Art is always political. Even when it isn't loudly proclaiming its ideology in severe, apparent aesthetics, art still carries implicit meaning. The denial of this has obfuscated conversations about a film's possible meaning only around lines of how loudly does a film announce those themes through dialogue and portentous tone. No genre falls into this particular trap quite as readily as horror, which often relies on spectacle and visceral thrills. Yet, more often than not, horror is rich in artistic and thematic intrigue. One film that represents this particularly well is Jeff Barnaby's follow up to his assured debut Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013), Blood Quantum. It is the first zombie film made by First Nations artists, starring First Nations actors and also a robust example of its genre and a stark allegory for colonialism.
Blood Quantrum's narrative is split between two segments, the first day of an outbreak and months later set in and around Mi'gMaq reservation Red Crow. The first third is that first day, setting up our cast succinctly and effectively. On the day of the outbreak, we follow Officer Traylor, his father Gisigu, his juvenile sons Joseph and Lysol, Joseph's white pregnant girlfriend Charlie, and his girlfriend Nurse Joss as their days intersect with happenings that are arch for this genre.
Things that were once dead come back to life, from recently gutted salmon to patients at a hospital, and the world goes to hell. Several characters are bitten, so we know they are going to turn into zombies, or so we think. When we fast forward six months into the remainder of the film, we discover that Mi'gMaq are immune to whatever causes the outbreak. They have established a settlement for themselves and offer aid to survivors who happen upon them. How the outpost offers assistance and how far they should go to help others becomes a source of tension for our cast alongside their interactions with zombies.
Blood Quantum is well -constructed from the ground up, especially its production elements. Cinematographer Michel St-Martin, working with Barnaby again after RfYG, has some excellent use of color and composition in this film. The colors are well used to indicate the tone and time of the story. Warm ambers of the world before the collapse and the cold, muted blues of a post-apocalyptic world stand out as particularly well-used colors.
Sylvain Lemaitre and Louisa Schabas' work wonders through their production design, recreating the look and feel of a reservation and Canadian small town in the early 1980s seamlessly. Barnaby's contribution to the film's elements, namely his score composed alongside Joe Barrucco (also an alum of RfYG), minimally drones with ominous, rumbling dread. Outside of the apparent digital cinematography, one could almost mistake this film for a hidden gem from the 1980s.
Barnaby reminds me of Jeremy Saulnier, in that both are influenced by John Carpenter while featuring similar aesthetics. They have subtle, unflashy cinematography that never calls attention to itself. They edit their films to be as lean as they can be while paradoxically finding space in their films for the characters (and audience) to ease their tension. There is a clear emphasis on atmosphere and mood that helps the story be taken at face value, even if its elements border on the absurd. All three also make clear-cut attempts at communicating more profound messages in their work in a way that doesn't draw attention to said messages. Unlike both Carpenter and Saulnier, however, Barnaby's messages are linked to his cultural background: all of his work to date is about exploring indigenous trauma.
Blood Quantum explores indigenous trauma by taking the typical zombie premise and narrative structure and reworking it into an explicit metaphor of colonialism. A story that has a plague that decimates populations, centering on indigenous characters, can't help but invoke memories of smallpox and plagues that swept through pre-Columbian America. Barnaby makes his Mi'gMaq characters immune to whatever causes zombification, while white characters are the most susceptible. A sign in the film reads, "If they're red, they’re dead. If they're white, they bite." A white couple trying to take shelter in their outpost are screened like at a border. When the Mi'gMaq characters speak amongst themselves in their language, the white man impotently cries for them to speak English. This aspect of the narrative fulfills a particular fantasy where the First Nations were unaffected by disease and repelled European colonization.
The film isn't a dry post-colonial allegory, however. It's still a film featuring visceral sequences of grisly body horror and violence. Characters are eaten alive by zombies. Others have their genitalia eaten. A zombie devours a newborn,. One zombie dangles from a window by its intestines, and zombies are ground daily by a harvester on a bridge. Our heroes use an assortment of different weapons to fight them off that range anywhere from guns, a chainsaw, an ax, and a katana. When you add these elements together, you get several creative ways to see some good, old-fashioned, zombie gore.
Despite the myriad praises I have for the film, I do have some unfavorable notes. Aesthetically, I'm not fond of the film's animation used seemingly at random. Incorporating animation was something Barnaby did in RfYG, but in that film, it was used as an insight into the protagonist's mind. It's illustrated to match the artwork she creates throughout the film. In Blood Quantum, the animation doesn't seem diegetically motivated, so while it features that same striking look, it's less welcome. I can see the argument that the animation represents Joseph's inner thoughts. Still, if that is the case, it could've been better presented as such.
On a thematic level, I wish more was done with the female characters. RfYG featured an incredible lead turn from Devery Jacobs (who cameos here) playing Aila, showcasing a fiercely spirited and unconventional portrayal of a First Nations woman. She was so radical that a test for representation was based on her. The Aila Test asks if the indigenous woman is a main character, if she doesn't fall in love with a white man, and if she isn't murdered or raped. Joss succeeds in these departments; however, her status as a main character is dubious. More often than not, she is sidelined for the male characters, which is to say nothing for Charlie. Post-apocalyptic stories tend to be incidentally patriarchal and reactionary. Still, it would've been nice to see this film subvert those notions as well.
Barnaby has crafted an incredibly fun, impactful, and at times, thoughtful zombie film whose mere existence as the first of its kind deserves aplomb. Barnaby continues to be an assured and capable director whose work I look forward to engaging with time and time again. I eagerly anticipate his next film, whatever shape it takes, and hope that he continues exemplifying one trait of horror cinema. Namely, that horror is always about something more than the visceral spectacle it may otherwise be miscategorized as.
Follow HorrOrigins Social Media Pages