Much of the history of native peoples in horror film, or in this case Canada’s First Nation people, has been beset by misunderstandings, skepticism about tribal rituals, and outright racism. These troubling portrayals throughout horror’s uneven relationship with non-Euro traditions has manifested itself in a series of clumsy attempts to capture the native condition. This, in turn, has played out with mysterious and prescient shamans, strange and incomplete tribal rites, and silly depictions of day-to-day tribal life. That was the case until 2020’s release of the superbly finessed Blood Quantum.
Directed by Canadian Mi’kmac tribal member Jeff Barnaby, Blood Quantum is a bleak and hyper-realistic depiction of life on a tribal reservation in the face of a zombie pandemic. Proving that a) the zombie genre is NOT dead (no pun intended), and b) native peoples don’t always have to be portrayed as grizzled old spooky witch doctors. Barnaby constructs a meaningful tapestry of life through characters that embody all of humanity. Police officers, nurses, drunks, assholes, troubled youth, and heroic protagonists are all on display as the pandemic gets really real.
The first 20 plus minutes of Blood Quantum slowly unfold the pandemic as tribal police office Traylor (Michael Greyeyes) is forced to deal with a dog that’s recently come back to life, and his hard nosed father Gisigu (Stonehorse Lone Goeman) who’s terrified by the resurrection of the fish he’d caught that morning. The spectrum of characters slowly come together to illustrate the close and sometimes hierarchical bonds within tribal society, but equally the mundane complexities of raising children, dealing with ex-spouses, and working with the dirtbags who barely exist on the margins of societal structures.
The second and third acts of the film abruptly jettison the story six months in to the future where the zombie pandemic has flattened society and the the tribal members are left to close ranks to fend off the honky hordes. It turns out that this zombie virus is has no apparent effect on the tribal members and it’s only the nearby Euro inhabitants that are impacted. As the remaining 100+ tribal members are left to deal with their own internal strife and that of the few leftover Euros, the cracks begin to show. Barnaby employs an exceptionally clever device where Traylor’s son Joseph (Forrest Goodluck) discoveries a group seeking refuge. In this case the small pox symbolism of 1800s Euro settlers is fully turned on it’s head and those seeking refuge, while swaddled in blankets, are the ones that are infected, and it’s the native peoples that are spared the brutish plague.
As the fabric of the post-apocalyptic societal structure begins to tether, the tensions between Joseph, and his self-identified dirtbag friend Lysol (Kiowa Gordon), rise to the surface. Joseph is on the verge of fathering a non-Native child and Lysol has become disillusioned with Joseph, his predicament, and the false structure that’s been created for their dystopian living arrangement. A fever pitch is reached and the fragile confines of a society disrupted are not just shattered they’re obliterated.
In one of the many poignant scenes in the film, the now famous George Romero dialogue “…when there’s no more room in hell” is completely reworked in a modern and and rejuvenated way. The character Moon (Gary Farmer: Dead Man, Ghost Dog, Smoke Signals) declares “…the earth is an animal. Livin’, breathin’. White men don’t understand this. That’s why the dead keep coming back to life. Not because of god. Because the planet we’re on is so sick of our shit.” No science. Not some government experiment gone wrong. Not a virus that’d been accidentally leaked from a high-tech lab. No, none of these things. The zombie pandemic is really just Earth making a course correction. Ultimately, this is much more satisfying and thoughtful conclusion and one that quite a few zombie filmmakers would do well to study.
Blood Quantum is a fine piece of film making, acting, and cinematography. Paired with a double dose of good ol’ gore and ultra violence make this a film that gives hope for a slowly rotting genre.
Blood Quantum is Rated R and currently streaming on Shudder.