As a genre, horror is imbued with an intrinsic ability to acknowledge cultural trauma unlike any other.
From the early days of film, horror has worked to poke at the establishment, using creatures such as zombies, vampires, and the things of nightmares to directly attack what we consider normal. Premiering at TIFF 2019, Blood Quantum is such a film, using zombies as a way of tackling inequalities to a frightening degree. While not everything with the film works, what does makes it well worth the time to experience what this filmmaker has to say.
Jeff Barnaby’s sophomore feature is a film filled with raw pain. Built as a zombie thriller, Blood Quantum takes on the concept of Canada and how it has dealt with the Indigenous population. Taking themes from the Alanis Obomsawin documentary Incident at Restigouche, this is a film that is as much about the struggles of Indigenous people within Canada as it is about the living dead.
Blood Quantum uses the classically political zombie genre to try and tear away the veneer of colonialism—violently ripping at the façade and outlining the problems native people still face in modern-day Canada. Even the name “Blood Quantum” refers to the practice of measuring a person’s percentage of Indigenous heredity—and by proxy, their value.
Set in 1981, Blood Quantum wastes no time getting things started, jumping to Old Gisigu (Stonehorse Lone Goeman) fishing, only to discover something is horribly wrong: the fish aren't staying dead. The very salmon the people of the reserve catch and eat daily is no longer safe, and something ominous is coming.
As the film progresses, it quickly gives the audience an idea of all the main players in the drama to unfold. This is first and foremost an Indigenous story, and as such, it flips the typical narrative on what to expect. As reserve sheriff, Traylor (Michael Greyeyes) along with teenage son Joseph (Forrest Goodluck), older half-brother Alan, aka Lysol (Kiowa Gordon), and ex-wife Joss (Elle-Maija Tailfeathers), along with the full community of Red Crow Reservation learn just what the virus spreading will do to the world around them.
The twist: due to their native heritage, they are effectively immune to the virus tearing through the people of this small community. Flash forward, and society has fallen. The only people left standing are the people of Red Crow Reservation. As tensions start to reach a boiling point, what remains of the community will face the ultimate test.
Barnaby has managed to capture a film that feels charged with idea and metaphors throughout. The commentary is ever-present, elevating what could have, at first glance, been a simple zombie flick into something much more exciting, and thought-provoking. From the brutal violence to the attack on land, language, and race, Blood Quantum is not afraid to deliver its commentary, going right for the jugular as it does so.
Speaking of brutal violence, despite it wearing its social message on its sleeve, Blood Quantum is not afraid to spill a little onscreen blood to do so. The gore and blood is never in short supply in the film. From chainsaws though bodies to brutal fights slicking through the undead with brutal efficiently, this is a film that will please even the most bloodthirsty viewer.
Sadly, not everything works in the film. Some performances did not deliver the impact I would have liked, and along with a few tonal and plot inconsistencies tarnish what is otherwise would an excellent outing from this up-and-coming Canadian director.
At the end of the day, Blood Quantum is an important film, one that attempts to use horror to educate as well as entertain. It is a brutal take on an issue that is still raw for many people within this country, and while not everything in the film works, what does is enjoyable and engaging. This is a new Canadian zombie film that should not be missed. It has been sold to Shudder for U.S. distribution, so if you like zombie films, or just love genre cinema, there is no reason not to give this a watch.
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