A zombie outbreak has hit the world pretty hard in Jeff Barnaby’s gnarly apocalyptic horror thriller Blood Quantum. Well, except for the isolated Mi’kmaq reservation, whose inhabitants appear to be immune the virus. As the Native peoples are beset by townies and tourists alike who stream to their lands seeking refuge and possibly a cure, they must tap into their own love of individuality to keep themselves and healthy outsiders safe from the running dead.
Now, I’m pretty much always up for a good ol’ fashioned zombie movie, and since by this time nearly every kind of zombie movie has already been made, I kind of expect to see something I’ve already seen. In some movies, zombies shamble, and in others they run. In some there’s some form of cognition still percolating in their brains, and in others, there’s just gray matter. And sometimes, it’s the setting that’s unusual. In this case, it’s a Native Canadian reservation where everyone knows everyone and things move just a little more slowly. The reserve even has a cranky sheriff (Michael Greyeyes, “True Detective” TV series), his warm ex-wife (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open”), a wild-child son (Forrest Goodluck, “The Revenant”), his wilder stepbrother (Kiowa Gordon, “Drunktown’s Finest”), and (of course) a wise elder (Stonehorse Lone Goeman).
At first glance, this does seem like a clichéd situation, even setting aside the proliferation of zombie movies these days. But it’s unusual that a horror movie spins its yarn from a perspective other than that of White People. There just aren’t that many people of color horror movies out there, and even fewer focus on indigenous peoples. Even so, it’s not difficult for a film to use a unique perspective or setting as its only interesting aspect; Blood Quantum, however, presents appealing characters, quick action, and plenty of visceral violence.
The problems begin when fish caught from a local lake and gutted suddenly begin flopping around; next, a dead dog reanimates. It’s only a matter of time before the virus makes the leap to humans, afflicting a man in a jail cell also occupied by the son and stepbrother. Madness ensues as people get bit and plenty of them die horrible deaths. Then the movie skips forward several months. Gone are the peaceful days in the picturesque Quebec village, replaced by a desolate landscape, a fortress, armed guards, and some paranoia. A familiar question arises: Since the Natives appear to be immune to the virus, do they owe it to the less fortunate to give them shelter? Or do they owe it to themselves to help . . . well, themselves? This dilemma is the impetus for warring factions in the community, as the aggressive Lysol (Gordon) rants against letting potentially infected outsiders into the secure compound. And supplies, at least in the form of gasoline and bullets, are dwindling. Something needs to give, and soon.
Did I mention the violence? Zombie movies are well known for not shying away from blood and guts, and Blood Quantum is no exception. There are plenty of intestines being chewed upon or swords slicing through skulls — enough to sate most fans of crimson hues. Still, the pacing felt a little off. There are stretches when the focus is more on the relationships and “Before Times” conflicts among the main characters and less on defending themselves against hordes of raging zombies. There were also far too many scenes that required the actors to do some heavy dramatic lifting, and the results weren’t always pretty. Tailfeathers and Goodluck are both spot-on terrific, imbuing their characters with empathy and dignity, but some of the other performances were a little one-dimensional. Or, to be fair, perhaps the characters were that way to begin with. Some actors, though, are best suited for action, not melodrama.
Yet even though it is a little uneven in spots, Blood Quantum (the title comes from old colonial laws that limited the civil rights of Native Americans) is definitely a most sincere zombie movie, a delightful roller-coaster when it really gets moving and a bit of a traffic stop when the fighting temporarily ceases and people have to talk about things.