Blood Quantum (Jeff Barnaby, Canada)

By Mallory Andrews

The hook is intriguingly straightforward: in Blood Quantum, an infectious zombie disease spreads through the world, save for the residents of a Mi’kmaq community along the Québec-New Brunswick border who appear to be immune to the undeadly virus. In the post-apocalyptic remnants of their town, Sheriff Traylor (Michael Greyeyes) and his deputies guard the boundaries of their land against the violent hordes of “Zeds.” Traylor is joined by his estranged ex Joss (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), their teenage son Joseph (Forrest Goodluck), and Traylor’s troubled eldest son, Lysol (Kiowa Gordon).

It’s an effective setup that director Jeff Barnaby uses to work through generational trauma, both personal and collective: the director was a young boy when his community at the Restigouche Reserve was violently raided by Québec Provincial Police in June 1981. Also witnessing the raid: filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, who documented the two-day dispute over salmon-fishing rights in Incident at Restigouche (1984). Barnaby has often cited Obomsawin’s account of the Restigouche raids as a key influence, borrowing images and ideas from this and other documentaries in her body of work for Blood Quantum. The film’s opening scene, which hints at the zombie troubles to come with the reanimation of gutted fish, neatly mirrors the salmon- spawning footage that opens Incident at Restigouche in their complementary cycles of birth/death. Barnaby later invokes a famous image from Obomsawin’s 1993 film Kanehsatake, 270 Years of Resistance of an armed Canadian soldier being stared down by a Mohawk man during the 1990 Oka Crisis. Even the interprovincial bridge connecting New Brunswick and Québec, central to the conflict at Restigouche, gets a Grand Guignol-worthy set-piece involving a strategically placed woodchipper.

And yet, despite these compelling parallels, there is something oddly flat about Blood Quantum. While Barnaby is an effective imagemaker—both here and in his revenge-thriller-inspired debut Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013)—he has a tin ear for dialogue. We learn of the relationships between the characters (i.e., Traylor and his sons, or Joseph and his girlfriend) through clunky exposition, in which the characters explain things to each other that they already know for the benefit of the audience (“Says the teenage boy to his teenage girlfriend,” Joseph’s girlfriend tells him at one point) in a manner that recalls the kind of bad sitcom writing in which, for example, siblings refer to each other as “bro” and “sis” in a way that few brothers and sisters actually speak.

It is perhaps unfair to hold the screenplay for what is at times a charmingly low-budget Romero-inspired zombie movie to a higher standard. Does horror exploitation really need to be understated or spare? No. But there is a gravity to both the inter-family conflicts as well as the central incident that drives the second half that is not well-served by the dips into the film’s lighter, more outrageously bloody moments. Barnaby’s genre-specific tonal shifts, which were more deftly handled in Rhymes, here undermine the drama. It’s hard to take seriously or feel much of anything other than ambivalence at anyone’s death in a given moment when stacked against otherwise gleeful gore and half-hearted quips (calling the zombies “Zeds” is both a Canadianism and sets up a lame Pulp Fiction [1994] joke in the second act).

Also left underdeveloped is Lysol’s arc, despite an impressive Kiowa Gordon’s searing and nervy screen presence. Lysol finds a new outlet for his simmering resentment and explosive temper in the post-apocalyptic times. The image of the masked, gun-toting teenager—a comic book anti-hero—is the film’s poster image, a vigilante that, like his nickname, embodies purification as much as poison. The driving forces behind Lysol’s motivations—anger at his father, his competing affection for and jealousy towards his younger half-brother—suggests a young man coping with deep trauma. It is unfortunate that this depth is only superficially hinted at, instead becoming merely a plot catalyst for the film’s bloody climax. There is nothing much else to see under the mask.

Despite the tonal awkwardness, it is undeniable that Barnaby has, in his words, “indigenized zombies” and confronted viewers with uncomfortable truths about Canada’s history—subject matter that viewers who may not otherwise be willing or accustomed to thinking about in a meaningful way. Blood Quantum is a zombified retelling of the encroachment of Mi’kmaq-owned land by White settlers. The metaphor is not subtle (the reservation’s fortified gate is adorned with the message “If they’re red they’re dead, and if they’re white they’ll bite”), but perhaps appropriately so. Like George Romero’s explicitly racial commentary in the Dead films—or perhaps closer to Jordan Peele’s allegorical Get Out (2017) and Us (2019)—this directness makes it impossible for even the most apolitical viewer to hand-wave away.

Yet in other instances, Barnaby shies away from such handholding. Blood Quantum opens with a title card containing a quote chillingly credited as “an ancient settler proverb.” In actuality, it is a passage from the Book of Exodus, presented in a way that sharply decentralizes and recontextualizes the White colonial undertones inherent in the words (“Take heed to thyself, that thou make no treaty with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest lest it be cause of ruin among you. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones…”). This passage replaces Barnaby’s original idea for the opening title card, which was to include a definition of the film’s title. Blood quantum laws are a system used to determine a person’s Indigenous status, one that was often warped into an instrument of erasure and domination. That Barnaby purposely leaves out this information is significant. If you know, then you know (and understand the importance as it relates to a pregnancy subplot in the film). And if you don’t, well, then that’s a pretty telling indictment of the versions of history that are allowed to propagate in our culture.

Make no mistake, Canada has blood on its hands. Despite what smarmy “Meanwhile in Canada”-type social-media posts (favourably comparing our country’s history to the injustices and White supremacy of our American neighbours) would have you believe, Canada’s oppression and violence against Indigenous communities has always been a part of our cultural identity. From residential schools, to land-rights conflicts, to the staggering 2019 report on missing and murdered indigenous women, the utopian ideal of the country’s supposed multiculturalism is just as much of a dangerous fallacy as American exceptionalism—and accordingly, our horror allegories should be just as frank as theirs. There is some delight to be had at the idea that a “Shudder Original” (with financial assistance from Canadian funding bodies, broadcasters, and tax credits) is more directly confrontational and incendiary about this bloody legacy than the usual self-congratulatory media depictions of our history. Blood Quantum is certainly flawed, but at least it has more bite than a Heritage Minute.

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