When the dead start coming back to life outside the isolated Mi’qmaq reserve of Red Crow, the Indigenous inhabitants, immune to the virus, are forced to make a difficult choice: refuse refuge, or risk extinction—both of their people, and of the human race.
Since its very beginnings, the zombie sub-genre has been a carrier for social commentary, with the shuffling hordes serving as a handy metaphor for everything from racial tensions to nuclear annihilation to wanton consumerism. But almost 90 years after White Zombie first introduced the public at large to the concept of the walking dead, one might assume there’s no fresh commentary left to be squeezed from these decaying stands-ins for real-world issues.
Blood Quantum is here to prove otherwise. Working with a cast of predominantly Indigenous actors, Mi’qmaq writer and director Jeff Barnaby flips the zombie-as-racial-other trope on its head to explore the lasting effects of European colonialism on Indigenous populations.
The individual elements of the film are nothing new. A spate of biting attacks ripples across a rural community. Isolated incidents rapidly devolve into widespread violence. Six months later, the few survivors of the pandemic are holed up within barricaded walls, fending off hungry zombies and wrestling with the decision of whether or not to let potentially infected outsiders into the camp.
But within these familiar beats, Barnaby weaves a haunting narrative of systemic oppression. Even before the outbreak takes hold, his lens depicts run-down homes, substance abuse, and unkindness from the white community next door. The small compound that the survivors are forced to retreat to doesn’t seem exactly alien to a community that was once forced off its land and into reservations.
The film’s masterstroke lies in its decision to make the Indigenous characters immune to the zombie plague, turning the zombies into white invaders coming to destroy their way of life. Barnaby isn’t always subtle in his presentation of this allegory; one of the outsiders tries to bring a blanket soaked with infected blood into the camp—recalling the famous story of the smallpox blankets—shortly after screaming at people trying to help him to “speak English.” Other times, he lets his point sit, allowing the implications to gradually dawn on us. Take the film’s title, which references the percentage of Indigenous blood a person has to possess to be officially recognized as Indigenous. This plays out in the film in the form of the unborn child of a mixed-race couple which may or may not be immune. Barnaby’s script is just in-your-face enough to ensure his point can’t be missed, while still knowing when to pull back to leave viewers with something to think about.
For all its thoughtful commentary, Blood Quantum doesn’t skimp on the gore, with legless zombies hanging on chains, chainsaws tearing through heads, and enough of entrails-eating action to leave any genre fan satisfied. Even the pre-credits scene, set at the outset of the contagion, delivers a simple yet stomach-churning chill as a salmon begins to flop and wriggle on the chopping block even after a thorough gutting.
Despite this, the film falls prey to the malady of many zombie movies—the second-act sag. After the heady thrills of the initial outbreak, the moodier scenes of life behind the barricade, while steeped in atmosphere, wind up feeling a little drawn out. This dip in momentum isn’t a killing blow, but it certainly lessens the impact of the punch that the film is packing.
Blood Quantum might not be a completely original take on the zombie genre, but it brings a voice and perspective to the genre that we haven’t seen before, and that’s something to celebrate. The film and its core message are perhaps best encapsulated in one short scene where the town’s sheriff (Michael Greyeyes) removes his shirt, revealing that his body is a canvas of scars—some inflicted by the very people who came to him seeking help. Barnaby’s filmmaking forces a predominantly non-Indigenous audience to confront those scars, but he cleverly wraps them in an engaging zombie movie to help the medicine go down.
Blood Quantum is now available to stream on Shudder in the US, UK, and Ireland. If you haven’t tried Shudder before, you can get a 30-day free trial by using the code SHUTIN at Shudder.com.
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)