The dead are coming back to life outside the isolated Mi’gMaq reserve of Red Crow, except for its Indigenous inhabitants who are immune to the zombie plague.
Watching zombie movies in lockdown is a rollercoaster business. On the one hand, phew we’re safe at home! On the other, oh shit the fuckers are breaking in. (If you’re reading this in the future hopefully everything is now back to “a new, improved normal”; if not I hope your cave is comfy.)
A deliciously blood-spattered slice of galloping entertainment, Blood Quantum also has a serious message about colonialism, as the Red Crow reserve’s immune residents become even more the focus of white people’s threats.
It’s full of pandemic allegories too, though while it’s hard not to look for them at the moment they also highlight how calamities real and fictional can affect societies in similar ways: a virus where initially you don’t know if someone is infected; a retreat behind walls; the most marginalised having to fend for themselves.
The film starts in 1981, as tribal sheriff Traylor (a measured Michael Greyeyes), working amid the poverty of the reserve, witnesses the first strange occurrences that herald the beginning of society’s breakdown. A dog comes back to life; his son Joseph (Forrest Goodluck, very good) finds himself sharing a police cell with a snarling man vomiting blood; reports abound of bites that turn everyone but the Mi’gMaq into milky-eyed monsters.
As society collapses, Traylor has to defend his people against the fast-moving zombies, provide sanctuary to refugees, and protect Joseph’s pregnant girlfriend Charlie, who is white and therefore not immune.
A six month jump forward takes us to a population of survivors that knows what they can eat (moose) and can’t (salmon). They’ve spent the time coming up with some novel, if messy, ways of disposing of the undead, and working out how the virus works. On the reserve there are already tensions over who should be let in, their responsibility to other humans versus the threat incomers pose those already inside.
Some aspects of the infection are still unknowns. “People look at me here like my vagina’s Pandora’s Box” half-jokes Charlie, with everyone wondering what her baby will be like, and if it will be immune.
The reserve’s central hub is by now a utilitarian compound of corrugated metal, graffiti, burning braziers, and a legless zombie chained to the wall. Its round metal helmet gives it a WW2 Nazi air, and took me right back to Dead Snow – another effective zombie adventure. That film trades scares for anarchic bonkersness; Blood Quantum has a more serious message though it’s still not without its deadpan moments. If you can’t laugh at the end of a world which has treated you cruelly and now seems to be laughing at you, when can you?
Some take the opportunity to fulfil their apocalyptic antihero fantasies. In his skull masks, almost quivering with rage, Lyasol (Kiowa Gordon), Traylor’s damaged and volatile oldest son, fancies himself an outlaw as he broods over his younger brother Joseph.
Traylor’s ex-wife Joss is running the nursing station, and when Traylor heads there for help after a zombie bite we see his back is a mass of circular scars, a history of his defence of the people and the reserve.
I don’t know what Blood Quantum‘s budget was but the gore department has done a great job, the viscera steadily building throughout the film. What starts with a flopping, reanimated gutted fish turns into a chainsaw through the back of someone’s head and much feasting on innards (yay sausages!)
Unexpected diversions make up for some tropes. At the start the camera flies along the river, twisting and inverting as the world prepares to turn upside down. Occasional animated interludes, styled like a fantasy in black and orange, add a sense of the apocalypse. Sometimes Blood Quantum feels, and sounds, like a Western.
Blood Quantum is less about the tables being tuned on an oppressor and more about the white locals simply becoming even more of a threat. The colonial allegory is clear without feeling overwhelming, as the most entitled of the white refugees hide their bites before they become zombie flashmobs literally feeding off the indigenous population.
This zombie apocalypse is because, it is suggested, the Earth is a living organism that has finally had enough of humans. The Mi’gMaq people’s immunity is not because they are being saved to inherit the Earth but because they have been forgotten.
In real life, it was in 1981 that Quebec police and fisheries representatives twice raided the Mi’gMaq reserve, trying to forcibly impose regulations on native salmon fishermen.
Indigenous filmmaker Jeff Barnaby – Blood Quantum‘s writer, director, editor, and co-composer – credits watching Incident at Restigouche, indigenous filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin’s documentary about the raids, as a key moment in his understanding of the power of film in terms of activism. (In his own movie the first evidence of the virus is in salmon fished by Traylor’s father.)
Blood Quantum is the name for the American policy of measuring someone’s indigineity by percentage of indigenous blood – 51% and above required to be a status Indian, an idea which is neatly twisted as we wait for Charlie’s baby.
Occasionally the film feels a little rackety and some of the performances are wobbly. Though I particularly liked Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers as Joss, who is believably both soft-spoken and forthright (and the idea that a potential Final Girl might be a 30-something mother certainly sat well with me). She often feels like the heart of the film.
Call-handler Doris (Felicia Shulman), is a hoot. We mostly just hear her over the police radio talking to Traylor; she’s a dryly comic narrator relaying to him word-for-word messages from surprised locals as the virus emerges: “a drunk white guy trying to eat his chickens” was my favourite.
Stonehorse Lone Goeman’s Gisigu (Traylor’s father), is a warrior and protector whose time has come but is always measured and thoughtful. His final scenes sent shivers down my spine where they could have felt tropey.
In fact the last few minutes are incredibly tense and moving. Barnaby, making only his second feature, is an assured director. The indoor zombie attacks are claustrophobic and terrifying, and it was easy to feel invested in his flawed yet heroic characters, and even Lysol. Yo can understand what has made him like this, even as his simmering fury threatens everything his father stands for.
There’s an exhaustion of centuries that runs through the film; a “what now?” feeling of head-shaking stoicism and suppressed anger, along with a tension between preservation of a people and a culture, and reaching out to help the refugees who struggle towards them.
It’s a genuinely unnerving film and I was surprised to find myself switching the light back on when I finally went to bed at 3am; I don’t tend to do that for other zombie films, even the ones set in shopping centres which are more my milieu.
Jeff Barnaby was born on the Mi’gMaq reserve in Quebec; his film opened the Midnight Madness programme at TIFF last year, to great acclaim. Its plaudits are well-deserved: Blood Quantum is a compelling, gore-drenched fear-fest that’s also thoroughly thought-provoking.
Blood Quantum is currently available on Shudder.
Watch the trailer below, and scroll down for more images from the movie.
Blood Quantum – images
Lysol (Kiowa Gordon) and Joseph (Forrest Goodluck)
Charlie (Olivia Scriven) and Joss (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers)
Lysol (Kiowa Gordon)
Gisigu (Stonehorse Lone Goeman)
James (Deverey Jacobs) and Lysol (Kiowa Gordon)
Lysol (Kiowa Gordon) and the zombie
Gisigu (Stonehorse Lone Goeman)