That is the question that Canadian director, writer, producer, editor and composer Jeff Barnaby asks in his new film Blood Quantum, which dropped today on horror streaming service Shudder. What makes this zombie tale unique is that it takes place from the perspective of an Indigenous community living on a reservation just outside of Quebec in the early 1980s. The twist? The inhabitants of the Red Crow Mi’gmaq reserve are immune to a zombie plague that appears to have decimated the rest of Canada. Traylor (Michael Greyeyes), the tribal sheriff, must protect his son’s pregnant girlfriend, apocalyptic refugees, and reserve riff-raff from the hordes of walking white corpses.
The elder, Gisigu (Stonehorse Lone Goeman), who happens to be Traylor’s father, is the first to sense that something is terribly wrong when fish he has caught and gutted mysteriously start reanimating and attacking each other. Things escalate rapidly from there, as more and more people begin to exhibit cannibalistic behavior. Traylor’s son Joseph, (Forrest Goodluck) and his best friend and half-brother Alan a.k.a. “Lysol,” (Kiowa Gordon), are the first witnesses to the human strain, when they spend a night in jail for being drunk and disorderly, and their cellmate attacks them. Traylor intervenes in the nick of time, but not before both he and Joseph are bitten. Their wounds must be tended to, but curiously, they are not infected and they don’t turn.
That little plot twist renders the title a double entendre of sorts. For those of you who are unaware, First Nations people are one of the only ethnic groups that have to continually prove their heritage. Blood Quantum refers to the real American policy of determining indigeneity based on the percentage of your indigenous heritage. If you have 51% indigenous blood quantum, you’re considered a status Indian. Anything less than 50% and you lose status. According to Barnaby, this practice has been used as a tool of political control and cultural extermination for years in North America. (Read more on it here).
This particular zombie virus takes the guesswork out of that entire process, by infecting and killing only the white residents outside of the reserve.
The virus races through Quebec and within 6 months, the bridge between the Red Crow reservation and the rest of Quebec is the only thing separating the reserve turned enclave from the zombie horde. (Well, that, and a well placed large capacity wood chipper). From Gisigu ’s first zed-fish to the new zombie-proof enclave, the Mi’gmaq have gotten extremely efficient at eviscerating the undead.
The character’s lives are already complicated even before the zombie apocalypse. Traylor and his wife Joss (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), are separated and are having issues wth their teenage son Joseph. Lysol, Traylor’s eldest son from his late wife is a delinquent that keeps getting his half brother in trouble. To further complicate matters, Joseph’s pregnant girlfriend Charlie (Olivia Scriven) has come to stay with them, and the residents are wary of her because she could be a carrier. Her presence is a bone of contention between the siblings as Lysol is continuously reminded of his mother’s treatment and his subsequent expulsion from the reservation and into the foster care system. There are hints of abuse in his past as well when Joseph laments, “He left here Alan. He came back ‘Lysol.’”
Director Jeff Barnaby was born on a Mi’gmaq reserve in Listuguj, Quebec. His filmmaking paints a stark and scathing portrait of post-colonial indigenous life and culture. After making several award-winning short films, he made his debut feature film, the cult hit Rhymes for Young Ghouls. Blood Quantum is his sophomore feature film which he premiered at TIFF in 2019.
Blood Quantum breaks new ground as the biggest budget indigenous directed film made in North America featuring a combination of indigenous and genre storytelling. “We’re creating a blueprint for other indigenous filmmakers to follow,” Barnaby says.
The First Nations cast is really what holds this piece together, especially in the quiet moments. For Greyeyes, this is not the veteran actor’s first ride through zombie land, as he has also starred in Fear the Walking Dead. Some may recognize Goodluck from The Revenant and Gordon from The Twilight Saga and Scriven starred in Degrassi: Next Class as well.
However, the character arcs get a bit convoluted once all of the biting, blood and body parts start flying. With Lysol’s story affected the most by this as Gordon’s over-the-top performance appears to swing from unbalanced to chaotic in the blink of an eye. I would have appreciated seeing more background on his character to justify some of the decisions he made. The real hero of the film, however, is Goeman’s portrayal of Gisigu. His quiet pragmatism is only rivaled by his deadly exceptional skills with a samurai sword.
The message of the “trespassing white man” hums throughout the film at an even decibel. You can hear it in Charlie’s discomfort in being a minority amongst the Mi’gmaq, in Traylor’s acceptance of whites into the enclave (as long as they follow the rules). Rising in volume when a terrified white man seeking asylum on their land yells at the council of elders discussing his fate in ‘Miꞌkmwei’ to “speak English.” (His outburst is met with a vicious collective side-eye). The theme crescendos when Lysol’s drug-induced rage hits its peak.
The movie echoes another series I’m a fan of, Cleverman, in which only the oppressed Indigenous people of Australia have superpowers. It also shares parallels with hit indie comic book series BLACK, where police gun down a young Black boy only for him to wake up in the ambulance with abilities of his own. What we’re seeing through the art of storytelling right now are voices and artists giving us other lenses through which to see our power.
There is no other genre better equipped to keep pace with the anxiety of race of this reality than horror, no better trope than a zombie to better personify a culture that consumes itself. Race is a twisted matter; it needs levity and hyperbole to make it digestible. That was the main idea: temper the vitriol of discussing xenophobia with the fun of a zombie film, all the while treating the content with weight and gravity.– Jeff Barnaby
Under all of the blood and gore (everything from a woman eating her newborn baby to zombie mulch), Blood Quantum is a timely, layered horror thriller. An ode to Barnaby’s own people who in reality are facing extinction themselves. It stands as a metaphor for how our very survival depends on seeing the world for exactly what it is, not what we wish it could be. Because in the end, the virus doesn’t care.