As George Romero first discovered — and hordes of other filmmakers have since refined — zombies are a fun and effective vehicle for addressing the most intractable anxieties of the modern world; even bone-deep social ills have a funny way of seeming more digestible when explored through a story about people rabidly eating each other’s entrails. A scattershot but clear-eyed bit of midnight madness that renders colonialism as a literal plague, Jeff Barnaby’s “Blood Quantum” may bite off more human flesh than it can chew, but this hopeful modern howl against the indignities suffered by Canada’s indigenous population (the Mi’gMaq in particular) is still a credit to its genre. It may not be a great zombie movie, but it’s a uniquely powerful reminder of why zombie movies are great.
“Blood Quantum,” a term referring to the genocidal American practice of determining indigeneity by measuring the percentage of a person’s native heritage, sets the stage with what might be the single gnarliest opening title card in horror movie history. It’s a modified passage from the Book of Exodus that Barnaby attributes to “an ancient settler proverb” (likely because that sounds way scarier), and it’s worth reprinting in full to contextualize the lived and inherited trauma that churns inside of this film:
“Take heed to thyself, that thou make no treaty with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest lest it be cause of ruin among you. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, and burn down their groves… when they whore themselves to their demons and sacrifice to them, you will eat their sacrifices. And when you choose some of their daughters for your sons, they will lead your sons to do the same.”
Holy shit. “Blood Quantum” may get off to a doddering start once the film begins introducing its cast, but the language of extinction lingers in the air like an unmoving cloud. It’s 1981 — the same year that a young Barnaby witnessed the Quebec government’s race-driven raids on the Listuguj Mi’gMaq First Nation (documented in Alanis Obomsawin’s “Incident at Restigouche”) — and something fishy is going on in the Mi’gMaq reserve of Red Crow. It’s the fish, actually: They’re flopping back to life, even after they’ve been gutted. Sheriff Traylor (a grounded and believable Michael Greyeyes) is a bit freaked out by the discovery, but he’s already got plenty of other headaches on his mind.
Chief among them are his two delinquent sons, Joseph (“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” actor Forrest Goodluck) and Lysol (Kiowa Gordon, playing a leather-bound troublemaker whose entire aesthetic can be described as “guy who saw ‘The Warriors’ one too many times”). They’re both in lockup at the local precinct; Lysol spends every night in the drunk tank, but Joseph — who still has a shimmer of potential — is only there because he’d rather be in jail with his truculent half-brother than spend time with his white pregnant girlfriend, Charlie (Olive Scriven). No one is ever ready to become a father, but some people are significantly less ready than others. For Joseph, being a bad parent almost feels like his birthright. As Traylor tells his ex-wife (Elle-Maija Tailfeathers): “I think he thinks his dad is a fuck-up, and that gives him a free pass.”
Free pass or not, Joseph picked a bad night to be an immature little punk, because it turns out the fish aren’t the only thing that’s gone afoul; the scuzzy white stranger who’s locked up with Jason and Lysol is starting to twitch. A few uninspired zombie attacks later and it’s clear that the people of Red Crow have a problem on its hands… and its solution in their blood. That’s when Barnaby’s script makes a radical decision that upends expectations and justifies much of the stale table-setting that dominates the first act, as the story jumps six months forward to find that the Mi’gMaq are inexplicably immune to the plague that has wiped out the rest of the planet. “Maybe the earth just forgot about us,” someone muses.
As Traylor and the rest of his tribe set up a well-fortified quarantine zone on one side of the J.C. Van Horne Bridge, “Blood Quantum” seeps into a situation that reaffirms the violent dynamics of colonialism, while also inverting its usual power structure. As ever, the indigenous people are forced to fend off a bloodthirsty mob of white aggressors who seek to decimate their culture and eat them alive. But while the Mi’qMaq — like so many victims of colonization — feel obligated to embrace their oppressors, the difference here is that they aren’t compelled by their own self-preservation. If Traylor, Lysol, Joseph and the others agree to let uninfected townies into their safe haven, they do so only out of mercy for all of God’s children (and they do so at their own peril).
“Blood Quantum” never takes itself too seriously, but the film is careful about the fun it chooses to have. The main conflict in Barnaby’s story isn’t between the living and the undead so much as it is between the various Mi’gMaq survivors. It’s hard for the indigenous people to welcome outsiders without endangering their own — one unsettling scene finds Traylor being forced to execute an infected little girl whose father brings her to the Red Crow encampment — and some of them (Lysol most of all) are a bit too excited that the natives are in a position to do the othering for once. “We’re not supposed to be helping people,” someone insists. “We’re supposed to be surviving.” But it might be a mistake to think of those options as mutually exclusive, and Traylor will have to fight his own family in order to decapitate the “us vs. them” mentality that has long compelled humanity to devour itself.
The filmmaking in “Blood Quantum” is seldom as compelling as its premise, and it’s frustrating to watch such a fresh take on the zombie genre be mired in several of its most rotten tropes. Some quibbles are easy to shrug off. People in zombie movies always lie about getting bitten, but there’s no way these characters would be dumb enough to take them at their word. Also, as elegant as it is that Charlie and Joseph’s child represents hope for reconciliation, and also fear of a demonic offspring (“People look at me like my vagina is Pandora’s box,” says the mom-to-be), Chekhov’s Uterus is a tricky thing to get right in a film that tries to split the difference between “Children of Men” and “Dawn of the Dead.”
The baby’s thematic heft is undeniable, but its inevitable arrival can’t help but seem contrived in the absence of more detailed character development. Every member of Barnaby’s cast is memorable in one way or another (Stonehorse Lone Goeman is a particular standout as Traylor’s father, a sword-wielding badass who redeems decades of systemic defeat with each slice of his blade), but the film’s individual human drama is hopelessly suffocated by its greater social message.
Stretching a small budget well beyond its limits — despite being the most expensive indigenous-directed film ever made in North America — “Blood Quantum” softens its unique power by trying to match the scale of the genre’s mainstream offerings. The practical gore is impressive even when the CGI flourishes barely rise above “Sharknado” levels, but it’s painful to watch how Barnaby’s well-honed sense of place is diluted between hurried world-building and lackluster action sequences. If only each of the movie’s brief (yet lush) animated sequences were replaced by scenes that probed deeper into the Mi’gMaq’s dilemma and/or fleshed out the people forced to decide it.
Light on the scares that genre fans hunger for, and short of the craft that might help it to connect with viewers who are otherwise contemptuous of socially conscious horror, “Blood Quantum” struggles to reconcile the shlockiness of its making with the sensitivity of its design. But when it works it works, and Barnaby punctuates the film with moments of grotesquely resonant power that would be impossible to create in any other context. For every beat we’ve seen a million times, “Blood Quantum” offers one unlike anything we’ve seen at all; watching a horde of white zombies tear an indigenous man apart, it’s clear that Barnaby’s most valuable imagery is only so potent because it feels so familiar.
“Blood Quantum” is now available to stream on Shudder.