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The colonial zombie whiplash of “Blood Quantum”

Jeff Barnaby’s 2020 Wisconsin Film Festival selection is available on Shudder.

In writer-director Jeff Barnaby’s second feature, Blood Quantum, the close-range, torso-clawing violence of zombie films becomes a vehicle for a larger story about genocide and what happens when the extremes of life test our loyalties. An orphaned selection from the canceled 2020 Wisconsin Film Festival, Blood Quantum is currently streaming on Shudder.

Like Barnaby’s previous feature, Rhymes For Young Ghouls (2013), Blood Quantum takes place on a reserve of the Mi’gmaq, an Indigenous/First Nations people of whom Barnaby is a member. The reserve, Red Crow, is fictional, but like most of the actual Mi’gmaq reserves, it’s somewhere in Eastern Canada. As Blood Quantum begins, Red Crow’s put-upon police chief, Traylor (Michael Greyeyes), thinks he’s going to have a lousy but sadly normal day: putting down an injured dog, then retrieving his sons Joseph (Forrest Goodluck) and Lysol (Kiowa Gordon) from the drunk tank. Traylor gradually figures out that he’s dealing with more than familiar dysfunction and violence. White people are turning into zombies, but those with Indigenous blood are immune. 

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Yes, there are shambling, slavering hordes, ropes of entrails, overhead shots of the hopelessly swarmed, and people vomiting pints of blood as they turn into zombies. Barnaby and his cast give us a wonderful array of protagonists who rise to the occasion to become apocalyptic warriors armed with rifles, chainsaws, axes, machetes, and improvised pikes. Stonehorse Lone Goeman turns in an especially formidable performance as Traylor’s father, Misigu, who deftly slashes apart the undead with a katana. And a repurposed piece of farm equipment gets a particularly good workout as the zombies try to cross over the bridge to the reserve.

The Mi’gmaq protagonists have to make constant, wrenching choices between ensuring their own survival and aiding refugees. The white people who haven’t turned into zombies are at the mercy of the oppressed. It’s not revenge, but colonial whiplash. The Indigenous characters, hardened and weary, now have to make snap decisions about whether or not white families eat and whether infected white children live or die. They put up the walls and debate what to do with the rest of us, whether we can be trusted or should be seen as a literal plague.

The zombies in Blood Quantum force the protagonists to extend the boundaries of family, home, reservation, territory, resources, and care to outsiders. White survivors have to confront one of the deepest fears of a racist society: What would happen if the shoe were on the other foot and the racial power balance upended? Barnaby sets this theme of reversal with the film’s epigraph, a quote from the book of Exodus that calls for racial and religious conquest—”Take heed to thyself, that thou make no treaty with the inhabitants of the land…”—but instead of attributing it to the Bible, he wryly tags this as an “Ancient Settler Proverb.” 

Those in search of a good zombie movie will assuredly get one, but at its heart, this is also a family story that would be quite moving even without the infected. Barnaby uses the gruesome tropes of zombie films to underscore what’s really compelling here: complex allegiances that evolve and fracture, life-or-death moral quandaries that the characters don’t have the luxury of puzzling over. Lysol has a difficult relationship with his father and brother, one that curdles into paranoia and betrayal. Traylor’s ex-wife doctor Joss (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) patches up his zombie bites with no-nonsense generosity. Joseph’s pregnant white girlfriend Charlie (Olivia Scriven) agonizes over whether their child will be immune and whether their mixed family is truly welcome: “People look at my vagina like it’s Pandora’s box,” she tells Joseph. 

Even when it’s crude, the film illustrates Barnaby’s gift for crafting nuanced and revealing dialogue about family and identity, and he does so with stinging concision and rugged good humor. As Barnaby did for Rhymes For Young Ghouls, he elevates young characters who’ve had to shoulder extraordinary levels of trauma and responsibility. (And, on that note, Blood Quantum would make a good double feature with another recent Shudder standout, Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid.) Barnaby knows how to steer audiences between hushed, quietly devastating intimacy, the grim fun of a zombie hunt, and his own brand of cop movie. Regarding the latter, he works in some good banter between Traylor and his dispatcher: “You should see what your father brought in. You’re gonna shit frisbees.”

Largely filmed on location in Quebec and New Brunswick, Blood Quantum uses the Restigouche River as both evocative scenery and a stark dividing line. One bridge across the river connects Red Crow with the largely white population on the other side. The film’s first bad omen comes when gutted fish from the river start flopping again. While the zombie plague is never fully explained, it clearly has a lot to do with the environmental despoliation that tends to accompany systemic racism. As the Mi’gmaq people barricade themselves in, they have to sort out which of their reliant animals and water sources are still safe to consume. “This planet we’re on is so sick of our shit. This old, tired, angry animal turned these stupid fucking white man into something she can use again—fertilizer,” says Moon (Gary Farmer), right before one of the film’s most gruesome mutilations.

Zombie movies help us see humanity in its most desperate state. Blood Quantum shows us that and more, from its most delightfully gory set pieces to its devastating but hopeful conclusion. 

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