Timing is everything. Jeff Barnaby — the writer, director and editor of Shudder’s latest, Blood Quantum — couldn’t possibly have known that his contemporary zombie movie would be unleashed on digital smack bang in the middle of a pandemic. This, naturally, means that more eyes have been on a deserving film since everybody is stuck at home running out of things to watch, but also highlights the beautifully timely nature of Blood Quantum.
Set on the Mi’gmaq reserve of Red Crow in Quebec, Canada (Barnaby’s own community) in 1981, Blood Quantum opens like any other zombie movie as a small town is besieged by an unknown virus that turns its folk into flesh-eating monsters. The difference here is that, within the first act, at least two of the main characters die (after being gravely warned “Don’t get bit,” of course). When the story skips six months into the future, however, they’re still present. As it turns out, the Red Crow are immune to whatever infection has taken out everybody else, putting them in a curious position of power not usually afforded to indigenous people.
The central conflict surrounding local police chief Traylor (Michael Greyeyes) and his family is whether the Red Crow have a duty to care for the White Man who, up until this point, relegated them to their protected areas as a means of keeping the two cultures apart. Now that they’re desperate to get inside, because the only place that’s safe is with the Natives, does it make more sense to offer help, as they have always been taught to do, or treat the outsiders with the same base level of humanity they’ve been afforded? Unsurprisingly, there’s a generational conflict at play, too, as Traylor’s estranged eldest son Lysol (Kiowa Gordon) has a zero-tolerance policy for white people, while his ex-wife Joss (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), a nurse, understands the importance of showing kindness even to those who don’t deserve it.
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Zombie movies have long provided metaphors for real-world conflicts, whether it’s the consumerism of Dawn of the Dead or the racist terror of Night of the Living Dead. Lately, though, the likes of Zombieland: Double Tap and The Dead Don’t Die have reduced such stories to point-and-shoot video game-esque fare, robbing them of their rich, prescient commentary in favor of smug, meta humor. Thankfully, Blood Quantum has a soulfulness to it — which is kind of ironic considering it’s a zombie movie — that echoes the meditative hopelessness of The Battery rather than Zombieland’s glib, bloodthirsty nastiness. This is not to say the film is lacking in gore, however, as Barnaby employs a plethora of gnarly practical FX. There are dismemberments that even the most seasoned horror fan won’t have seen before.
Filth leaks off the screen, with the blood gushing in rivers and covering everything in its path. Once the action skips ahead, it’s safe to say none of these characters are taking regular showers, which adds to the story’s essential gooiness (the apocalypse should never feel clean, in spite of the cool leather jackets on display). The score, which Barnaby is also responsible for alongside Joe Barruco, is moody and synth-heavy, perfectly matching the burnt orange cinematography by Michel St-Martin. Much of Blood Quantum takes place at night, but — even when it isn’t technically dark out — a shroud of fog hangs over everything, emphasizing the struggle to be seen. The very first shot takes in the frozen, foreboding landscape in which an elder attempts to do his daily chores before being stopped in his tracks by zombie salmon (really).
The zombies themselves, referred to here as “Zeds,” are messy, bloody, wild-eyed and fast, while the bites they administer look suitably gross. Early on, reports leak in over Traylor’s radio of someone eating chickens, and the image they conjure alone is stomach-churning. The fact that animals seemingly turn first is also key. The police chief is told at one stage that the apocalypse has come because the Earth is “sick of our shit,” hinting at the strong environmentalist aspect at play. Indeed, the gorgeous animated interludes that pepper the narrative provide not just further context and texture but also a glimpse at how the Natives see the land versus the careless white folk who have driven them off it.
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Even without knowing too much about the Red Crow, it’s easy to empathize with their position. Traylor makes for a fine yet reluctant leader, as Greyeyes plays him with a mixture of antsy impatience and sweetness. The actor has a kind, open face, but there’s sadness to him. One can sense Traylor feels let down by his own father, as well as having let down his sons himself. The two boys provide starkly alternative viewpoints as the situation grows ever more dire; Lysol, who’s understandably mistrustful of white people because of how he was raised and the perils of his tribe, emerges as a Mad Max style vigilante, dispensing justice where he sees fit and often acting irresponsibly (although it’s difficult to see him as the true villain of the piece), and Joseph’s perspective has been irrevocably altered as a result of his white girlfriend’s pregnancy.
Forrest Goodluck, who plays Joseph, is arguably the biggest name in Blood Quantum, or at least the most well-known, thanks to featured roles in The Revenant and The Miseducation of Cameron Post. His character has the easier job, in a way, because Lysol is the angry wild card and Joseph is the quieter, more rational one. As the film progresses, though, Goodluck is given the space to flex his acting muscles as he juggles the responsibilities of two families while also contending with who he is. Blood Quantum is, at its heart, about family, identity and personal sacrifice. The generational conflict is borne out in every charged interaction between Traylor and his sons, whether its Barnaby refusing to shy away from the racist element of the outsiders (“Speak English!” yells one survivor after being let inside their compound) or the misogyny rotting at the core of his own tribe, expressed primarily through Lysol.
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Barnaby has expressed concern that, as a Native filmmaker, his work might alienate those on the other side of the divide, but Blood Quantum is equally a polemical comment on the treatment of his people and a thrilling post-apocalyptic zombie movie in its own right. There aren’t even many other reservation horror movies to compare it to, aside from maybe Wind River, which features two white actors (Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen) in the lead roles despite being a story ostensibly about the rampant, unreported disappearances of Native women (and in which the terrific Gil Birmingham also stars — for shame). Blood Quantum, then, isn’t just coming out at the right time because we’re in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, but because clearly more perspectives are gravely required not just in horror but across the board.
Politically motivated but never preachy — and loaded with enough blood, guts, and intestines to satisfy even the thirstiest gore-hounds — Blood Quantum is a zombie movie for the ages that honors the grandest traditions of the genre while remaining true to its own unique essence.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.