BLOOD QUANTUM: An Indigenous Take on Zombie Films

Familiar plotting, fresh perspective

Blood Quantum: the fraction of… ancestors, out of their total ancestors, who are documented as full-blood Native Americans.

The moment an indigenous zombie film came into existence, it became destination viewing. And now after a surprise drop, Blood Quantum from writer/director Jeff Barnaby (Rhymes For Young Ghouls) is available as a Shudder exclusive. I had to seek out this title with a quickness, and ultimately found a mixed bag that I did like, but which didn’t quite live up to my high expectations.

Blood Quantum is, right off the bat, an interesting zombie film. For years we’ve already been in the waning era of the zombie genre. And yet, I can’t count how many reviews I’ve written, over the course of many years, highlighting yet another zombie film that has found a new angle or a fascinating and fresh approach. Wyrmwood, The Girl With All The Gifts, The Battery, or even Maggie all come to mind and I’d bet any reader could come up with half a dozen more examples of variations on the formula that breathe new life into a down-but-not-out subgenre. The central and instantly fascinating premise here? What if you had a zombie film created by and starring Native Americans, in which the indigenous population is somehow immune to the effects of the zombie bite?

Any zombie film worth its salt has ideas behind it. George Romero’s societal critiques awash in gore and real world anger have set a template, which is perhaps the greatest reason for the longevity of this genre. Barnaby packs Blood Quantum with relevance to today’s political climate, and more importantly issues germane to Native American culture. While trying to avoid too many spoilers, I’ll share a few observations I made that did cause me to reflect, while also admitting that some of what Barnaby was trying to say got a little lost in translation. As a white reviewer who’s done a little poking around online, I am almost certainly missing the salience of some of the character beats or scripting that didn’t always make sense to me, but probably had deep reasoning to illustrate the struggles of the modern Native American culture.

Blood Quantum is really about family. There’s a multi-generational theme throughout the whole thing as we follow the older generation and the younger generation throughout the initial zombie outbreak and then through a “six months later” jump with the Red Crow reservation having become a cobbled together fortress of survivors. Things jump off with Gisigu (Stonehorse Lone Goeman), a fisherman, encountering the corruption of nature as his gutted haul of fish flap and live again. Gisigu, a Vietnam vet and grandfather, soon crosses paths with his son, local sheriff Traylor (Michael Greyeyes). Traylor is patrolling around the reservation as this zombie outbreak is revealing itself and we witness a series of horrors play out amidst a population that is struggling with substance abuse and systemic poverty. Eventually Traylor and his ex-wife Joss (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) are forced to bail out their teenaged son Joseph (Forrest Goodluck) and his half brother by Traylor Lysol (Kiowa Gordon) from the drunk tank after a night of debauchery. When a guy in the drunk tank resurrects in a particularly violent exchange, our characters are all caught up that zombie apocalypse is upon us, and we’ve met most of our primary characters. We soon learn that Lysol’s mother abandoned him and there’s much tension and conflict going on between the half brothers. Joseph is also in the midst of deciding whether he and his caucasian girlfriend Charlie (Olivia Scriven) are going to go through with a teenage pregnancy and become parents.

It’s worth it to delve into that much plot description in a brief review because it seems most of what Blood Quantum has to say is about generational shifts in the Native community, varying levels of anger and trauma, and desperately clinging to hope amidst catastrophe. My favorite character by far is the Old Head, Gisigu. If you want to put aside the ideas and themes and just geek out over amazing genre visuals, Gisigu is your guy. This is a tough looking old Native American man who wields a katana throughout the movie and dispatches zombies with a quiet calm. He’s just the best. Traylor is largely the film’s protagonist, and he and his father are routinely going on missions together and embracing a bit more of a traditional mindset in the way they’re coping and trying to survive. Much like parents are investing all the time in raising up the next generation, our grown characters are also kind of passing off the focus of the film onto their younger characters. It’s not long before Joseph, Lysol, and Charlie’s drama takes center stage in the film as parents make sacrifices for their children.

To stick briefly with all the elements of Blood Quantum that are just super cool, this movie really does have some classic horror fun and a little style on its mind. We get a few brief animated sequences that drip with style and which I absolutely ate up. I’m not entirely sure what the purpose of those sequences are beyond style, but they were welcome nonetheless. You’ve got the aforementioned sword-wielding Native badass, which is about as iconic as it gets. And the flat out gore and visual horror pulls absolutely no punches. You’ll see awful things happen. Even the title is cool and exposed me to a concept I’d never heard of before, the codified measuring of a Native person’s ancestry to determine the “fullness” of their heritage, which of course ties back to the family motif of the whole film. Visually, it’s also neat to explore the concept of Natives being immune to the bites. Our heroes end up with bite scars all over them… something you just don’t see in any other zombie films.

But that also brings me around to some of the challenges I had with Blood Quantum. The film is stuffed to the gills with ideas and thematic relevance, but I’m not sure it executes those ideas with the grace or clarity that it needed to. Take the concept of Natives being immune to zombie bites. I LOVE this idea. And the film makes clear that this mild tactical advantage over the zombies is as much a curse as it is a blessing. They can still be eaten… and now they’re a beacon to more needy and desperate survivors. But this single idea could have been fleshed out and made almost a central premise of the film. Instead the structure of a first act outbreak broken up by a “six months later” new world order undercuts the impact of this idea. You get a scene of some white survivors desperately begging to have access to the walled-off Red Crow reservation fortress, which of course drips with satisfying irony, but this whole element feels underdeveloped in order to speed through a lot of plotting.

I also felt very unclear on some of the major plot developments and why they happened, from a character perspective. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a 3 hour cut of Blood Quantum that lets the characters breathe a little more and fleshes out their motivations more strongly. We’re introduced to a whole lot of characters and while the family dynamic element is strong, each individual character doesn’t have much time to shine. Lysol in particular is meant to be tragic and outcast but the decisions he makes feel shocking in a way that’s unearned. Blood Quantum builds to a finale that has to be a direct homage to Children Of Men. We’ve got a handful of survivors in a tiny rowboat drifting into the mist of an uncertain future, but with a child representing hope and new life. It’s strong imagery and a solid finale that would’ve had more impact and weight if we hadn’t been so rushed in getting there.

But Blood Quantum is a real-ass movie. It’s not a Jordan Peele-level calling card where Jeff Barnaby announces himself as a fully-formed master of horror and the defining voice of a new generation of genre cinema. But it is an impressive attention-getter nonetheless. With some muddled plotting and the occasional flat performance, you can see where Barnaby has plenty of room to grow as a filmmaker. But as a unique voice able to tell Indigenous stories with a genre flare, Barnaby has most certainly grabbed my attention and I’ll be following his work going forward. I suspect Blood Quantum’s release on Shudder will also gain Barnaby and his film a fair amount of exposure amidst the horror community and he’ll have myriad new fans to share his next projects with.

And I’m Out.

Blood Quantum is now streaming exclusively on Shudder.

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