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Interview: “BLOOD QUANTUM” director Jeff Barnaby proves that zombies never die

Thursday, May 7, 2020 | Interview


Jeff Barnaby knows only too well that timing is everything. He conceived of his latest feature, BLOOD QUANTUM, over a decade ago. “I had this idea before The Walking Dead premiered!” he says, laughing. Audiences have been eagerly anticipating new work from the writer-director after his auspicious 2013 feature debut Rhymes for Young Ghouls. That film told the story of a young indigenous woman’s revenge after years of abuse in the residential school system.

Timing is even stranger now, given that BLOOD QUANTUM arrives in the midst of a global pandemic the likes of which has not been seen in over a century. The film was warmly received at TIFF last year and had been slated for a spring release, but is instead streaming on Shudder as of this week. Despite the disappointment of not having a traditional theatrical opening – watching a horror movie is especially invigorating with an audience – BLOOD QUANTUM is still managing to garner attention: the New York Times review declared it “inspired splatter.”

Set on the isolated reserve of Red Crow, BLOOD QUANTUM further explores the popular zombie mythology, but this time, when the dead rise, the indigenous inhabitants of the reserve are immune to the zombie plague.

And yes, the widespread proliferation of zombies in pop culture did leave Barnaby a bit concerned about the project. “Are zombies overplayed? Yes. But when you stop and really think about it, original ideas are rare in movies and TV. Over 90% of them are drawn out of something else. Yes, there are a lot of zombies running around, but it’s still not a played-out concept. I call this a Native zombie exploitation film.”

“Yes, there are a lot of zombies running around, but it’s still not a played-out concept.”

Barnaby said he was attracted to horror and specifically to zombies because they have proven such a rich go-to metaphor for the political apocalypse and dire alienation. “I like stories about colonialism, but I don’t like preaching,” he says.

And, of course, BLOOD QUANTUM has a built-in distinctiveness: the main characters are indigenous. “In Hollywood they want the white guy leading people, like Tom Cruise. Our narrator is indigenous. Hollywood’s idea of diversity is to have brown people on screen being told what to do by white people. I think ideas around culture and how it’s represented have shifted. I will be interested to see how the Avatar sequel is received, for example. The original was framed as a white savior film, though it’s obviously an indigenous story. How this will play out now, when people are far more tuned in to such stories, will be interesting to watch.”

The toughest part of making a film like this – with a budget of $5.5 million, which is considerable for a Canadian feature­ – was wrangling the money together. “I’m in two unions, which means I couldn’t work for free,” Barnaby says. 

Now he’s banking on releasing the film during a year of Trump anxiety: “I’ve read that zombie movies do better under GOP administrations and that vampire movies to better under Democrats. So we’ll see.”

Barnaby’s own inspirations range from 28 Days Later to The Stand, the 1994 miniseries based on a Stephen King novel. “As is often the case with zombie movies, the zombies aren’t the problem in the end, uninfected people are the problem.”

Barnaby is especially inspired by the shift in genres like horror and superhero movies, where minorities are making serious inroads. “What Jordan Peele did with Get Out was incredible. And of course the success of Black Panther is amazing. I think for a lot of us, those successes are still sinking in.”