Indigenous people face down zombies and win in ‘Blood Quantum’

Jeff Barnaby’s latest film speaks to Indigenous futurism and our new COVID-19 reality.


In “Blood Quantum,” the Indigenous are immune to the zombie plague that is ravaging their community.
Courtesy film still

“The earth is an animal, living and breathing. White men don’t understand this,” says Gary Farmer (Cayuga), who plays Moon in Jeff Barnaby’s timely zombie film, Blood Quantum. “This planet we’re on is so sick of our shit.” It’s a line that speaks eerily to the here and now. But just in case you thought Barnaby was taking himself too seriously, in the very next scene a man’s penis is eaten by a zombie.

The spirit of this film, the energy and the way it speaks to the zeitgeist, cannot be ignored. And by taking on issues of race and belonging, the film puts an Indigenous twist on the eternal problem of zombies. Viewing Blood Quantum in our current dystopian coronavirus reality is really a punch to the gut.

Barnaby, a Mi’kmaq writer/director/editor/music composer, sets his film on the First Nations Mi’kmaq Red Crow Reservation in 1981. There’s something about that decade that oozes good cinematic horror. It’s an interesting decision that appears to influence the film’s score, which is synth-heavy mixed with Barnaby’s trademark blues sounds, with some high-pitched Northern round dance music thrown in just to keep things interesting.

There are several innovative, trippy scenes using animation that bring to mind the 1981 film Heavy Metal. And there are clear references to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction throughout: Zombies are called “Zeds,” a character who owns a pawnshop on the rez chooses a sword as his weapon — “Zed’s dead,” he says — and there’s the now-ubiquitous classic Tarantino trunk shot. Barnaby wears his references on his sleeve, and honestly, you could do worse than Tarantino.

The way that Blood Quantum deals with race relations is particularly cutting. We are now living in a time in which immigrants are demonized. The main character, Lysol (how appropriate is that name right now?), played almost a little too well by Hualapai actor Kiowa Gordan, is distrustful of most things, but particularly white people in the time of a pandemic. For the Indigenous are immune to the zombie plague that is ravaging their community — a plotline reminiscent of Comanche filmmaker Rod Pocowatchit’s 2010 feature, The Dead Can’t Dance. This time, however, the smallpox blankets are infectious to the “other side.”

After scavenging bullets to battle the zombie killers, Lysol vents his frustration about the gamble the community has made in taking in Anglo survivors. “Some of these fuckers ain’t local, never seen a brown person since their grandparents owned one.” He worries about eventually being outnumbered by white people and having his community taken over. It’s a valid consideration.

What if Indigenous people, who were originally ravaged by disease, were immune to this new one? What would we do?

A gory, life-altering experience pushes Lysol over the edge, and he leads a small rebellion against the Indigenous survivors who take in the Anglo refugees. His father, Traylor, the reservation sheriff played by the, dare I say it, stoic Cree actor Michael Greyeyes, tries to keep the peace in a chaotic time. The film posits a straightforward premise: What if Indigenous people, who were originally ravaged by disease, were immune to this new one? What would we do? In the hegemonic borderland of life or death, in Barnaby’s worldview, Indigenous people choose to reach out — to take in others — for the sake of humanity rather than choosing crueler options. It’s a bold statement.

Traylor, the reservation sheriff played by Cree actor Michael Greyeyes, attempts to keep the peace.
Courtesy film still

There’s a lot that resonates after watching Blood Quantum, especially in our current COVID-19 reality. The film gives us something fresh to think about. Should we worry more about how we treat the earth? Do human respect and decency look different in times of distress and need? Do we need to be reminded that we’re all we got?

Blood Quantum is essentially a zombie film, but of course zombie films, while entertaining, are oftentimes about much more than just eatin’ brains. Film critic Roger Ebert said of George Romero’s 1978 classic, Dawn of the Dead, set in a shopping mall, “It is … savagely merciless in its satiric view of the American consumer society.” Whether or not the goal was simply a form of Indigenous futurism — or sweet revenge upon those who brought disease to Indigenous lands — the film is a unique piece of Indigenous filmmaking. 

There is no mistaking the slick production value of Blood Quantum. It looks and sounds clean. The swirling opening aerial shots from cinematographer Michel St-Martin give you a taste of what’s to come. Barnaby furthers the conversation on what Indigenous films can do. He’s working within a genre but saying something new, different and interesting. It’s a delicate balance between relying too much on old tropes — lazily making the “Native version” of something — and actually using a genre as a vehicle and redlining it, crashing fearlessly through old boundaries toward something exciting and new.

Jason Asenap is a Comanche and Muscogee Creek writer and director (and an occasional actor) based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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