Horror’s become more inclusive in recent years, a welcome shift for a genre that has historically favored white-centric stories. Blood Quantum, which just hit Shudder, is a pretty typical zombie movie except for one big difference: it’s set on a First Nations reserve and is told from the POV of Indigenous people.
Writer, director, editor, and composer Jeff Barnaby, who was born on a Mi’gmaq reserve in Quebec, has one previous film under his belt (the drama Rhymes for Young Ghouls, which is also set on a First Nations reserve), but Blood Quantum—which screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness series last year—has serious breakout potential, especially now that it’s on Shudder. Its ominous first act shows us the very beginning of the zombie outbreak, as fish, dogs, and eventually people who should be dead start snapping back to life.
At the center of the chaos is weary tribal sheriff Traylor (True Detective’s Michael Greyeyes) and his family, including his two sons: teenager Joseph (Forrest Goodluck), whose white girlfriend (Olivia Scriven) has recently found out she’s pregnant; and Joseph’s half-brother, a ne’er-do-well who everyone just calls “Lysol” (The Twilight Saga’s Kiowa Gordon). Also in the mix are Traylor’s ex and Joseph’s mother, Joss (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), who’s a no-nonsense nurse and is therefore exactly the kind of person you want to have around in case of a disaster; and a mix of older men who are both badass (like Traylor’s sword-wielding father, played by Stonehorse Lone Goeman) and somewhat less so, like the perpetually sloshed Moon (Gary Farmer).
If that sounds like a lot of characters, it is, and Blood Quantum—the title refers to laws introduced in the 1930s to determine and define a person’s Native American identity, based on their specific ancestry—rushes a little bit with its introductions, especially when it comes to establishing the delicate dynamics between Lysol and Joseph. What’s more, it’s easy to get distracted from parsing who’s who once Blood Quantum kicks into splatter mode—which happens as fast as you want it to, and is satisfyingly ghoulish.
There’s a major story twist, though, that is conveyed with perfect clarity from the start: only non-Indigenous people (or “townies,” most of whom appear to be white) are affected by the bites. The Indigenous folks obviously aren’t immortal—if a zombie rips their throat out, or if they get shot or whatever, they’re still gonna die—but they are immune to the nasty virus that causes people to turn into zombies. If they get a quick chomp, it heals like any other puncture wound, with no flesh-gobbling side effects whatsoever.
That survival advantage really comes into play when Blood Quantum shifts its action to six months later, and we see that nearly every townie has either succumbed to the virus or has begged for shelter in the makeshift fortress that Traylor and the others have constructed on the reserve. Tensions are running high, though, and it’s clear that what’s left of the human race won’t be coexisting peacefully for much longer.
The metaphor in Barnaby’s script—it’s a comment on colonialism, with the white settlers bringing disease along with a general sense of greediness and false ownership to Indigenous land—is a little bit heavy-handed. But it’s also a thought-provoking and refreshingly original part of the story; horror’s long history of social commentary has seldom been so pointedly applied. And the underlying message lingers even when Blood Quantum eventually goes the way of many zombie movies (and long-running AMC TV shows) to remind us that humans will always turn on other humans, even in the presence of packs of shambling ghouls.
Blood Quantum is not a perfect film, but it’s definitely notable, and not just for its focus on authentic Indigenous characters. Let’s just say that zombie fans will not be disappointed by its gruesome creativity, with severed heads, crawling torsos, and operatic sprays of blood all over the place. But all gore aside, Barnaby’s perspective as a First Nations filmmaker is something we don’t see enough, especially in horror, where “Native Americans” are usually portrayed as either Scary Others (like the shape-shifting werewolves in Wolfen), or as mystical sidekick types, like Will Sampson’s shaman in Poltergeist II.
In Blood Quantum, some of the Indigenous characters are heroic, and some are definitely not. But beyond showing us a variety of people who all react differently when the apocalypse strikes, the movie gives us insight into a community that’s already endured plenty even before the zombies arrived. Though there’s no real explanation given for the outbreak, the one theory that’s voiced (it involves the following observation: “This planet we’re on is so sick of our shit”) feels both plausible and, well, eerily timely.
Blood Quantum is now streaming on Shudder.
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