a lot heart and soul to it, even whilst people are drooling orange gunk from their faces. How many films can make that claim?

SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★ ★ ★☆☆

‘Cargo’ will hit Aussie cinemas on May 17 and hits Netflix in some markets on May 18.

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John Noonan is tucked away in a suburb of Melbourne. Aside from dissecting movies for numerous publications and guesting on commentaries, he is also the author of the Ms Holmes novellas. You can follow him at @noonanjohnc and noonanjohnc.com.