The indigenous peoples of North America, Australasia and other areas of the world are one of the most under-represented groups in popular culture. Most people would struggle to think of more then five Native American actors, for example, and they would probably have all appeared in the Twilight franchise. It is therefore to be welcomed when we get films where the cast is mostly made up of indigenous actors and even more so, when the writer and director involved is from that same population. Canadian Jeff Barnaby made his feature debut in 2013 with Rhymes for Young Ghouls, a 70s-set crime drama about a teenage girl trying to keep her own and her family’s heads above water. He now returns with the 80s-set Blood Quantum, a zombie film which had a surprise drop onto Shudder at the end of April 2020. Both films are set on the Red Crow Mi’kmaq reserve in Quebec, where Barnaby is from.
The film starts with Chief Traylor (Michael Greyeyes) having to bust his sons Joseph (Forrest Goodluck) and Lysol (Kiowa Gordon) out of jail and it becomes clear that this is not for the first time. The first clues that things in the world are starting to go awry are fairly familiar, if you’re used to the tropes of zombie films. First fish and then dogs start coming back to life, then they gradually realise that certain people are acting strangely. About thirty minutes into the film, there is a time-jump to six months later and the Mi’kmaq are adjusting to life in their new reality. It seems that the Mi’kmaq are immune to the zombies, so they have formed an enclave, but are constantly threatened by ‘townies’ trying to get in so they can escape the zombie hoards.
The acting from everyone involved really sells Blood Quantum and the best zombie films have some emotion in them, so that the deaths have more impact. Forrest Goodluck had a supporting role in The Miseducation of Cameron Post and he plays Joseph’s concern and protectiveness of his pregnant white girlfriend Charlie (Olivia Scriven) very well. Kiowa Gordon is known for playing Embry in Twilight: Eclipse, he is the bitter and jaded brother who will go to any lengths to keep the outsiders out of the fort-like structure they have built. Elle-Maija Tailfeathers can currently be seen in The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open on Netflix, which she also co-wrote and directed. She plays Joseph’s mother Joss, who is a nurse and therefore has an important role within the new community they have built. Devery Jacob, who was the star of Rhymes unfortunately only has a small role here, which is a shame as she was so good in Barnaby’s first film. Traylor’s father Gisigu is played by Stonehorse Lone Goeman and he is a major part of one of the most heart-breaking scenes, towards the end.
There are many effective elements, such as the production and costume design creating a slightly steampunk Mad Max feel, once the apocalypse is properly underway. The score, by Barnaby and Joe Barrucco, gives the film an authentically 80s feel with its use of synths. If you’ve come for blood and gore, you will not be left disappointed, as many scenes are indeed blood-soaked. The dysfunctional family dynamics add interest to the story, but not much time is given to fully flesh out (excuse me) the characters and their relationships. We see that teen pregnancy (Traylor was a teen father and now his son is one), drugs, alcohol and petty crime are all issues that the Mi’maq have to deal with and how they continue to be issues even after the apocalypse. There are some hints as to how the myths and legends of the Mi’maq might fit into the story and some commentary on how Mother Nature is turning against the white man and the irony of the indigenous population having to build a wall to keep the white folk out. All of this could have been highlighted more, however, perhaps through the use of animations, which were beautifully used in Rhymes.
What could have been a run-of-the-mill zombie flick was, for me, really elevated into an emotional story in the final fifteen minutes or so of Blood Quantum. When the inevitable heart-wrenching decisions and deaths do come, they feel earned and are effectively sold by the impressive acting. It is fascinating to see how the zombie myth can be interpreted by different cultures and one can only hope that we’ll be getting more films (of any genre) from the indigenous populations of the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (to name just some countries) and that they make a bigger impact on Western culture. These stories deserve to be heard and find an audience.
Directed by: Jeff Barnaby
Written by: Jeff Barnaby
Cast: Michael Greyeyes, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Forrest Goodluck