By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Michael Greyeyes, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Forrest Goodluck
Written and directed by Jeff Barnaby
Though some of its broader strokes will no doubt be exceedingly familiar to devotees of genre cinema—feral zombies spreading their “virus” via bites, for example—BLOOD QUANTUM (now on Shudder in the U.S., UK and Ireland) is a uniquely powerful and special film. With his sophomore feature (after 2013’s RHYMES FOR YOUNG GHOULS), Mi’gmaq writer/director Jeff Barnaby not only deftly weaves rich cultural heritage, challenges and burdens of indigenous First Nations peoples into an harrowing apocalyptic horror film, but also channels its intense, viscera-flying brutality and uncomfortable social truths into a story that is cathartic, life-affirming and, yes, darkly beautiful.
Set in 1981, BLOOD QUANTUM opens with a lone fisherman on a small boat hauling in his nets in the shadow of a modern cityscape. Gisigu (Stonehorse Lone Goeman) returns to the remote Red Crow reserve where, by contrast, humanity integrates into nature’s majesty–hardscrabble yet idyllic. Here he gets down to the gutting. Alas, his catch prefers not to remain dead and, in what soon will become a cross-species epidemic of reanimation, the fish begin to flop with abandon.
In these first five minutes, Barnaby gives the audience a fairly solid road map of what, on one level, is in store for us: breathtaking, stylish visuals imbued with surrealist horrors. (Shoutout to cinematographer Michel St. Martin, whose work here is outstanding.) In the next five minutes, as world-weary sheriff Traylor (Michael Greyeyes)–Gisigu’s son–and his estranged wife Joss (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) discuss bailing out their wild child Joseph (Forrest Goodluck) from jail over yet another minor offense, Barnaby gives us a glimpse of the other side of his artistic coin: an ability to infuse his characters with real pathos and authenticity.
With the stage set, things quickly escalate. Whatever brought the fish back begins to bring people back, too, and as mentioned above, they come back biting. The non-spoiler twist here is that the indigenous residents are immune to this particular undead virus. Suddenly, many of the very same people whose modern culture helped marginalize the reserve are now desperate to escape to it. Which, of course, brings up the thorny question of the responsibility the healthy and unaffected have to the vulnerable and sick—an inadvertent tie-in to the current COVID-19 pandemic that gives BLOOD QUANTUM a heightened resonance and immediacy.
At this point, the film splits into three interrelated narratives. First, there is the philosophical prong, dealing with the complexities of cultural tables turning on a dime. Second, there is a gritty, raucous, swaggery action prong, in which a band of Mi’gmaq armed with various weapons of mayhem fight back. And finally, we have the extremely affecting human prong stabbing constantly at our heart as the family does everything in its power to rescue Joseph’s pregnant non-indigenous girlfriend Charlie (a fantastic Olivia Scriven), and in so doing, it is implied, save a little bit of humanity’s soul at the dawn of an uncertain age.
If it sounds like there’s a lot going on in BLOOD QUANTUM…well, that’s accurate. To Barnaby’s credit, however, none of the characterizations or world-building comes off as rushed or pro forma. In this respect, the rather vanilla nature of the zombies is a big plus; negating the need for any lengthy backstory to the rising creates space for the film to explore the macro/micro ideas above and below it. The performances are all on point and naturalistic, and possess enough range to be effectively funny and disquieting and scary and poignant and rousing.
May we have as much depth, bravery and conscientiousness as we navigate our own present, all-too-real crisis.