In 1981, a small community is rocked by the outbreak of a zombie virus. The locals are biting and turning in record time, but on the nearby Mi’kmaq reserve of Red Crow, the Indigenous residents are immune to the disease. Thus begins Blood Quantum, the second feature film written and directed by Jeff Barnaby. It’s a full-bodied and well-bloodied zombie movie, but more importantly, it’s a damning commentary on the history and treatment of Canada’s Indigenous population.
Before making Blood Quantum, Barnaby was introduced to the idea of films being a form of social protest with the documentary feature Incident at Restigouche. The film chronicles the events of two raids on the Mi’kmaq Restigouche reserve by the Quebec police force in an attempt to impose new restrictions on salmon fishermen in the Mi’kmaq community. As a young child on the reserve in 1981, he was witness to these raids. In an interview with CBC host George Stroumboulopoulos, Barnaby shared his memories of the experience:
“Think about being a young man and you know nothing about the outside world, but the outside world comes knocking at your door and they come armed to the teeth and looking to bust your head. And that was my first definition of what non-Native Canadians thought about Indians. That stuck with me.”
Barnaby’s frustration and anger translate onto the screen in the film’s poignant interactions. One particular post-outbreak scene shows a man and his sick daughter arriving on Red Crow’s doorstep. As the Algonquin survivors discuss the fate of these new arrivals in Mi’kmaq, the stranger yells at them to “speak English”. His sick (and possibly infected) daughter is wrapped in a blanket, drawing comparisons to the germ warfare that started a smallpox epidemic in native communities in 1763.
This anger is also voiced through the character of Lysol (Kiowa Gordon, The Red Road). Lysol is not fond of the idea of letting outsiders into the reserve, and he expresses his objections at every turn. While his father, Traylor (Michael Greyeyes, True Detective), and half-brother, Joseph (Forrest Goodluck, The Revenant), are open to helping those in need, Lysol firmly believes that these outside survivors are a danger to their community.
Speaking on Blood Quantum as a zombie film, there’s plenty of bite. The Mi’kmaq survivors are positively badass, blazing through zombie lairs with discipline, precision, and a cache of highly effective weapons. The undead are quickly dispatched by chainsaw, shotgun, katana, and an inventive use of a wood chipper. It all adds up to create one deeply satisfying batch of bloody horror.
These zombie kill effects are practical and exceptionally bloody. This is a visceral film that would do Tom Savini proud, with moments that pay homage to one of the more brutal scenes in Dawn of the Dead. The indigenous survivors are all immune to the virus, so they can get up close and personal when they’re on the attack. With vicious efficiency, they dismember, decapitate, and destroy all in their path, as geysers of blood gush across the screen.
The cinematography by Michel St-Martin is stunning; shots are beautifully framed and filmed. His use of lighting and color adds a naturalistic grit. Outside of Red Crow, uncomfortable interiors — such as the police station and the hospital — have a yellow hue that makes them feel sickly. It subconsciously puts the audience ill-at-ease, whereas the scenes on the reserve feel more open.
Blood Quantum challenges its audience by forcing us to confront the historically problematic treatment of the Indigenous community in Canada. It’s a proud celebration of native culture — from the symbolic artwork to the soaring score — that builds a creatively unique addition to the zombie genre. If you’re looking for something fresh that you can really sink your teeth into, be advised; this film bites back.