Zombies and Intercultural Hybridity in Cargo (2017)

John Ziegler, City University of New York

Revolution in the Dead: The Cultural Evolution of the Zombie. Guest Editor Anthony Anderson (with special thanks to Colin Younger). Pages 93 – 114 Download as PDF


Zombies are often theorized as liminal creatures. The 2017 Australian film Cargo positions such in-betweenness not only as characteristic of zombies but also as mirroring a hybridity that provides alternatives for the living to dominant norms. Cargo’s Aboriginal community believes that zombies possess souls, while the protagonist, Andy, occupies a liminal state of infection. Hybrid social practices, meanwhile, manifest around family and collectivity. White male, Vic, hoards goods, loots zombies, and has a hostage-wife. The indigenous community, contrastingly, communally approaches zombies not as sources of profit but as an infection of the land. Andy protects his child, Rosie, by combining the governmental and Aboriginal approaches to infection. Ultimately, Rosie becomes part of a community based more on collectivity than on nuclear families. Often in zombie narratives, groups fragment into competing tribes or families. In Cargo, this occurs only with the dominant, white culture; there are, the film posits, other ways of being.


In a pivotal moment in Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke’s Australian zombie film, Cargo (2017), protagonist Andy, played by Martin Freeman, swerves the car he is driving off the road in order to avoid hitting an Aboriginal man who stands unexpectedly in the middle of the thoroughfare. The car carries his wife, Kay, and his daughter, Rosie, and the subsequent crash impales the already-infected Kay with a tree branch and leads directly to her biting Andy after he passes out and regains consciousness. Zombies, of which the man in the road, named Willie Bell, is one, are often theorized as creatures who unsettle boundaries (see, for example, Bishop 2015: 75; Lauro 2015: pp. 275–282; and Luckhurst 2015: 9), and Willie certainly fits this paradigm. In addition to his state of undeath, his jacket, for example, from the natural gas company for which he worked, associates him with white-dominated corporate capitalism while the handmade bridle of sticks and twine that he wears associates him with unalienated, Aboriginal labor. Cargo positions such in-betweenness not only as characteristic of zombies but also, in a mirror form as cultural hybridity, as a desirable state for the living. Ken Gelder and Jane M. Jacobs characterize contemporary Australia itself as in a state of continual ‘(re)negotiation’ between Aboriginal sacredness and modernity and a ‘ceaseless movement back and forth between’ reconciliation and division that produce a condition of national uncanniness (1998: pp. 520, 558). Under this condition, ‘one’s place is always already another’s place, and the issue of possession is never complete’, while the ‘conventional colonial distinctions between self and other, here and there, mine and yours, are now by no means totally determinable’ (2593). Australia’s uncanny condition has played a significant role in its cinema. In Jessica Gildersleeve’s account, ‘the history of Australian cinema is also predominantly a history of Australian gothic cinema’, and from the late twentieth century, Australian Gothic film has functioned as ‘a site for political resistance and for social and cultural disruption’ (pp. 2784, 2768). Contributing to this tradition, Cargo uses the liminality of the zombie to critique dominant cultural conceptions of and attitudes towards gender, family, individualism, capitalism, and the environment, proposing instead a hybridity that provides a subversive, superior alternative to dominant norms.

The hybrid and the liminal each blur boundaries, albeit differently. While liminality involves a suspension between two categories, a transitional in-betweenness, ‘cultural hybridity … refers to the cross(ed) and mixed experience of people who experience two cultural identities, as well as a third positionality” (Grennell-Hawke and Tudor 2018: 1531). As culture can encompass domains such as conceptions of and attitudes towards family, death, and the environment, any of these may undergo cultural hybridization. Indeed, from the perspective of its own cultural history, as Lauro explores, the zombie myth itself is ‘a hybrid text, a site of deep ambivalence’ and a ‘creolized and creolizing figure’ that is ‘deeply connected to a colonial and postcolonial history of oppression’ (2015: pp. 3697, 192, 154). The zombie myth is not merely culturally appropriated but also ‘infects its occupying host’ (170). In permutation of the zombie myth that appears in Cargo, the zombie’s liminality, emptied of enculturation, acts as a sort of negative reflection of human cultural hybridity, a third position that draws on both Western and Indigenous cultures.


Liminality and the Zombie


There is widespread agreement among scholars that liminality inheres in the zombie. Kyle William Bishop describes zombies as ‘essentially liminal creatures’ (2015: 64), while Steven Allen observes that ‘a zombie is marked by ambiguity, especially in terms of selfhood, and is ontologically indistinct’ (2015: 81). Emma Austin argues that ‘[b]y refusing a final categorisation (a dead body in a defined space for dead bodies) the zombie is an ultimate abjection’ and that ‘the symbolic power of the zombie lies in the way it constructs narratives about order and disorder, transitional states and the powers of liminal status’ (2015: 177, 179). Sarah Juliet Lauro argues that the zombie ‘defies the basic principle that divides the living from the dead, animate from inanimate, subject from object’ (2011: 1198), and Marc Leverette similarly contends that zombies’ ‘[b]eing [[…]] offers an unnerving commentary regarding the potential liminality of being human. For the zombie exists somewhere between and ‘serves as an apparent destruction of our every ontology’ (2008: 186, 187). In Leverette’s formulation, ‘The zombie is yet another example of what lies beyond the so-called human, unmaking our senses of self, hurling us into an uncertain ontology whereby human can be defined as beyond simply “not-zombie,” “not-animal,” but a multiplicity, a heterogeneous network of organizing relations’ (197). These organizing relations include cultural and social norms and Cargo positions heterogeneity in these areas as a desirable ‘both-and’ hybridity that mirrors the zombie’s own ‘neither-nor’ liminality.

Cargo’s white male protagonist, Andy, and his wife, Kay, both spend the vast majority of their onscreen time in a liminal state of infection with the zombie virus. Within the film, infected people have about 48 hours before they fully change and, during that time, they occupy a subject position somewhere between human and zombie; the infection is a biological part of them, but they are still ‘human,’ or at least that is how they classify themselves. The infected Kay, for instance, tells Andy that she feels like herself when he asks after her condition, and, later in the film, the villainous Vic threatens Andy that, rather than hunting Andy and his companions down, he will simply wait until ‘you’re not you anymore’ and let Andy kill them. As Andy’s own 48-hour transition progresses, he increasingly experiences symptoms such as urges to consume raw meat, but what is perhaps more interesting is that even after he has completely turned, he appears to recognize his wife’s perfume, tilting his head inquisitively at its smell, and thereby undermining neat distinctions between human and zombie. Earlier in the film, when Andy sprays some of his dead wife’s perfume to comfort Rosie, he says to her, ‘I can smell mommy, she replies ‘I can smell mommy, too’ (Cargo). While it is perhaps not surprising that such a comment would associate an infected Andy with the movie’s scent-driven zombies, as Vic’s assertion that he can smell Andy’s ‘rot’ does for him, the implication that Rosie also identifies her mother by scent likens her to her infected father, further destabilizing clear lines between human and zombie. The association is reinforced through a series of medium and tight close-ups in which the pair, Andy holding Rosie, dominates the frame.


White and Aboriginal Cultural Difference and Apocalyptic Adaptation


It is noteworthy that the scent that Andy sees as indicating Kay as a specific individual is a perfume, generally a mass-produced commodity. In contrast to this capitalist deindividuation, a number of anthropologists assert that ‘[s]weat and its individually distinctive smell, across Aboriginal Australia, is significant in mediating the relationship between Aboriginal people, their country, and the Dreaming’, a term used to refer to Indigenous religious and cultural beliefs (Thurman 2014: 31). Thus, individuals’ ‘smell and their essence and identity is a common conceptual link’ (McConvell 2018: 484).Thurman describes the belief of one Northern Australian Aboriginal group that, in order to ward off a certain type of subterranean dragon, members of the group should, while standing still and calling out to the country, ‘take the sweat from under their arms and throw it out “so it can smell you’re from that country; you belong”’ (2014: 32). Aboriginal people might use armpit sweat similarly to announce, ‘their presence to the spirits’ when ‘visiting an important site’ (McConvell and Ponsonnet 2018: 7648).  Instead of something to be covered over with perfume, natural body odor is something that connects an individual to a particular group and place and to the natural world more broadly. While Cargo doesn’t specifically engage with sweat (nor does it specify which Aboriginal group its characters belong to), the white face and body paint that Willie’s Aboriginal community employs so that the zombies cannot smell them are indicative of a larger pattern of cultural difference explored in the film.

Aboriginal Australian communities necessarily have a different relationship to death than white Australian communities due merely to significantly higher mortality rates and lower life expectancies among Indigenous Australians (Burbank et al. 2008: 347). However, Aboriginal conceptualizations of death are rooted not only in contemporary experience but also in traditional cosmology. The Warlpiri people, for instance, ‘do not believe in natural causes of death’ and see adult deaths, for which mourning rituals are performed (the deaths of the very elderly and of young children are excluded), as requiring vengeance (Musharbash 2008: 937, 884).

Such rituals, which take place to the exclusion of all other events or obligations and may also mark experiences of loss other than death, are referred to as ‘sorry business’. In ‘kin-based societies, like those in Indigenous Australia […] where the social universe is largely populated with people who are considered to be relatives and referred to as such’, funerals are frequent and ‘highly memorable and emotive’ (Burbank et al. 2008: 413). Large distances do not obviate the requirement to attend the funeral of a kinsperson (443); and, writing of the Warlpiri, Yasmine Musharbash reports that a large sorry business for a prominent person may last for a week or more and may include more than 1,000 mourners. Commonly, most of the settlement participates, but sorry business may also involve multiple settlements (983). Participants assemble at the sorry ground, where they are grouped along gender and kinship lines; and, taking the Warlpiri as an example, the rituals observed there over the course of multiple meetings include communal wailing, self-inflicted wounds, ritual performance of vengeance for the death, redistribution of the possessions of the deceased, and removing the traces of the deceased by sweeping the settlement and ceasing to use the deceased’s name (877–984). The Warlpiri also apply white ochre to the face, arms, and breasts to enter mourning (877), a practice that ‘expresses a deep social and embodied connection’ (McCoy 2008: 1771).[1]

In Cargo, the dominant culture is ignorant of the adaptation of such paints for protection against the undead, as Andy is unaware of it until Thoomi, Willie’s daughter, explains the paint and puts some of it on Rosie. She advises Andy, in his state between human and zombie, that he doesn’t need the paint, telling him, ‘You smell like them already’ (in her emphasis on scent, she again disrupts the line between human and zombie). When Andy first meets her, Thoomi also uses her own blood, smeared on trees, to guide her zombified father where she wants him to go, which is ultimately a sort of hollow in which she has been trying to contain him while feeding him dead animals. She uses a tactic for dealing with the undead that neither the white nor other Aboriginal characters use, drawing on two cultures to create a new, third set of practices.

Thoomi is presented as drawing on both dominant and Indigenous cultural contexts from close to the start of the film. Early on, we see her attaching vegetation to the bottoms of her shoes for reasons not yet explained, in a practice that she presumably has learned from her Aboriginal community. The same scene then cuts to her pointing a stone that she has scratched lines in to represent a remote control at another stone that represents a TV, in which she has scratched a picture of what appears to be a parent and child in an outdoor setting with mountains and a sun. Later in the film, she tells Andy that the leaves on her shoes ‘hide my footprints’, primarily from her mother, whom she is evading in order to care for her zombie father and who also represents for Thoomi the cultural norms of family and community. Thoomi’s association with dominant-culture technology both here and when she later plays with a portable gaming device, also partly insulates the character from falling into the trope of the magical minority in touch with the natural world.

Steven Allen, writing in 2015, notes the scarcity of zombies in Australian cinema, which he attributes to a ‘particular, localised cultural and historical context’ (70). Indeed, in Cargo, the Aboriginal community has a distinct view of zombies. Thoomi refers to them as ‘the ghosts’ in the belief that they still have a claim to souls, making them simultaneously human and inhuman, but under a different model than Andy’s, which is one of irreversible transformation. This model is represented in the mass-produced kits that the government has issued to aid in, as the pamphlet within terms it, ‘Containment Assistance’. These hinged plastic boxes, which function as sites through which the dominant culture attempts to exercise power over individual behaviors, contain, in addition to the pamphlet, wrist-wearable 48-hour countdown timers; a plastic mouth guard; zip ties; a map of infection, showing concentrations on the coasts, which include highly developed, majority-white areas such as Sydney and Melbourne; and, the endpoint to which all of these materials lead, a cylindrical tool with a spring-loaded spike for handy killing of oneself or others. When Andy says that ‘we just have to stick to what we know’ not long after looking through the contents of the box, he is expressing his desire to stay on the houseboat until the river takes the family to a particular military base (another site of the dominant culture’s exercise of power), but his comment could equally apply to the prescriptions laid out by the kits.

It seems reasonable to assume that Thoomi, in contrast to Andy, either gets her ideas about zombies from the Aboriginal community or has used its beliefs to create her own. Anthropologist Ute Eickelkamp observes that ‘Aboriginal people in the eastern part of Australia’s Western Desert tell of a soul-destroying, devouring, malignant power called Mamu[…], often translated as “monster”’ (2014: 57). He explains that ‘Mamu steal people’s souls[…]. They[…]call out for someone, coming to a house at night, and bite out the soul from the body, making that person sick. A healer can retrieve the soul and put it back into the person’ (58). Thoomi echoes such a belief when she says of the Clever Man that he is ‘a magic man. If you’re sick, he can give you good medicine. And if someone steals your spirit away, he can put it back again’. Andy sees this situation very differently, asking if she thinks that her ‘dad is acting the way he is because he lost his soul’ and asserting that there is no fixing what Willie and the other zombies have. Andy uses the language of infection rather than of souls or, seen another way, a language derived from the tradition rooted in Romero’s zombie rather than the Haitian zombie, the latter of which is closer to Thoomi’s conception. The Haitian zombie, itself a hybrid of African and Catholic beliefs (Rushton and Moreman 2011: 75), might be a soul stolen from a living person, a deceased person who had given over his or her body to be used by Vodou gods, or a corpse without a soul reanimated and pressed into service by a master (Kordas 2011: 279–283).[2] Writing of Australia’s Arrernte people, John Morton describes a belief in a second, permanent, non-personal soul not tied to the flesh and claims that ‘to the extent that every person’s artwe nyaltye [second soul] is totemic and ancestral, it is more or less indistinguishable from an Arrentye [a type of monster]’ (2014: 85). This sort of belief maps easily onto the liminality of the zombie, including onto the fuzzy line that Thoomi draws between Willie and not-Willie.


Cultural Hybridity and the Failure of the Nuclear Family


The film’s concern with cultural hybridity extends to social practices around family and collectivity. Roughly speaking, collectivity encompasses an orientation towards a larger social group and its well-being rather than prioritizing the individual or nuclear family.[3] In Aboriginal social organization, ‘everybody in the social universe becomes kin of some kind, an arrangement called “universal kinship”’, which contrasts to the Western application of kinship terms ‘only to members of one’s immediate family’ and lack of distinctions for those more genealogically removed (Kelly and McConvell 2018: 625, 629). Katie Glaskin defines personhood within such a system

as an ontology of embodied relatedness. This is derived from a cosmology in which ancestral beings, their traces, and the country in which these are left have equivalence, in the same way that detached parts of a person’s body (such as hair) and incorporeal elements (such as or a shadow, a name, or an image) do. This embodied relationality encompasses not just people, but places, species, and ancestral beings; it is a relationship between persons and places regarded as consubstantial, and that has consequences for how people, and people and country, are linked through space and time. (2012: 298)

This cosmology extends the boundaries of the person far differently from ‘the Western “individual”’ (305). Glaskin notes that the majority of Bardi and Jawi Aboriginal people whom she knows ‘spend much of their time with people who are related to them via actual or fictive kin relations’ and that kinship involves obligations of exchange, sharing, and solidarity in conflict (298). For example, a disagreement between two family members will ‘instantly implicate all members of both families’, to the point that people living distantly may travel to the community (not unlike with funerals) to participate (300–301). Such communality extends to child-rearing as well. In remote Aboriginal families in Central Australia, children are ‘integrated into community life from birth, included in community activities rather than being isolated or separated because of their age or lack of maturity’, as is the practice in Western cultures, ‘with nurturance provided by many community members’ (Byers et al. 2012: 296).

Cargo sets the temporary found family formed by Andy, Thoomi, and Rosie, as well as the final replacement of that family unit with a larger community, against the dominant model of the nuclear family. Individual nuclear family units are associated with damaging values and, ultimately, failure in the post-apocalyptic world. Jonathan Rayner notes that Australian Gothic filmmaking repeatedly depicts ‘brutal and uncompromising masculinity’ (2011: 92), and Vic (like Andy, a white male) acts within this tradition: he hoards goods in anticipation of capitalism’s resurgence, cages Aboriginal characters, and treats white woman Lorraine as a sort of hostage-wife.[4] He does at least some of this to fulfill a fantasy of presiding over a nuclear family. He tells Andy that it would be nice for his wife to have a baby around and later gives Lorraine, who is, in reality, more prisoner than a wife, a pearl necklace, a symbol of patriarchal domesticity. Such domesticity is rooted in an ethos of competition over and ownership of others, one that overlaps with capitalist and colonial ideologies. This overlap is evident during an exchange that occurs when Andy is preparing to kill himself and leave Rosie in what he perceives as the appropriate care of a family, just as he had earlier believed that he had found a permanent substitute mother in schoolteacher Etta until he noticed that she was fatally ill. Warning Andy, Lorraine reveals, ‘That man [Vic] left my husband to die at the gas plant with everyone else. Locked them in to save his own skin.’ Vic then happens upon the conversation and says that if he didn’t know better, he would think that Andy was trying to ‘steal my girl.’ For this perceived potential violation of Vic’s ownership of Lorraine, he knocks Andy out and puts him in a cage, chained to Thoomi, suggesting that the ideologies that Vic represents harm everyone, white or Aboriginal. One might even argue that Vic’s attacks on the agency of others align him with the zombie infection itself. Keeping Lorraine locked up in his compound in what he sees as a marriage constitutes the domestic version of his caging Aboriginal people, and he explicitly asserts ownership of Thoomi after she and Andy escape. When Vic says, ‘What you took didn’t belong to you!’, he is not talking about the gun that Andy stole, as he confirms with the almost explicitly colonialist exclamation ‘You give me back that fucking black bitch. She’s mine!’. In contrast to these attitudes, Lorraine sacrifices herself for the collective good, dying so that Andy and Rosie can escape. Andy, however, might resemble Vic more than one would assume. Vic’s masculinity-preserving lie to Lorraine that Andy flagged him down on the highway when in actuality Andy rescued him recalls Andy’s own lie to Kay early in the film that his trip to scavenge an abandoned yacht was safe and easy when in fact, he had heard a noise come from a closet. This lie leads directly to Kay being bitten. Further, Vic’s compound is a larger version of the houseboat on which Andy, Kay, and Rosie are living when the film begins, and which Andy is reluctant to leave while Kay argues for loading a car with supplies and ‘see[ing] what’s out there’. Both compound and houseboat allow nuclear family units to enclose and isolate themselves from a wider community not unlike single-family dwellings would have in the pre-apocalypse. Finally, Andy’s tearing off a door handle to prevent Kay from leaving their vehicle, while not quite caging people, echoes Vic restricting Lorraine’s free movement. These similarities between protagonist and antagonist suggest that the problem is not merely with Vic, or any particular individual, but with the systems of thought that underpin the dominant culture.

The anti-collectivity of the nuclear family is in fact established almost from the very beginning of the film. In one of its first scenes, Andy spies from his houseboat some children on the riverbank and offers them a friendly wave. This gesture of communality is almost immediately met by the children’s father displaying to Andy the gun tucked into his pants.  When Andy crosses paths with this white male patriarch again later in the movie, the unnamed man is infected and digging a grave while his wife and children play against the ironic backdrop of birthday party decorations. The man explains to Andy that he had promised not to leave his family and, he asserts, ‘I won’t’. Not leaving them, in this case, means committing a murder-suicide, and he tries to convince Andy to take the two remaining bullets ‘for her [Thoomi’s] sake’. The man’s territorialism does him no good and he ultimately fails, in his role as patriarch, to uphold heteronormativity by failing to protect the family unit, most importantly its children. In a movie centered on saving an infant, killing one’s own offspring would seem to be the worst possible outcome, but it is also a terrible outcome in the context of heteronormativity and, particularly, reproductive futurism. Queer theorist Lee Edelman (2004) coined the term reproductive futurism in his seminal book No Future to describe dominant, heteronormative ideology, in which the figure of the Child symbolically guarantees the existence of a future and in which alternative socio-sexual arrangements are positioned as irrational. Here, the nuclear family and its associated practices are unequivocally unsuccessful in preserving the future on which it focuses, the children that symbolically ensure that future, and the family unit that perpetuates reproductive futurism itself. The death of this particular family marks a final abandonment of the traditional nuclear family as a solution for Rosie’s own future. Thoomi has already questioned Andy’s confidence that the family will return to their RV—if they don’t, he tells her, she’s ‘all I’ve got’ in his quest to find a safe place for Rosie—and although Andy at first refuses the unnamed man’s offer of a means of suicide, this other father follows Andy and kills himself within his sight. In the next shot, Andy does have the gun, which, since the government recommends suicide as an endpoint of infection, we can associate with dominant culture; but Thoomi, the leaves removed from her shoes, says, ‘I wanna go home now. You want my people?’. All instances of the nuclear family model—Andy’s, Vic’s, and the unnamed man’s—have failed, and it falls to the young woman of color to direct Andy and Rosie toward an alternative.


Colonialism, Capitalism, and Environmental Exploitation


The damaging and ineffective ideology of the reproductive futurist nuclear family in Cargo finds a mirror in capitalist ideology. For one, capitalism is similarly future-oriented, even as the value that it creates depends upon unacknowledged past labor. Ronjon Paul Datta and Laura MacDonald describe ‘the often-missed conservative component of the capitalist phenomenological structuring of time: it presupposes that the world will remain roughly constant and unchanging’ (2011: 1581) and ‘it organizes time with an eye to future returns on investment. In short, the present time is subordinated to a future goal, even if a very abstract goal (future profits)’ (1598). Capitalism also prefers competition rather than cooperation among families and individuals, in which less sharing of goods and spaces among these small, separate households generates more profits. It even impinges on mortuary sorry business. Sorry business demands the immediate interruption of work or any other activities, as well as, generally, the participation of most of the members of a community (Musharbash 2008: 884); thus, the Australian government has urged Indigenous Australians to shorten or give up their extended mourning periods in order to align themselves with the demands of the mainstream economy (Redmond 2008: 2227). Aboriginal people also face both internal and external pressure to abandon and adapt their traditional culture more broadly in order to better conform to modern capitalist frameworks for behavior (Richard 2008: 4869, 4885).

Zombie films are no strangers to critiques of capitalist systems: George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Land of the Dead (2005) offer just two well-known examples, and Aalya Ahmad observes that almost all zombie stories include a ‘critique of disaster capitalism’ (2011: 2886), which in Cargo centers on Vic. Lorraine comments, ‘Vic has plans for when things get back to normal’; and, at another point, Vic clarifies, ‘When this country gets back on track, people are gonna want things. Whoever controls the market, power, gas […] all the shiny shit[…]will be sitting pretty’. To that end, Vic, whose phrase about the country getting ‘back on track’ arguably evokes nostalgia for white male supremacy, has established residency in the natural gas plant in which he, Lorraine, and Willie all worked. He frames access to the space as transactional, asking Andy, ‘What’s it worth to ya? A safe place for you and your kid?’ Dismissing Andy’s solidarity with Thoomi, he adds, ‘Only girl you need to be worried about is your own’. Vic’s dialogue here demonstrates the overlap of colonialist, capitalist, and heteronormative ways of thinking—one need only aid and protect one’s ‘own’; all others are seen only as sites of potential exploitation and profit or as competitors and enemies. These attitudes stand in contradistinction to intensely intersubjective Aboriginal ‘cultural milieu’, which lacks such an emphasis on the individual apart from the social fabric and in which revenants function as an expression of kinship connections (Richard 2008: 4738).

While one can see in the critique of Vic’s disaster capitalism a critique of capitalism more broadly, Cargo also more directly condemns pre-apocalyptic capitalism through its relationship to the environment. It is hinted that fracking is in some way responsible for the zombie outbreak, and, again, not only Vic and Lorraine but also Willie (and other Aboriginals) worked for a natural gas company, signaling that the willingness to profit from environmental destruction is a cross-cultural problem. The governmental response to the outbreak is also associated with environmental degradation, through the Containment Assistance kits created by ‘The Department of Home Securities’, the film’s stand-in for Australia’s Department of Home Affairs. It is not a fish but one of these plastic boxes that Andy scoops from the river with a net while on the houseboat, and seven more of these kits bob in the water as the shot pans to the right, hinting at widespread pollution. Later, Andy and Kay appropriate a car against a background of rusted metal, and Andy passes more metal and automotive wreckage when walking away from Etta’s school and into an undeveloped natural landscape.[5]

Furthermore, the exploitation of the land is linked to colonialism through Vic. Twenty-first century ‘Australia is one of the wealthiest nations on earth’, with its economic growth ‘largely driven by resource extraction on Aboriginal-owned land’ (Musharbash 2014: 50). Meanwhile, Aboriginal communities themselves are not fairly compensated for these resources and continue to be plagued by endemic poverty (Reena, Secky, Fox, and Kogan 2008: 53). It is significant, then, that Vic, who is pinned beneath cylinders of natural gas when Andy rescues him, says to the caged Clever Man he has ‘told you mob’ the ‘wells are mine, along with what’s in ’em’ (Cargo). Cargo can be seen as participating in Australian Gothic’s ‘lineage of[…]guilt-ridden, supernatural and allegorical representations of the land and nature’ (Rayner 2011: 92) in connection with its unease about the ‘history of the colonial family’, white settlement, and land acquisition (96). Such unease includes ‘renewed and even intensified modes of possession’ within ‘the context of dispossession’ (through, for example, Aboriginal land claims to sacred sites) as an ‘uncanny feature’ of postcolonial Australia (Gelder and Jacobs 1998: 971). Horror in this tradition derives in part from conflict over the land’s ‘meanings and uses’ (Scott and Biron 2010: 317). Fossil fuels themselves exploit what has long been buried, literally dredging up the history of the land, and      although the film implicates both white and Aboriginal people in harmful resource extraction, the two groups display differing attitudes to the land in the post-apocalypse. Director Yolanda Ramke disclosed in an interview, ‘There’s the idea that this pandemic is something that we [settlers] unleashed on ourselves because of a lack of understanding of country [[…]] and poisoning the land [and] pillaging for natural resources’ (Kidd 2018: 20; emphasis in original). Indeed, in a flashback, the Clever Man says to Willie and Thoomi, ‘They’re poisoning this land, you know? This country changing. It’s sick. We all get sick. You get sick, too’, which is followed by a close-up shot of Willie in his gas-company jacket. And while the Indigenous people form hunting parties to kill and burn the zombies in order to, as Etta puts it, ‘cleans[e] the land of the sick ones’, Vic loots the bodies of the zombies that he shoots around his cages as what he calls a ‘side earner’. While the hunting parties carry out communal stewardship, Vic’s is a solitary activity for personal profit; as a capitalist, he even tells Andy that he ‘can’t carry’ him when he lets him participate in gunning down the undead.

Vic also uses the term ‘diggers’ rather than the Aboriginal term ‘ghosts’ to refer to the zombies. ‘Diggers’ derives from the zombies’ habit of literally burying their heads in the ground, but it also associates them with resource extraction.[6] Lauro argues that all zombies ‘can ultimately be attributed to a larger driving force’, often ‘man’s mishandling of nature’ (1180) and thus asks whether all zombies stories are not about eco-zombies (1291). Indeed, Ramke and Howling said that the head-burying was inspired by the life cycle of the cicada and the zombies’ sticky excretions by both insect chrysalises and tree sap (Plante 2018). In Australian Gothic films, the ‘immensity and difference of the land, from an Anglo-Saxon perspective, is inseparable from its inhospitableness and latent menace’ (Rayner 2011: 92). Unlike for Indigenous Australians, the land represents for white Australians ‘neither nurturing nor a source of identity’ but rather ‘anxieties of not belonging’ and fears of ‘vanishing’ in a continent in which ‘there is so much space that people simply disappear’ (Scott and Biron 2010: 315–316). Indeed, Cargo includes a number of often overhead shots of figures and cars dwarfed by the Australian landscape, and Kay’s transformation into a zombie is itself triggered after she is fatally impaled by a tree limb. The Indigenous community evinces a less oppositional relationship with nature. After Thoomi realizes that her zombified father has been killed by a hunting party that includes her mother and entombed among branches, his gas company jacket marking the site, she tells Andy, ‘That’s my dad. We get buried in the trees so the ghosts can’t wake us’ (Cargo 2017). Before ‘European intrusion’, desert-dwelling Aboriginals disposed of newly dead bodies either through burial or ‘in a tree out of the reach of dogs’ (Tonkinson 2008: 1230). Thus, Thoomi’s people’s resurrection of this practice can be seen as part of their hybridizing cultural adaptation.


Intercultural Hybridity and Alternative Modes of Being 


That Andy does manage ultimately to preserve his child, the symbolic center of reproductive futurism owes itself to such hybridity. Etta says of her former students, shown in a photograph to be Aboriginal, that they are ‘Gone. Living in the old ways. […] They’re doing better than the rest of us. Mobs from all over the country coming together. They sensed it, those who stayed connected. The whole community up and left back to their country’. She emphasizes the collective aspects of their community but also suggests that they have merely resorted to pre-capitalist, pre-colonization social practices. However, Thoomi herself contradicts this simplified view. She participates in sorry business at zombie-Willie’s burial site by hitting herself in the head with a stone, which Myrna Tonkinson, speaking of Martu society, notes still occurs but is no longer common practice (1258), though Musharbash refers to ‘[m]any’ such wounds at a Warlpiri sorry (2008: 884). Thoomi’s explanation that the practice is ‘from the old ways. But not our ways anymore’ could refer to such lessening of the practice, but it could also refer to its new unsuitability in a zombie post-apocalypse: death has changed, so the traditional responses to it must change accordingly. Clearly, when the deceased person wants nothing more than to bite the living, traditional mourning practices become untenable. The application of the term ‘ghost’ to zombies can be seen in the same light, adapting an existing ontological category to account for and make sense of a new manifestation of (un)death. Aboriginal people in the central Cape York Peninsula, to take one example, view ghosts of relatives as closely connected to place and commonly greet them, but also consider them to be potentially hostile until mourning rituals are properly completed over a period of time (Richard 2008: 4692-4706). The dead similarly ‘remain recognized kin’ for the Wiradjuri people (Macdonald 2008: 3338). These cultural beliefs, within which, unlike in those of the dominant culture, the dead ‘remain as part of the landscape and form a bridge between country and the living’ (4706), provide a framework that helps to understand and create new practices to deal with deceased persons whose bodies rather than spirits maintain a disruptive presence in day-to-day human existence.

Thoomi’s personal adaptation to the changes in death, managing her zombie father alone, outside of her community, ultimately fails. She laments of her father, ‘His spirit’s still loose. It’s my fault. I took too long’. What does work, what saves Rosie—whose name Etta renders as ‘Little flower’, tying her to the natural world with which the Indigenous characters are positively associated—is an amalgam of elements of both the governmental approach (focused on biological infection and killing or suicide and employing mass-produced kits) and Thoomi’s approach (focused on the soul and managing the living corpse and employing sticks, scent-concealing paint, and her own blood, suggestive of kinship ties). Andy and Thoomi use a government-issued mouth guard and zip tie along with sticks to suspend some raw meat in front of Andy in the manner of a carrot on a stick. The suspended meat leads Andy forward, with Rosie strapped safely on his back in her carrier, once he turns.[7] Though the Clever Man mercy-kills Andy rather than returning his soul, after which he too is buried in a tree, this hybrid strategy enables Thoomi’s return to and Rosie’s adoption into Thoomi’s community, who are living protected within natural barriers. Andy’s death marks a final turn away from white Australia and its colonial history (Murphy 2019: 36). Rosie becomes part of a community that we have seen acting and, here, see interacting collectively rather than living as isolated, competing nuclear families. Thoomi does not become the substitute mother that Andy was seeking; rather, the whole village becomes a found family.

Rosie’s adoption from white parents into an Indigenous community presents an inversion of past policies of forced separation of Aboriginal children, including ‘compulsory adoption of babies from unwed mothers’ (Allen 76) and removal and institutionalization of mixed-descent children (Elliot 2008: 2714). Removals of Aboriginal children followed an increase in the mixed Aboriginal and white population at the end of the nineteenth century and were a product of a fear that intensified as the twentieth century advanced that ‘half-caste’ Aboriginal people would come to outnumber white descendants of colonizers (van Krieken 1999: 304). The state’s claim to legal guardianship over all Aboriginal children did not end until the 1960s (van Krieken 1999: 307), and these policies—framed, of course, not as racist but as protective—are estimated to have removed more than 100,000 children from Aboriginal families, resulting in what has come to be called the Stolen Generations (Desai et al. 2008: 53); there are concerns that Aboriginal children continue to be removed from their families and communities with high frequency, being placed in ‘out-of-home-care’ at ten times the rate of non-Aboriginal children and creating what some characterize as a further Stolen Generation (O’Donnell et al. 2019: 89).[8]

These current circumstances are directly linked to the impacts of the ‘intergenerational trauma’ of past forced removal practices (O’Donnell et al. 2019: 96). A 1997 Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report identified those past removals as fitting the United Nations’ definition of genocide, even if that genocide caused the death of a culture rather than the violent death of a people (van Krieken 1999: 298). ‘Half-caste’ people threatened cultural boundaries, which were viewed as the boundaries of ‘civilization’, and among the undesirable traits that mixed persons were said to inherit were ‘lack of discipline and productivity’ and ‘a group rather than an individual orientation’ (van Krieken 1999: 305). The government thus can be seen as attempting to completely and irreversibly assimilate Indigenous Australians to a dominant culture by ‘breeding out’ cultural hybridity (van Krieken 1999: 307). Rosie’s incorporation into Thoomi’s community precisely reverses such assimilation, and her status as a future product of sociocultural hybridity is represented by the dual markings, one Aboriginal and one from Andy, reading ‘Thank You’, painted in white on her body.[9]

Ultimately, the film links the nuclear family, capitalism, and environmental destruction through the emergence of the zombie and endorses resistance of the real-world pressures towards cultural homogenization under these dominant modes of being. It is no accident that Andy and Thoomi must use Andy’s liminal status as an infected person to overcome Vic, who bars their way inside a dark tunnel, to reach their destination among Thoomi’s people, leaving behind the embodiment of dominant white patriarchal capitalist culture for the new possibilities that beckon beyond the tunnel’s exit. Gerry Canavan argues that in zombie narratives, ‘allegiances fragment into familial bands and patriarchal tribes, then fragment further from there’ (2010: 443). In Cargo, however, this occurs only with the dominant, white culture; there are always, the film shows us, other ways of being.





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[1] The term ‘sorry business’ is not used by all Aboriginal people, but it is ‘increasing in its pan-Aboriginal use’ (Macdonald 2008: pp. 3245).

[2] On the Haitian origins and filmic interpretations of pre-Romero zombies, particularly in the context of colonialism and class, see also Chapters 1 and 2, respectively, of Kyle William Bishop, American Zombie Gothic, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010.

[3] I say roughly here because both the collective and individual are complex constructions that have been and can be critiqued.

[4] For an overview of Australian Gothic literature and cinema, a tradition that includes films Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Wolf Creek (2005), see Ken Gelder, ‘Australian Gothic’, in A New Companion to the Gothic, ed. by David Punter, Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2012, pp. 379–392.

[5] Although Kayleigh Murphy does not comment on vehicles in connection with environmental pollution, she does note that the only two zombie bites in the film occur inside vehicles, part of the association of manmade structures with ‘danger, death, and disappointment’ (2019: 34).

[6] Murphy reads this action as symbolizing Australia’s denial of its colonial past (2019: 36).

[7] In the original, seven-minute, wordless short-film version of Cargo (2013), Rosie’s father similarly hangs a makeshift bag of offal from a branch lashed to himself, but there is no Thoomi-equivalent, and there are no Containment Assistance kits.

[8] In contrast to earlier practices, contemporary policy attempts to place removed children with relatives or kin or, failing that, with Aboriginal caregivers or in Aboriginal residential care, with a success rate of 66% when averaged nationally but varying from 36% to 81% by Australian jurisdiction (O’Donnell et al. 2019: 91).

[9] No comparable community exists in the short-film version of Cargo: Rosie’s father is killed by a sniper and while a trio of people—a white man, a white woman, and a man who may be intended to be Aboriginal—prepare to bury him, the woman, played by Yolanda Ramke, discovers, and rescues the baby, who has ‘My name is Rosie’ written on her stomach in black marker.

About the author

John Ziegler, City University of New York

John R. Ziegler is an Assistant Professor of English at Bronx Community College, City University of New York.