Blood Quantum is a brutal, squeamish, and bleak zombie movie. While it doesn’t reinvent the genre, it does redesign it. Blending together an uneasy eeriness with visceral and blunt gore the movie draws you in and never lets you go.
Jeff Barnaby sets the tale on Red Crow Indian Reservation in 1981. Zombies in zombie movies are rarely just the undead. They almost always represent “the other”. But by design Barnaby, who wrote, directed, edited, and composed the score; has made “white people” the other.
Thankfully Barnaby never tries to explain why the dead begin to rise. Personally, nothing disappoints me more when a horror movie tries to explain to me why something is happening. The very nature of horror is the unknown and how we are affected by it.
But Barnaby has turned that concept on its head. While he never explains why the outbreak is happening, he does flip the script by making the Natives, not just the hero of the zombie apocalypse, but also immune to the strange virus ravishing the land. After all, the film argues, who would better survive an apocalypse than a people who are constantly living through one every day.
Not to mention it is a pointed jab at the historic habits of colonizers to infest Natives tribes with a deadly disease and watch it ravish the population.
The concept of Blood Quantum is only a fraction of the film’s brilliance. Barnaby’s confidence and deft technical skill are self-evident in every frame. Working with his cameraman Michel St-Martin, the mood and tone are set during the opening credits. The camera flies over the Red Crow Reservation, but the frames are always slanted, skewed, upside down, or being tilted. In other words, from the very start, Barnaby is keeping us unbalanced.
Gisigu (Stonehorse Lone Goeman) begins to gut his fish only to discover that they refuse to die. Sheriff Traylor (Michael Greyeyes) is finding his morning filled with domestic disturbances along with a call from his ex-wife Joss (Elle-Maija Tailfeathers) telling him his son Joseph (Forrest Goodluck) has been arrested town side. Barnaby’s script is efficient in how it effortlessly gives us character moments and exposition all rolled into one.
A scene early on has Traylor arriving at a farm, responding to a call about a dying dog. “What I wouldn’t do to shoot my ex’s dog,” Moon (Gary Farmer) mutters as Traylor shoots the sickly dog. “Have you met my ex,” Traylor replies. Yet, when we do meet his ex, Joss, in the next scene she wonders where her dog has gone. Traylor says he’ll keep an eye out for him.
The conversation the two have leading up to that moment seems distant and a little cold. Yet, the moment where Traylor doesn’t tell her about the dog tells us so much about both their relationship and Traylor himself. It’s little moments like these peppered throughout Blood Quantum that make me love the movie as much as I do.
And I do love it, it should be clear. Odd, considering as a rule I find zombie movies boring. Yet, I couldn’t help but find Blood Quantum utterly absorbing.
I loved how the actors moved within a frame, a statement that may sound weird. But look at any big-budget film and notice how dull and stationary the actors are. Take the scene in which Traylor pulls up to Moon’s place. Notice how Moon begins to walk away as Traylor gets out of the car only to end up with Moon in the foreground and Traylor in the background.
If it seems like I’m obsessing over an insignificant scene towards the beginning it’s only because it tickled me in every conceivable way as a movie lover. Barnaby clearly loves watching his characters move and speak with each other in a way that is almost extinct in movies with higher budgets. The way St-Martin’s camera frames a scene allows for both the surroundings and the character to merge as one and speak volumes about both is dizzying at times.
The camera work gives us an uneasy feeling of dread as the familiar signposts of a zombie apocalypse begin to pop up. Joseph and his half-brother Lysol (Kiowa Gordon) sit in a holding cell while a drunk begins to cough and vomit blood. The aforementioned scene where Traylor is called out to shoot a dying dog who seems to have eaten something bad.
If Blood Quantum was only concerned with flipping the script it would still be good. But what makes it great is that Barnaby looks at the anger and hostility which ferments in his male characters and how it destroys them from the inside. Lysol, Traylor’s son from another marriage is consumed by his anger and wounded sorrow. Barnaby never tells us what happened to Lysol’s mother but it is implied that her death was one of violence and horror.
Generational trauma is a relatively new term in our vernacular. It has to do with how violence and abuse, like a genocide (becasue it is one), can haunt long after the initial incident. Curious that the artists who feel compelled to explore it are almost always women or PoC. Barnaby explores it through Lysol, a young man torn apart from the inside out by the violence done to his people and to his mother, ruled by anger, sorrow, and confusion.
Gordon’s Lysol seems ready to explode from the first scene in which we meet him. He’s not a lit fuse so much as a simmering pot, just aching to boil over. It is Lysol who sets in motion a tragic chain of events that will decimate almost everyone on the reservation. Blinded by his own misogyny and sorrow he cannot see that the end of the world has come. All he knows is death and destruction and as such, it is the only way he knows how to communicate.
Greyeyes and Tailfeathers are standout performances. The two have a way of communicating with glances and touches that bespeak of a couple that is separated by who can never really be apart. Greyeyes commands whatever scene he’s in without ever demanding it, your eyes just naturally drawn to him.
I must admit to smiling upon seeing Gary Farmer’s name in the credits and smiling even bigger upon seeing him onscreen. Farmer has an easy charm about him that I always enjoy whenever he pops up in movies. His Moon is an amiable roughneck of sorts who slowly begins to give in to his own anger and follow Lysol down his tragic and destructive path.
If I have a complaint at all is that the women of Blood Quantum are slightly underserved compared to the men. Tailfeathers’ Joss has a way of saying so much by merely sitting that it’s a shame we don’t get more of her. Aside from Charlie (Olivia Scriven), Joseph’s white pregnant girlfriend, the women characters are far and few in between. Though as the film progresses, and the body count rises, it is the women who seem to have a shot of survival.
Most zombie movies suffer from flat characters who have no inner life and nothing interesting to say. But Barnaby’s characters are interesting because they are filled with life. Blood Quantum is a movie that feels like its characters existed before the movie started and will continue after the credits roll, at least the ones who make it anyway.
Blood Quantum does a time jump early on. Those who read me, know of my loathing for time jumps. But I found myself gasping and pleasantly surprised by Barnaby’s time jump of fast-forwarding six months after the apocalypse started. We go from seeing how they deal with the zombie uprising and then fast forward six months and seeing how they are managing.
The answer is, they are barely hanging on. Barnaby and St-Martin give Blood Quantum a sense of claustrophobia by keeping the majority of the action on the Reservation. The survivors have erected walls decorated with amputated zombies and manned by 24/7 snipers around the encloased camp which has transformed into a community. They are not thriving but they are surviving.
But then Lysol brings it all crumbling down. Yet, despite the body count, there is a sense of optimism at the end of Blood Quantum. Barnaby has faith in the next generation and hopes that they will do better, to find a way to channel the rage and sorrow into something, anything.
I loved everything about this film steeped in a genre I normally find dull and repetitive. Everything from the sound design and how you heard every squish and squash of the intestines the zombies pulled out. I loved how Barnaby and St-Martin framed the violence and death, in a way that made it hard to watch and at times almost visceral.
It’s impossible to watch Blood Quantum and not think of John Carpenter, and not just because Barnaby composed his own score. Though, it should be noted the score adds another level of dread and eeriness to the film as well as helping convey a sense of mood without telegraphing what’s to come. But in the way, the camera glides along and frames its characters allowing them movement and life all while keeping the audience hypnotized.
Blood Quantum is a gut-wrenching zombie movie that has a social conscience and also a pulse. From the first scene to the last Barnaby’s confidence and skill will have your eyes glued to the screen, with a few gory exceptions. I loved every second of it.