The zombie apocalypse meets Walkabout (1971) in Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke’s expansion of their 2013 seven-minute short of the same name (the star of Nic Roeg’s film, David Gulpilil, turns up here as an Aboriginal “Clever Man”).

In the aftermath of an unspecified viral outbreak that turns victims into zombie-like creatures, thirsty for blood, the Rose family – Andy (Martin Freeman), Kay (Susie Porter) and baby Rosie (played by two sets of twins) – are fleeing the chaos of the cities by heading into the Australian outback aboard a dilapidated houseboat. When Kay is bitten and infected and in turns bites Andy, he is forced to abandon her and head out in the wasteland on foot carrying Rosie, his cargo, on his back He has just 48 to find someone to take Rosie and protect her before he succumbs to the virus. Elsewhere, young Aborigine girl Thoomi (Simone Landers) is trying to protect her father who has become a zombie, from her own tribe who are systematically tracking down and disposing of virus victims. Andy is taken in by another survivor, Vic (Anthony Hayes) but is forced to flee with a woman, Lorraine (Caren Pistorius), who Vic seems to be holding against her will and when Vic is found to be using local indigenous people as bait to lure in zombies who he then shoots. Andy flees with Thoomi, who has been caged as a lure by Vic, and who blames Andy for distracting her from protecting her father who has since been killed. As Andy’s condition deteriorates, he and Thoomi arrive at an uneasy truce as they head for her tribe and Andy’s last hope for finding a place of safety for Rosie.

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The directors go to some lengths to hide what’s actually going on for some while. It’s clear from the opening scenes that some sort of catastrophe has taken place but exactly what isn’t clear until we get our first glimpse of a zombie (actually an infected human – no-one actually dies from the virus and is revived) twenty minutes into the film. Refreshingly it’s a very small-scale zombie apocalypse, a snapshot of a larger disaster, the story homing in on a small number of characters trying to make the best of a terrifying situation.

The “zombies” (Thoomi refers to them as “ghosts”) are unusual enough to make them stand out from the ever-growing pack. The progress of the infection, tracked over 48 hours, is well detailed – victims vomit up blood, begin oozing a sticky yellow substance from eyes, mouths and open wounds and eventually develop the mystifying need to bury their heads, ostrich-like, in the ground, making them easy prey for passing arsonists. The film doesn’t waste time in explaining where this infection came from – it’s simply not interested in that – and we remain as mystified by its effects as the characters in the film who succumb to it without ever understanding anything about it.

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The plot centres around two father/daughter relationships – Andy’s desire to protect the vulnerable Rosie mirrored by Thoomi’s dedication to saving and redeeming her infected father. Similarly, Andy’s loving family is contrasted sharply with the abusive and the set up at Vic’s compound with his captive “wife.” It’s a fascinating set-up that adds to Cargo’s unexpected emotional heft. You rarely expect to be moved by a zombie film but Cargo joins a small group of films (Maggie (2015), It Stains the Sand Read (2016), The Girl With All the Gifts (2017), The Cured (2018) et al) that adopt a more character-driven and emotionally engaging approach to a very over-crowded field.

The first half of the film is better in this respect, the latter half wandering into more familiar “the living are worse than the dead” tropes but by now we’re so invested in Andy, Thoomi and Rosie that it’s easy to forgive a lapse into something more generic. Howling and Ramke get back on track for the heart string-tugging finale as Thoomi us reunited with her mother and Rosie finds a new extended family to see her through the disaster.

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There are plenty of supporting characters along the way but the film revolves around three excellent performances. Freeman is taking his everyman persona for another outing but he’s so convincing as the increasingly desperate Andy that it works anyway. Simone Landers is a revelation as Thoomi, initially traumatised by the intrusion of both the virus and the vestiges of white society but who becomes the “parent”, shepherding the deteriorating Andy to a place where his baby can find safety. And the four infants who play Rosie (Marlee Jane and Lily Anne McPherson-Dobbins and Finlay and Nova Sjoberg) are utterly charming.

Blessed with breath-taking photography from Geoffrey Simpson (he’d previously shot Vincent Ward’s The Navigator: A Mediaeval Odyssey (1988), Ann Turner’s Celia (1989) and Peter Weir’s Green Card (1990) among many others) and an atmosphere score from Johnathon Mangarri Yunupingu, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, Daniel Rankine P.K.A. Trials and Michael Hohnen is as technically satisfying as it Is emotionally. It seems like it might be next to impossible to set in a film in the Australian outback and not make it looks stunningly, hauntingly beautiful but the directors and Simpson excel themselves here with glorious drone shots of the vast expanse dwarfing the tiny figures struggling as much with inhospitable nature as with the virus and its victims.

Maybe to think of Cargo as simply a zombie film is to do it a disservice. It’s a tale of survival and families that just happens to feature zombie-like characters but it’s a far cry from the straight-to-video fodder that had become the sub-genre’s stock in trade. Die hard zombie fans might bemoan the lack or scares and the relatively low-key gore but they’d be missing the point. Like the zombie films of George A. Romero, Cargo is a film less interested in the zombies than it is in ordinary people trying to cope with extraordinary circumstances and on that level it succeeds admirably.