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Still from Jeff Barnaby's 'Blood Quantum'

Blood Quantum is the Indigenous-led Horror Movie You Have Never Seen

Written by
Evan Robins
and
and
June 21, 2021
Blood Quantum is the Indigenous-led Horror Movie You Have Never Seen
Still from Jeff Barnaby's 'Blood Quantum'

This past month, Zak Snyder’s zombie blockbuster Army of the Dead has been doing numbers on Netflix, thus marking another triumph for the director, and a return to form for the zombie genre. Or so I’m told. To be perfectly honest, I haven’t watched the movie, nor do I have any plans to. As much as the last few years have been kind to horror fans, there remains as ever a good deal of uninspired schlock. Listen, I love uninspired schlock, but lazy PG-13 cash grabs, or blockbusters that are just three jumpscares in a clown suit just don’t have the same appeal to me as the debauched age-of-exploitation movies and serialized slashers.

Enter Jeff Barnaby, Mi’kmaq filmmaker from Listuguj First Nation, whose 2019 movie Blood Quantum represents everything lacking from the zombie genre in recent years: a keen eye for technical filmmaking, an inventive premise, and lots and lots of delightfully over-the-top gore. The premise is simple, but original. The film starts on Red Crow Indian Reserve circa. 1981, where sheriff Traylor is bailing his delinquent son Joseph out of prison on the “townie” side. We’re introduced to an ensemble consisting of Lysol, Joseph’s close friend and Traylor’s estranged son, Traylor’s ex-wife Joss, and Joseph’s pregnant girlfriend Charlie. With the sudden outbreak of a zombie plague, to which only the Indigenous people are immune, the characters are thrust into sudden upheaval. As the story progresses and characters adapt to a new world where anyone non-Indigenous is liable to turn, tensions rise between the survivors, and Traylor and Joseph begin to question who they can trust.

Is the movie good? It’s hard to say. Blood Quantum is both refreshingly simple and exceedingly complex. There are exceptional elements to it, as well as glaring faults which can make for an inconsistent viewing experience. As a fan of both horror and analog filmmaking, there was a lot about this movie for me to love, even if the story was rarely the most engaging part of it. With a movie like this, I think you get as much as you put in and having a rowdy screening with my roommates on our massive living room TV certainly made it more entertaining than if I were to watch this on my computer monitor.

So, let's jump into the blood and guts of it. This movie looks great. The 35mm film makes everything crisp and clear, while retaining an atmospheric grain that lends itself well to the more darkly lit scenes. Do yourself a favour and watch this on the highest resolution screen you can find, the cinematography deserves it. Scenes carry a palpable tension with them in the way the camera moves, and Barnaby’s choice to shoot a lot of the gorier deaths as wide shots rather than cut away makes for a sophistication that eschews some of the more depraved and voyeuristic tendencies of this genre. Coupled with that are the zombies, which are undeniably the best part of this film. The practical effects in this film are stunning, and there’s a griminess to it that comes through in the zombie scenes. The transformations are gross, the violence is splattery without being comically over the top, and Barnaby exercises the most important tool in a horror director’s arsenal – restraint. Towards the end, however, you can tell the effects department went all out, and the whole thing becomes gloriously bloody. There were moments in this movie that legitimately made me pause and gush to my roommates about the use of angles, lenses, and colour grading, because this movie looks, on a technical level, incredibly good.

However, for everything visually stunning about this movie, it is structurally a bit of a mess. The first act drags enormously, and the six-month time-skip that demarks the first and second acts of the film makes it feel disjointed and clunky. There are times when it feels as though the movie is trying to hit a series of beats and is shuffling everyone around just to do so. Barnaby does a good enough job of building tension, but scenes are often deflated at the last minute by cutaway gags. It’s frustrating to see, mostly because the visual comedy in this film is really well done. There are a number of zombie jokes that land better than the likes of Zombieland, and the characters are often given genuinely funny banter or quips. However, this becomes obnoxious when it undercuts a dramatic scene, something that happens all too much, and works to the detriment of the movie as a whole.

The plot is likely to get the most varying mileage out of you. I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of great zombie flicks are light on story, that being said, a premise like Blood Quantum might need more than the treatment it’s given. Themes are half-baked and unexplored, and the movie seems to prefer to wave its hands at the idea of inviting deep commentary than going out of its way to do so. Most egregiously, the discovery that the Indigenous characters are immune to the affliction happens offscreen, and as much as the decolonial commentary hinges on that initial premise, it is hardly developed and the process of getting from that initial discovery to six months later is never shown or resolved. The huge amount of time devoted to the first act leaves a lot of the movie post-timeskip notably underdeveloped and messy. Neither the thematic nor interpersonal storytelling is particularly strong, and the lack of proper planting and payoff makes most of the “reveals” and dramatic moments feel unearned or contrived.

All the same, I do think this movie is good, or at the very least, entertaining. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Blood Quantum, and for all its faults, the movie far outclasses any number of movies with budgets many times its size. One of the hardest things for movies to do in this hypersaturated market is to be memorable, something that this movie certainly accomplishes. From lots of great setpieces, to cutaway gags, to a character being named “Lysol” of all things, this movie has occupied space in my head for some time. I think that is truly the highest praise I can give this movie, because I didn’t simply forget about it after I turned the TV off. I love the world Jeff Barnaby has created, love the inventiveness and passion in his filmmaking. I would be delighted to see more of Blood Quantum, whatever form that takes. So, as critical as I’ve been up to this point, my impression on the whole is a positive one. There’s a lot to love in this movie, and through it all a real desire to make something compelling shines through. Independent filmmaking is such an underappreciated genre and art form, and it's genuinely refreshing to see a filmmaker using new ideas and employing inventive tricks to great effect. Gold star, Jeff Barnaby, I admire you. I’ll take a thousand Blood Quantum’s over another bad Romero remake any day.


OPIRG - Dis-O Week 2021
New Canadians Centre
Sparq Retail
Written By
Sponsored
OPIRG - Dis-O Week 2021
New Canadians Centre
Sparq Retail

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