Whether it’s the zombie pandemic glimpsed in her debut feature Cargo or the runaway online success that made it a reality, Yolanda Ramke knows a thing or two about going viral.

“We were all quite shocked by the response we got to the short,” writer-director Ramke says of the original Cargo, a low-budget, almost wordless seven minutes that has now racked up 13.5 million YouTube views. “The idea that something you made with your friends in a very DIY fashion could reach so many people and have such a platform was a real eye-opener for us.”

Ramke and co-director Ben Howling’s full-length adaptation of that original short will premiere at Adelaide Film Festival this week. It follows an infected man desperately seeking safe haven for his infant daughter before he goes full George A Romero. With major stars in Martin Freeman and David Gulpilil and international distribution by streaming giant Netflix (an Australian first), it’s a cinema success story for the internet age.

The result is a uniquely Australian take on the undead genre, placing its land and culture firmly at the centre of this very personal story. “Obviously zombie films were kind of at their zenith with The Walking Dead, so it was important to find a point of difference,” Ramke explains. “In trying to put our own stamp on the genre a big part of our approach was in a way to sideline that monster element of the story. They’re there to provide stakes, but it’s so much more about the human aspect.

“The landscape really served the story. The harshness and isolation that our character finds himself in as a man desperate to find someone to help him, in a part of the country where there’s very few people around, just makes his mission even more difficult.”

Filming on location around Leigh Creek, Blanchetown and the Flinders Ranges proved a challenging mission in itself, from working with infants in secluded South Australia to navigating a once-in-70-years wet season that transformed the Flinders Ranges from their original arid vision to one problematically full of life.

“It did feel quite apocalyptic given the weather situation,” Ramke says. “Initially we were a bit bummed about it, but we realised we haven’t really seen that part of the country depicted that way on screen before. There’s all this beautiful florae [that] felt quite fresh and unique but didn’t take away from the sense of scale and isolation for our main character – this tiny little speck in this vast place.”

Adding an Indigenous perspective to their post-apocalyptic narrative was an obvious choice. “We just started thinking about who might be best equipped to survive in those kinds of circumstances,” Ramke says. “It struck us as an interesting idea that a culture and a people that have such a rich history of surviving off the land and understanding country might stand a better chance. And that’s something we felt like we hadn’t seen in the genre, and obviously it’s super important to tell that story.”

The pair consulted with Indigenous writers and elders to ensure everything from the scripting to the set was handled in a way that felt “truthful and respectful”. “A big part of that process for us was working with a really wonderful writer named Jon Bell [Cleverman, Black Comedy], who was super generous in imparting facets of Indigenous culture and spirituality and ways of seeing the world and country.”

With Freeman’s character mirrored by a young Indigenous girl (11-year-old Simone Lander) seeking to save her own infected father, Cargo retains that powerful family dynamic that made the original short so compelling. "Having these two really human stories about two sets of parents and children – Martin’s character and his baby and Simone’s character whose own father is infected – they’re both two sides of the same coin.

“[It’s] that universal thing, parents and children,” Ramke says of the film’s beating (or unnaturally reanimated) heart. “That’s a relationship that transcends race and I think is something we can all tap into.”

Cargo premieres at Adelaide Film Festival on Friday October 6.

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