There are those who proclaim that horror should stick to scaring you instead of trying to be something more, especially in recent years as the slasher has given way to more cerebral and nuanced fare. However, horror has always been rooted in social commentary, especially the zombie genre, which George A. Romero used as a metaphor for society since he kicked off the craze for the walking dead.
That tradition has carried on throughout zombie movies, using the undead apocalypse to often emphasize and reflect back our current societal issues. That’s what Blood Quantum does but it avoids cliche by flipping the script and placing many of the traditional tropes into the hands of the minorities who traditionally bare the brunt of onscreen death and tragedy in these films. In many ways the film is a traditional zombie piece but by re-centering its metaphor to reflect racial and tribal issues, it redefines its story and becomes somethng more.
Director: Jeff Barnaby
Release Date: April 28, 2020
Blood Quantum takes place almost entirely on the Canadian Mi’gmaq reserve of Red Crow in the early 1980s. As is necessary for a zombie movie, the dead are coming back to life. However, the Indigenous people of the reserve are immune to the zombie plague setting up a situation where the rest of the population is coming to them instead of shoving them into a literal remote plot of land. Traylor (Michael Greyeyes) is a screw up of a dad and also the reserve’s sheriff. He has two kids, from different moms, Joseph (Forrest Goodluck) and Lysol (Kiowa Gordon), the latter of which is a rebel and fuck up. Joseph on the other hand has gotten a white girl pregnant but is, in general, a good kid.
When the zombie apocalypse hits, the tribe discovers they are immune to the disease (though not immune to being eaten alive) and set up a compound to protect themselves. They also bring in any “healthy” outsiders that they find, protecting them as best they can. However, this decision isn’t the most popular and a group of American Indians led by Lysol plant a zombie in the compound as an excuse to get rid of any and all outsiders.
The “twist” of immunity makes the film original in its own right before it even begins beautifully laying out social metaphors left and right. Because of their immunity the characters take more risks and act differently than we see in most zombie films. It also sets up some fantastic “us vs. them” moments and discussions in much starker contrasts than traditional zombie films. Not everyone is on the same footing here (METAPHOR) and it makes for a zombie movie that functions a bit differently than the umpteenth season of The Walking Dead.
To make it clear, Blood Quantum is a bloody, gorey, messy, gross zombie movie first and a societal commentary second. It is, after all, a Shudder original, and that means horror comes first. There’s a samurai sword, chainsaws through the head, dismembered bodies still moving, and even some truly gross shots of fish guts for good measure. The movie isn’t looking to be a zombie think piece, and thanks to that it makes for a great one. It’s the way that the film weaves this gore and blood together with its themes that makes it work. Nothing feels forced yet everything builds on the films ideas of cultural theft and racial inequality.
For instance, at one point a First Nation character’s penis is ripped off mid blowjob by a girl who has just turned into a zombie during fellatio. It’s a disgusting, gross out, bloody moment but it’s also flipping the sexual abuses often suffered by female indigenous people by white, male invaders. You can completely ignore the dichotomy there if you want and just be grossed out by the movie’s strong delivery of the moment (you don’t see it, just the aftermath) or you can read the subtext and get a bit more. Your call on how you are feeling.
Refreshingly the film isn’t that interested in expanding its world all that much. We’re hunkered down with only these characters and the movie is telling their story, not building to some bigger world. It not only helps make the movie’s story more powerful since we’re entrenched solely with these characters with no bigger concepts to flesh out, but also means the film is completely dedicated to its metaphors and themes. By avoiding the trend to turn your zombie movie into some long-term zombie universe the film feels comfortably small and executes its premise far better. That’s not to say there couldn’t be an interesting sequel but that the movie knows the story and message it wants to tell and does so with creative efficiency.
Even more refreshingly the entire film stars indigenous actors. Our heroes, villains, and everything in between are mostly made up of indigenous people. It’s not just a casting issue, though. By making sure that the entire plot centers around indigenous people, writer/director Jeff Barnaby avoids challenges of white saviors or demonizing another race while still making his points. The same societal breakdowns we see in other films are present but with the full casting of indigenous people in roles the commentary shifts to all of humanities flaws not just one particular subset.
Blood Quantum is the kind of standout zombie movie that should be talked about for years to come. It’s gore is fantastic, it does amazing things with a low budget and we’ll hopefully be hearing the name Jeff Barnaby far more as his racks up successful films. If you’re just in the mood for a fantastic “home invasion” style zombie movie with an original twist than that’s what you’ll get here. Then, as your watching, you might realize you got a whole lot more.