REVIEW: Blood Quantum (2019)

dir. Jeff Barnaby.

Zombie films have always been tooled up for social commentary, particularly post-colonialism. The word “zombi” in fact first entered Western lexicon via Victorian anthropologists such as William B. Seabrook and Lafcadio Hearn, who uncovered this folkloric myth through their work in Haitian communities who practised Voodoo (a syncretic religion of witchcraft and Christianity born out of the Caribbean melting pot created by the slave trade). Such stories inspired Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932) – arguably the first film of the sub-genre – whilst George A. Romero repurposed the ghouls to reflect the civil and racial unrest of 60’s America with his seminal Night of the Living Dead (1968). As such there is something pleasingly circular – both old and new – in Jeff Barnaby’s sophomore outing as he turns the zombie’s undead eye to another great moral outrage of colonial history: the experiences of First Nation peoples.

Opening on the Mi’gMaq reserve of Red Crow in Eastern Canada, local law man Traylor (Michael Greyeyes) is having a tough day, balancing his time between his job, ex-wife (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) and errant sons Joseph (Forrest Goodluck) and Lysol (Kiowa Gordon). The boys are in trouble again, locked in the drunk tank at the local jail. And then there’s the matter of his father’s freshly caught fish which have been gutted but are still flapping. And the dog which has been put down… only to get back up.

Barnaby – himself of Mi’gMaq heritage – breathes a natural authenticity into Red Crow and her residents. It’s a poor town long before the dead rise, and though perhaps it would be unwise to generalise our protagonists are certainly survivors of familial breakdown, substance dependency and a feeling of spiritual – if not geographic – displacement. Barnaby may not explicitly link this to his character’s colonial history but the inference is clear, that this disadvantage is the generational trauma caused by white oppression: something mirrored in real life statistics.

This issue of indigenous identity under siege – both historically and ongoing – is writ large, so although the ensuing apocalypse hits well-worn beats (with its cop hero, walled compound, and a katana wielding badass The Walking Dead feels a particular touchstone) it’s re-contextualised here along parabolic lines as the reserve comes under attack from a (reanimated) white threat: for in an unexplained wrinkle the Mi’gMaq are immune to zombie bites, meaning that as Armageddon unfurls the descendants of the Pilgrims are reduced (returned?) to devouring invaders whilst the Mi’gMaq re-inherit their land. As one older tribesman observes, the earth has “turned these stupid fucking white men into something she can use again – fertilizer”.

This shift in power means that although the Mi’gMaq are perhaps materially and socially poor, their wealth is literally in their virus-resistant blood, an emblematic talisman of their resilience. As the title infers – “blood quantum” being the process of establishing Native American lineage and belonging – it is precisely their heritage which may prove their salvation.

In contrast the threat white folk pose – both as zombies and agents of old-world oppression – is keenly felt, a tension all the more immediate since Joseph’s Caucasian girlfriend Charlie (Olivia Scriven) is pregnant. Lysol particularly harbours deep resentment for this perceived act of racial treachery, while Charlie fears that the dilution of their baby’s blood may mean she is carrying a monster. Of course whether this is the case – or if the baby might become an embodiment of unity – remains to be seen.

As with Howling and Ramke’s Cargo (2017), Blood Quantum is fresh meat in an overloaded sub-genre, embracing indigenous culture and themes of familial salvation that make it a worthwhile entry amid the shuffling hordes. Ironically it’s at its best when departing most from its generic trappings, but with reports of zombie fatigue amongst horror hounds Barnaby proves the old corpse has life in it yet.

Tim Coleman

BLOOD QUANTUM is currently streaming on Shudder.

Published by Tim Coleman

Film critic. Screenwriter. Academic.

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