Review: Blood Quantum (2019)

Review by Beverly

This review first appeared at Leviathan Libraries.

Dead people have come back to life and are now vicious zombies. However, the Indigenous residents of the Mi’kmaq reserve of Red Crow are immune to whatever is causing corpses to become “zeds” . Tribal sheriff Traylor has a lot on the line with his son’s child on the way and refugees converging on the reserve–and, of course, all those animated white corpses.

Blood Quantum | Director: Jeff Barnaby | Writer: Jeff Barnaby | Stars: Michael Greyeyes, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Forrest Goodluck, Kiowa Gordon | Release Year: 2019 | Genre: Horror Drama | Runtime: 1 hr 36 min | Source: Streaming | Starred

Blood Quantum

Social commentary and practical effects are a one-two punch

To begin this review, it is important to understand the meaning of the term “blood quantum”. It is, in simple terms, a measurement created by the United States government to record the amount of “Indian blood” that someone has. If you’ve ever heard a guy in a bar saying that he’s 1/16th Cherokee or the lady selling dream catchers at the craft fair claiming to have Lakota ancestry, they are talking about the concept of blood quantum. (You can learn more on NPR’s Code Switch if you’re interested.)

As far as director Jeff Barnaby’s (Rhymes for Young Ghouls) film, the term holds an additional twofold meaning. First, only people with “native blood” are immune. But what percentage matters? The title card refers to this, in fact, with an “ancient settler proverb” that warns against the settlers mixing with the existing inhabitants of the land.  

The second meaning is, of course, just plain old blood, because Blood Quantum is a wild and gory ride with tons of enjoyable practical effects.

I crave cinema from people and places that I have never been to, about things I can not ever experience. It helps me understand more of my fellow humans. It builds empathy and understanding. I enjoyed Blood Quantum on this level because of social commentary that would be right up George Romero’s alley, but also it had strength as a practical effect-based horror movie, too. 

In the first part of the movie the plague is slowly revealed. The first hint comes when Sheriff Traylor’s dad Gisigu (Stonehorse Lone Goeman) tells him that the fish are coming back to life, even after they have already been cleaned and prepped. Keep an eye on Gisigu, by the way. He definitely does more than fish.

For Traylor, there are a lot of other things going on aside from weird happenings at his dad’s place. There’s the disease slowly creeping in, and his complicated relationship with his sons, Joseph (Forrest Goodluck) and Lysol (Kiowa Gordon). Both boys get into varying amounts of trouble. Indeed, mention is made of Lysol having been sent away for a time. On top of that, Joseph’s white girlfriend, Charlie (Olive Scriven) is pregnant and Traylor is unhappy that his son is not stepping up as a father-to-be.

It is a good time to note that Barnaby himself is Mi’kmaq and grew up on the Listuguj reserve in Quebec, Canada, which makes it possible that Lysol’s situation may refer to residential schools, although the viewer never finds out for sure.

Not long after a pivotal (and bloody) scene I won’t describe here in the interest of avoiding spoilers, Blood Quantum does something most zombie flicks don’t do–it jumps ahead six months. 

The viewer sees all the work that’s gone on since we last left our heroes. There is a well defended wall separating the reservation from the white zombie hordes, which the tribe calls “zeds”. Unfortunately the film bogs down here with exposition and a large cast of characters being introduced.

There are divisions in the tribe on how to handle the uninfected white people flocking to them for shelter. Ultimately some are let in, although they’re watched like hawks. The symbolism of white strangers (the zeds and the people trying to run from them) trying to take over the Mi’kmaq land may be obvious, but it’s still chilling and effective.

Charlie’s baby is a powerful question in Blood Quantum. Will the child’s Indigenous blood protect it? Or will its white blood make it weak? This serves to create tension, but it also hints at the absurdity of measuring percentages of human beings at all. The situation gives us one of the more memorable lines in the movie, in which Charlie says, “people look at me like my vagina is Pandora’s box”. That is another thing I liked: the movie, while heavy in message, still has fun.

Back when many of us Leviathan Libraries folks were working on Sci-Fi and Scary, our very own Brain Lindenmuth raved about this movie: “Blood Quantum worked on every level.” I liked it too, but I have quibbles with some of the performances and pacing that make my judgment of the movie a bit more reserved. That said, my problems with Blood Quantum are not big enough to ruin it for me–I still recommend it.

Consumers needing content warnings are urged to check out Blood Quantum’s page on Does the Dog Die by clicking this link:

Beverly Bio

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