Wednesday, April 29, 2020

[Review] Shudder’s Indigenous Zombie Film ‘Blood Quantum’ is Entertaining AND Important

In the pre-screening Q&A at the world premiere of writer/director Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum, the film’s producers mentioned that it took 12 years to raise the funds to make the film. It’s hard to believe that it would take financiers so long to see the appeal – and importance – of an Indigenous zombie film. The film is literally the first of its kind, so it is worth highlighting that the film’s very existence is its own milestone.

There are two ways of discussing Blood Quantum. One addresses the film’s status as a vital piece of historical, socio-political art; the other is a more traditional perspective as to whether it is an entertaining horror film. While there are obviously some horror fans who would prefer to focus exclusively on the second type of review, the reality is that films are not created or consumed in a vacuum. Every film, regardless of how silly or sublime they are, carries with them political, social and cultural themes imparted by both the filmmaker, as well as the audience. Blood Quantum is simply a text that addresses this reality that much more explicitly.

The film is set on the Red River reserve in 1981. It is divided into two halves, each chronicling a single day: the first is the day of the outbreak as the residents of the reserve discover that the dead are coming back to life, while the second takes place six months later and chronicles the status of the survivors as they live in a fortified zone. Blood Quantum is primarily concerned with one extended family consisting of father Traylor (Michael Greyeyes), mother Joss (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), their son Joseph (Forrest Goodluck), grandfather (Stonehorse Lone Goeman), and the black sheep of the family, Lysol (Kiowa Gordon), who is Traylor’s son from a previous relationship and Joseph’s step-brother.

The fractured family unit is the centerpiece of the film, particularly in the film’s second half when tensions within the closed society come to a boil. Lysol disagrees with Charlie (Olivia Scriven), Joseph’s pregnant white girlfriend, and Joseph’s willingness to seek out and welcome survivors because of the risk carried by an undeclared infected person. Inevitably, because this is a zombie film, something does happen to put the community in danger, leading to an extended battle and a protracted escape for survival.

Taken at face value, all of the stuff with the family works reasonably well. These are the characters that are the most developed and, as an audience, we are most invested in their stories and survival. Joseph’s fraught relationship with Lysol, to whom he’s desperate to connect, despite the latter’s self-diagnosed “asshole” tendencies, is the meatiest narrative conflict. Lysol is equal parts fascinating and frustrating: he is a damaged, traumatized boy with legitimate parental issues but he is also simultaneously a nihilist prick who is content to burn the whole establishment down when people go against his wishes. Gordon is hugely compelling in the role, so much so that he overshadows the rest of the cast, particularly Goodluck, who is saddled with a more conventional, less showy “good guy” role.

The rest of the family are solid, with Lone Goeman faring best as a hard-edged grandpa who is unafraid of getting his hands dirty. The non-family members are more thinly sketched; they seem to have a single defining characteristic, but that doesn’t always mean that they aren’t fleshed out.

While the motivations for the chaos that tears down the new society are a little circumstantial and won’t work for everyone, Barnaby has an undeniable understanding of how to handle gore. Blood Quantum delights in messy violence, often timed with a comedic stinger to help the exploding heads and entrails go down easier. Some of the editing is a little rocky (Barnaby also handles those duties) as a few cuts and transitions introduce an odd temporal disconnect or cause some confusion about the geographical layout, particularly when the zombies are in rampage mode.

So, from the first perspective, as a zombie film, it’s pretty good.

It is when the second type of review is introduced, however, that Blood Quantum shifts to an entirely new level. However, before continuing, a mild SPOILER warning is required (this isn’t a twist or anything, but if you want to go in cold, you might wish to skip to the end of the review).

The film’s defining, distinctive element is the fact that Indigenous people are immune to the zombie virus. This means that all of the zombies in the film are white people and the true threat to the Indigenous community is not the threat of being turned into a zombie, but being overrun/eaten by them.

As a narrative conceit, this feels fresh and unique. Barnaby’s screenplay skirts around the details and occasionally even seems reticent to explore it head-on, but the history and political implications are immediately apparent. This is a horror film in which the external threat to the Indigenous community is literally white settlers. As I discussed in my Maple Syrup Massacre column on Ginger Snaps Back, Canada’s problematic relationship with Indigenous peoples is one of oppression, forced migration, and cultural genocide. It is incredibly powerful for an Indigenous filmmaker to position Indigenous people as not only the heroes of their own narrative, but to directly position white people as ravenous murderers who are exclusively interested in consuming and decimating the community. The fact that both non-Indigenous survivors and zombies are both constantly trying to break into the refuge is a not-too-thinly disguised reference to colonial settlers infringing on Indigenous territory.

Add to this the very specific historical time period in which the film is set: 1981. This was the year that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the government introduced amends to the Canadian Constitution and initially omitted Clause 34, which recognized Aboriginal land treaty rights. Mass protests from Indigenous peoples followed, and the issue was eventually rectified when the federal and provincial governments all (save Quebec) voted to acknowledge Indigenous land claims. For Barnaby to set Blood Quantum – a narrative that positions Indigenous people not only as heroes, but saviours of the human race – is a direct response to this real life acknowledgment.

In this regard Blood Quantum serves both as a reasonably entertaining zombie film, but more importantly, as a vital socio-political critique of real historical events in Canada.

Editor’s Note: This TIFF review was originally published on September 7, 2019.


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