Since the 1960s, when George Romero thrust zombie narratives into the horror mainstream with Night of the Living Dead, the subgenre has been built on a foundation of political engagement. On questions about race and policing, as in Night of the Living Dead; on capitalism and consumption, as in Dawn of the Dead and Us; on contagions and medical research, as in 28 Days Later and Resident Evil; on the blandness of suburbia and the danger of sameness, as in Shaun of the Dead. Sometimes that prodding-at-authority vibe is shoved aside for a more simplistic “What does it take to survive?” conceit (looking at you, The Walking Dead), but the legacy of the zombie genre is its ability to modify the undead figure into whatever representation of “other” the art is attempting to address.
With all that in mind, filmmaker Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum fits right into this cinematic tradition. Barnaby is taking aim at colonization and the subjugation of native and indigenous peoples, and he’s wrapping those considerations in writhing coils of intestines and splattering them with a hot burst of arterial blood. Blood Quantum is visceral and gory, and isn’t afraid to kill its darlings—any character could die at any time, and the film refuses sentimentality. That makes for an invigorating watch, with recognizable elements of any zombie flick seen through a post-colonialist lens. What is disappointing in contrast, though, is Barnaby’s script, which sometimes takes shortcuts regarding its characters, their motivations, and their relationships to each other. When the film comments on the struggle between its native protagonists and their white attackers, Blood Quantum fully clicks, but the divisions within the native community itself feel rushed.
Blood Quantum begins in 1981 on the Red Crow Indian Reservation of the Mi’gmaq First Nation, near Quebec, Canada. It’s an isolated community, with a small hospital, a small police station, and a widespread population living in a variety of log cabins, shipping containers, and other semi-run-down residences. They’re disdainful of the town across the bridge, and rightfully resentful of how unwilling that mostly white community is to share their resources with the indigenous Mi’gmaq. And when strange things start happening, the Mi’gmaq know who to blame.
Blood Quantum starts off fast and furious, with a series of extremely unsettling scenes that effectively introduce us to the zombie apocalypse at hand: gutted fish still flopping around inside an ice-filled cooler; a moment of grotesque cannibalism; and a very gruesome use of a new chainsaw blade. Involved in all of these is Sheriff Traylor (Michael Greyeyes, of Woman Walks Ahead and True Detective), whose entire family ends up endangered or affected by the rising undead, too. His ex-wife, Joss (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, of The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open), is a nurse at the hospital where their son, Joseph (Forrest Goodluck, of The Miseducation of Cameron Post), and his white, pregnant girlfriend Charlie (Olivia Scriven) are considering getting an abortion. While they’re there, a patient attacks and infects the hospital staff. Traylor’s father Gisigu (Stonehorse Lone Goeman), a Vietnam War veteran, is the first to notice the fish who won’t die, and Traylor’s estranged first son, Lysol (Kiowa Gordon, of the Twilight movies), is in a holding cell with a fellow inmate who turns and begins vomiting blood.
Everyone around them is turning undead—everyone white, that is. But bites don’t do anything to the native community: The infection doesn’t affect them. With that natural immunity, what is the responsibility of the Mi’gmaq to their non-indigenous neighbors? And what do they owe each other? Lysol is increasingly militant, frustrated by Traylor’s position of authority after he abandoned Lysol as a child. Joseph is primarily concerned with Charlie’s safety, and assuaging her concern that the baby could be born undead (tying back to the term “blood quantum,” and how the U.S. government used it as a way to measure native blood and deprive them of resources as a result). And although the Mi’gmaq don’t get sick, they can still be attacked, still eaten, still torn apart. How do they stay safe?
Blood Quantum uses its colonialism analysis in clever ways throughout the film, primarily in how it positions the white town and the Red Crow Reservation, separated by a bridge and a river, in opposition to each other. Traylor mentions early on how the town’s police and emergency services “never pick up” when Red Crow officials call, which sets up a nice flipped circumstance when the white townspeople start flooding the reservation after the outbreak, looking for help. And how the townspeople take for granted that the Mi’gmaq should help them—should let them into their shelter, should take their word that they aren’t bit, should share whatever food and medicine they’ve been able to scrape together—speaks to the pervasiveness of white privilege, even when the world is ending. Barnaby is seething at that, and his vehemence about the inequality suffered by native populations is clear.
The film suffers, though, from a script that often feels like it’s missing major chunks of exposition or character development. Characters are introduced and their connections between each other not clarified until many scenes later, which gives the story flow an oddly stuttering quality. It took me nearly 20 minutes to figure out that Joseph and Lysol (who are also called other names or nicknames throughout the film) are half-brothers, and then another few beats to put together Traylor’s contrasting treatment of them. In particular, Lysol’s character just doesn’t feel weighty enough for what the narrative asks of him later in the film. It’s clear that the film is making a point to present Joseph and Lysol as two paths forward for native resistance, but since their characterization doesn’t go much deeper than “good son vs. bad son,” the dichotomy doesn’t quite land.
That’s an unfortunate shortcoming because so much of Blood Quantum is thoughtful enough and scary enough to really work. This is a movie in which no act—not childbirth, not oral sex—is off-limits in terms of gross-out brutality; there are really picturesque animated sequences throughout that nod to native art styles and myths; and it’s clear that the plot’s guiding idea reflects the zombie-film tradition of analyzing the relationship between subjugated groups and oppressive power. A script that further fleshed out these characters, their bonds with each other, and what they each symbolized about the indigenous experience would have improved Blood Quantum, which as-is nails its broad “white people are the problem” theme but not all the specific elements that feed into it.
Blood Quantum began streaming on Shudder on April 28, 2020.
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