It’s 1981 on the Red Crow Reserve. A native fisherman returns to shore with his catch before he guts it, just as he has done for over sixty years. His handiwork is mechanical and precise, yet all of a sudden, one by one the gutted fish begin to flail, while the stunned fisherman looks on in a virtuosic long shot that eventually gives way to the film’s title, Blood Quantum.
I love this opening sequence. As far as zombie apocalypse genre films go, this is a well-shot, modest introduction that aims for an understated yet powerful eeriness rather than bombastic gore, although that was yet to come, and in good measure too. Yet, as Blood Quantum presses on, the initial nuance begins to crumble, giving way to increasingly ludicrous plotting, bad acting and a wasted thematic premise that makes for one of the most frustrating cinematic experiences of 2020.
Grievances aside, for now, I do have great admiration for writer/director/editor Jeff Barnaby’s rich thematics, which deals with race relations between natives and whites in a manner that never sinks to petty finger-pointing, while still maintaining an objective perspective that ultimately emphasises unity, not division. This is without doubt the best thing about Blood Quantum, as it conveys fleshed out racial divisions that not only elevates its shaky narrative, but closely mirrors contemporary issues on the subject, which, frankly, Canadian cinema could do with more of.
The structure of the narrative reflects as much. Following the aforementioned opening, the son of the native fisherman, Traylor (Michael Greyeyes), who is the sheriff of the Red Crow Reserve, attempts to balance his duties as the head of local law enforcement with being a father to his delinquent sons Lysol (Kiowa Gordon) and Joseph (Forrest Goodluck). All the while there is a creeping apocalyptic chaos that turns the white people of the area, or ‘townies’ as they are called, into undead cannibals, while the natives of Red Crow are immune to the affliction. Following the collapse of society, Traylor leads a group of survivors who seek to outlast the infection, regardless of their race. This creates greater tension between Traylor and Lysol, as his son views the townies as a threat to the survival of their people.
Standing out in a saturated genre is no easy feat, to the point that it is impossible to make your own impression without first borrowing from others. Blood Quantum features the social commentary of Romero with the gleeful gore to go with it, but it also shamelessly borrows from what I consider to be the zombie genre’s schlocky soap opera, The Walking Dead. Not only does the film feature its own samurai sword-wielding badass à la the hit TV show’s Michonne, but Barnaby even gives the undead his own titular stamp of ‘zeds’ or ‘zedcicles’, since ‘walkers’ was already taken.
Then there is the uneven pacing coupled with lazy plot development. While Blood Quantum’s opening third is measured and sure of itself, once it jumps ahead by six months, Barnaby starts to lose sight of his narrative. The filmmaker establishes and then almost immediately breaks his own rules of infection, while almost simultaneously, one townie survivor is allowed into the Red Crow compound, but instead of checking for bites, they just take her suspiciously defensive word for it when she claims she is A-OK. Of course, she has been bitten, and in one of the most obvious places to check too. In instances such as these, of which there are many, Barnaby is not only insulting the intelligence of his characters, but his audience also, all in the name of haphazardly moving the plot forward.
Although the dialogue is certainly more serviceable than the plotting, it is frequently dragged down by wooden acting, particularly from Greyeyes and Goodluck, which is painfully apparent when they share the screen with standouts such as Stonehorse Lone Goeman and Brandon Oakes, the latter of whom has little screen time but makes the most of every word he utters.
This all builds to a woefully stitched together conclusion that throws any remaining semblance of pacing and logic out the window, while most of the emotional payoffs go largely unearned.
Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum is a frustrating watch not because it is an inherently bad film, but because it is a genre piece that has, what should be, a solid foundation fuelled by some truly inspired ideas and visual storytelling. Yet, Barnaby drops the ball a little over thirty minutes into the film and never makes a convincing enough effort to pick it back up. This could have been another watershed moment in Canadian native cinema, but instead it is a disappointing zombie flick whose substance is betrayed by the execution.