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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...