Filmmakers have looked at the zombie as a metaphor for racial politics since George A. Romero triggered the subgenre as we know it with Night of Living Dead back in 1968. Indigenous Canadian director Jeff Barnaby takes his own bite out of the zombie film; one which digs into the colonial subtext of North America. The title, which sounds like a million generic horror titles, actually refers to arbitrary old laws by which the indigenity of Native Americans was established. Aside from the highly individual racial aspect, Blood Quantum deals with the thorny issue of broken families and is a flat-out full-blooded horror thriller of unflinching brutality, albeit with a narrative arc that is entirely familiar.
In the early ’80s, a First Nations reservation witnesses the beginning of a zombie outbreak. It becomes apparent that those with indigenous blood are immune to the plague carried in the undead bites. Six months later, the remainder of the Mi’kmaq people have turned the Red Crow reservation into a makeshift fort. Family tensions rise between Traylor (Michael Greyeyes) and his son Lysol (Kiowa Gordon) over the policy of allowing white refugees into the compound. Inevitably, the combustible Lysol sparks a potential disaster that could spell the end for their carefully constructed safety.
Blood Quantum‘s historical context works really well. Not only is the standard trope in most classic Westerns of hordes of faceless Indians subverted by the fact that all the zombies are white, but the historic treatment of indigenous people by white settlers provides understandable motivation for the nihilistic Lysol to want to deny white refugees entry to the compound. Lysol is easily the most interesting character, and his arc to the primary human antagonist is concise and understandable before he ends up as this film’s equivalent of Day of the Dead‘s Captain Rhodes, or The Walking Dead‘s Negan. His combative relationship with his father and half-brother Joseph (Forrest Goodluck, The Miseducation of Cameron Post), whose white (and pregnant) girlfriend Charlie (Olivia Scriven) is another source of resentment, also adds further thematic depth.
Visually, Blood Quantum impresses. Whether in the scenes of Lysol using the infected as the mobile equivalent of smallpox blankets as a means of highly localised ethnic cleansing or in the simple opening scene of gutted fish flopping eerily back to life, Barnaby his effects team throw a slew of memorable images at the viewer. The gore work is frequent, impressive, and unafraid to go to some disturbing places – one particularly stark image of a zombified mother with a newborn is straight out of a Goya painting.
Barnaby does bog the film down a little in places. For example, there is the potentially interesting thread of sexual exploitation that’s used only as a prelude to another piece of satisfying splatter. There’s also a slight narrative lag during the second act as all the pieces for the finale are moved into place, and while the acting is generally solid, some fare better than others. Gordon as Lysol and Stonehouse Lone Goeman as a grizzled grandad with some mean samurai skills shine by dint of getting to play it big, while Greyeyes and Goodluck are slightly hampered by their comparatively muted characters. Or perhaps we’ve simply been spoiled by the absolute cream of the acting crop that has been attracted to the horror genre lately.
For another modestly-budgeted entry into a field thoroughly crowded by generic fare, Blood Quantum undoubtedly stands out. Jeff Barnaby doesn’t lack ambition as a writer or a filmmaker, and is admirably even-handed in the culture clash narrative; he’s as willing to reckon with the long legacy of indigenous drug and alcohol abuse and the self-defeating nature of empty revenge as he is the satisfying irony of the white man brought low by a disease he simply wasn’t prepared for. Unfortunately, Blood Quantum has been the victim of another virus stopping hope of a theatrical run, but it deserves to find an audience on streaming.
Available now on Shudder