If our persistent fascination with the zombie apocalypse genre has taught us anything, it’s that our culture is very enamored with imagined plagues and fictional societal collapse. What we’re less enamored with are the stories of the actual societies that fell from plague and genocide, and the survivors who were left behind. Native scholar Lawrence Gross once said that many of the Native American peoples have “seen the end of [their] world,” yet whenever we get to see the end of the world in movies, it’s overwhelmingly through the lens of privileged white characters in speculative future settings.
So one reason why Jeff Barnaby’s First Nations zombie-fighting thriller Blood Quantum is so magnificent is because it blends a well-worn genre with a refreshing, lived-in sense of indigenous heritage. Fittingly, the movie gives us a zombie apocalypse story told through the perspective of a people who have weathered several apocalypses before.
In Blood Quantum, we follow one Mi’gmaq reservation’s efforts to preserve some semblance of functioning civilization after a viral disease turns most of Canada’s population into mindless, undead cannibals (referred to as “Z”s in the film). As you would expect, a lot of chainsaw dismemberments, entrail misplacings, and morbid one-liners ensue, but so does a tragic meditation on grief and generational trauma.
Michael Greyeyes stars as Traylor, the Mi’gmaq sheriff who becomes the de facto patriarch of the reserve’s survivors in the wake of the Z catastrophe. Joining Greyeyes are Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers as Traylor’s ex-wife Joss, Forrest Goodluck as their headstrong teenage son Joseph, and Kiowa Gordon as Lysol, Traylor’s son and Joseph’s older half-brother. There are a few others who round out Blood Quantum’s excellent ensemble cast, but these four characters most illustrate the familial themes at the heart of the film.
It’s quickly established that the film’s indigenous characters (those with the titular blood quantum) are genetically immune to the Z virus, a spin that’s clever not only because it refreshes the zombie formula, but also because it inverts the historical understanding of Native Americans and epidemic disease. Now that the natives are immune, they’re the ones who will decide what the new world will look like. The stakes of Blood Quantum offer more than just zombie evasions and resource acquisitions; our main characters have been given a potential do-over after centuries of colonialism, and their struggle is to not waste it. But when the dead come back to life, so do old traumas, and what ultimately gets in the way of our protagonists are the wounds made before the Z plague. Barnaby recognized this principle in his last film Rhymes For Young Ghouls and remains true to it here.
The film has a pre-Z plague extended prologue that some may feel is overlong, but it’s actually super necessary to understand where our main characters are coming from. It’s also really satisfying to see the contrast between the depressed, elegiac lives they live in “normal” res society and the purposeful, brutally efficient roles they get to serve in the post-apocalypse. And once we get to the post-apocalypse, Blood Quantum takes off so fast that any pacing qualms you may have with the first act will be easily forgiven. We’re almost immediately thrown into a world where Michael Greyeyes is the battle axe-wielding commander of the world’s last defense against the zombie incursion.
I don’t really like movies that try to affect a “cool and badass” tone, because they often end up feeling silly at best and edgy at worst, but after seeing Blood Quantum, I realize that I just haven’t seen many movies that convey what badass and cool really feels like. Blood Quantum is cool. Blood Quantum is irreverent. It’s a film that has the audacity to go into bar-like digressions about cunnilingus mishaps in the middle of a siege and you'll be laughing along with it. All the performances in the film help channel this really mellow, Mi’gmaq perseverance. It’s weird to say this in a year where Jim Jarmusch also made a zombie movie, but Blood Quantum might be the most deadpan zombie film of 2019.
Blood Quantum is a film that gives you a lot to take away from it. It’s heavy-hitting, but nonchalant with its revelations. It’s unflinching in its horror, but hopeful in its outlook. It’s fun, crass, gruesome, morose, and exploratory. Blood Quantum is the type of unrestrained Native American zombie movie we should have already had for years, and I’m damn happy we have one now.