The true appeal of zombie stories is the limitless possibilities that they afford to their tellers. Society has broken down, all previous rhythms have been disrupted and it’s up to the us to build the ‘new normal’ however we see fit. Also, as the zombie plague usually touches all corners of the globe simultaneously, there are an infinite number of voices to offer their unique perspectives on events. Given all this, it’s kind of disappointing how many zombie stories are still about middle class white people hanging around in malls.
Thankfully this is not the case with Blood Quantum, a Shudder original that moves the action to a First Nations reservation in Canada. The shambling ghouls are on the prowl, and an indigenous community are in charge of one of the last strongholds for the uninfected.
This means that the reservation, historically under constant threat from repressive police raids and denied vital resources, is now a coveted safe haven. It’s a reversal some of the white characters aren’t particularly comfortable with. In one scene, some, having trekked through the wilderness to throw themselves on the mercy of the indigenous community, still feel justified in yelling at them to speak in English.
These ironic reversals are a theme throughout the film. The title, ‘Blood Quantum’, refers to laws that restricted rights based on fractions of identity passed on through parentage. Yet in this brave new world, having First Nations ancestry means that you are immune to the disease, transforming a source of historical oppression into a kind of post-apocalyptic privilege.
Despite its obvious social commentary, Blood Quantum doesn’t focus on overarching themes at the expense of plotting and action. Writer/director Jeff Barnaby describes the film as ‘Native Exploitation’, indicating that while he wanted the film to use social issues as a backdrop, his primary goal was to create an engaging and relatable story without offering any easy solutions.
On this level, Blood Quantum more than succeeds. The fractured family unit that the film foregrounds feels recognisably fragile. Father Traylor (Michael Greyeyes) struggles to maintain control as prodigal son Lysol (Kiowa Gordon), a seething mass of grievances and nihilistic tendencies, threatens to burn everything down. Meanwhile, his other son Joseph (Forrest Goodluck) stands at the threshold of fatherhood, prey to all of the insecurities and worries that that entails.
While Gordon’s malevolent performance is the standout, there are no real weak links in the chain. The end result is a realistic thumbnail sketch of a family creaking under the weight of responsibility and unaddressed trauma. On the other hand, this laser focus on the family unit leaves the rest of the community feeling somewhat lacking in depth. It’s difficult to care too much about the people under siege when so few of them are fleshed out.
But what of that last test of a good zombie film? From the opening scene, which can best be described as ‘gnarly’, Blood Quantum proves that it’s got the grotty, gory goods. Chainsaws, shotguns and even a trap involving giant mechanical snowblowers are the order of the day. Barnaby has a knack for on-screen gore that is always inventive and surprising.
With it’s grindhouse sensibilities, grounded performances and social messaging that is neither subtle nor overpowering, Blood Quantum shows that a fresh perspective on the zombie genre is possible. In the wider scheme of things, it’s great to see marginalised and underrepresented voices taking control and putting their own spin on horror tropes, particularly when the genre has done them such glaring disservices in the past.