Since The Walking Dead ravaged our screens to become one of the most successful TV shows ever made, the humble zombie movie has since typically fallen short to comparisons to the AMC titan and shed the inherent political allegory the undead claimed in the earliest works of George A. Romero. Whether its racial injustice, consumerism or gentrification, the zombie has always played host to contemporary social themes, and in Shudder’s latest acquisition Blood Quantum, colonialism is up on the chopping block.
‘Blood Quantum’ refers to a colonialist policy enforced by the United States government that determined Native American status via percentage of ‘full-blood’ ancestry. Mi’qmaq filmmaker Jeff Barnaby not only puts his middle finger up to that notion of blood purity but twists a traditional zombie narrative by having his indigenous characters at the centre of the film be the only people that are immune to the virus.
The film follows Sheriff Traylor (Michael Greyeyes) on the Red Crow reservation (largely shot on location on the Listuguj reservation where Barnaby grew up), whose fisherman father notices that the fish he catches are jumping right off his prep table after being gutted. Traylor’s troubled sons Joseph (Forrest Goodluck) and Lysol (Kiowa Gordon) also have a similar freaky run-in when they are arrested, spending a night in the local jail another (presumed to be drunk) detainee falls to the floor in a pool of blood then quickly becomes rabid— just as Traylor shows face to get his two sons free.
Blood Quantum starts small with animals and various odd occurrences that Traylor takes in his stride then suddenly Barnaby comes from the left field with an unexpected turn: the film jumps forward six months. Entering full apocalypse territory, the inhabitants of the Red Crow reservation have now become the bold leaders of a group of almost exclusively First Nations survivors, forced to use their immunity to the virus to take in white refugees. This second half of the film balances two distinct moods; Lysol’s anger at having to save the white infected and then also an all-out gore fest with great humour. There’s a chainsaw to the face, a snowplough to a zombie hoard and some excellent Samurai sword usage. Barnaby favours those essential, close-up ‘look at this makeup!’ shots that genre fans love and the fast zombies are sure to either excite audiences or piss off zombie purists but the film’s tonal shift seems often clunky and at odds with the serious undercurrent of the story.
Lysol’s inner rage is a far more interesting angle; he simply doesn’t understand why his people should save white settlers that walk on stolen land and are bringing the virus right into the heart of their community. This is particularly hard for him given brother Joseph’s pregnant, white girlfriend who enjoys an absolutely annoying sub-plot as the carrier of a potentially world-saving baby. For Lysol, this is a chance to return the land to its rightful guardians.
I think in the end its message does slightly lax in favour of some traditional horror tropes which are to its detriment, given its bold statements in its first act. But Blood Quantum’s existence alone feels important for the genre. Representation in horror for Native people often relegates them to the source of a curse in those myriad of Stephen King (and King knockoff) films that find Indian burial grounds to be the source of their evil. Seeing Native representation not only on-screen and deeply embedded within the material but also controlling behind the scenes has successfully brought the socio-political aspect back with a vengeance to the zombie sub-genre.
Clunky need to please gore-hounds and whack out some sickening make-up effects aside, Blood Quantum is a terribly exciting piece of work. It inverts colonial ideas to turn the tables on the oppressors and undeniably makes you question your own place within this scheme. Despite its predictable beats in its final act Blood Quantum is equal parts bloody fun and thought-provoking. This is a horror that feels nothing but fresh and essential.
Blood Quantum is available to stream on Shudder now
by Chloe Leeson
Chloë (she/her) is the founder of SQ. She is a costume designer and trainee teacher living in the North East of England. She thrives watching 90s Harmony Korine Letterman interviews and bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. Find her on Twitter @sqchloe and on Letterboxd here.