Zombies became overplayed in the 2010s, with filmmakers effectively recycling what George Romero did decades earlier. To make matters worse, The Walking Dead sort of sanitized the subgenre into something akin to family viewing. Zombies became safe. And when they’re not safe, they are, as seen in this year’s awful direct-to-digital film Corona Zombies, the punchline of a bad joke.
Thankfully, one of the first original horror films of 2020, Blood Quantum, is here to change that. Blood Quantum is not safe. It’s uncompromising and mean-spirited, using zombies to satirize society. Created by indigenous filmmakers, it also brings a new voice to a horror staple that had grown comfortable with convention.
Red Crow is an isolated Mi’gmaq reserve in Quebec, Canada, accessible only by a single bridge. One day, the dead start coming back to life, biting and devouring the living, among them the white people that have increasingly made the reserve their home. However, despite being bitten, the Mi’gmaq residents of Red Crow remain unchanged.
Armed with the knowledge that his people alone are immune to the zombie plague, tribal sheriff Traylor needs to protect all who find themselves within Red Crow, including his teenage son and his pregnant white girlfriend… and also the multitude of ruffians whose racial biases and self-centered intentions might bring ruination to humanity’s possible last refuge against the apocalypse.
Blood Quantum is a bleak, biting family drama placed in the middle of a zombie film soaked through with bloody social commentary. Writer-director Jeff Barnaby utilized his experience growing up in a Mi’gmaq reserve in Quebec to paint a rather cynical portrait of modern Indigenous life. Much like George Romero and Danny Boyle did with their zombie films, Barnaby shows that, in times of adversity, sometimes the greatest enemy we face comes from within.
The opening moments of this film feels more akin to something out of Junji Ito’s Gyo than The Walking Dead, with Traylor’s father cutting up a bunch of fish only for all of them to stop flopping around. The film takes its time getting into the zombie action, primarily because Barnaby wants to establish Red Crow and its characters, as well as the racial prejudices in the area. Once the characters come to realize they’re dealing with zombies, the film cuts six months into the apocalypse to show how life in Red Crow has changed — for better or worse.
Blood Quantum‘s sense of humor is best defined as dry. Even a scene where a character defecates on a passing car while sitting on a bridge is presented with a dry wit. This cynical humor allows the film to transition into stark brutality and back with remarkable efficiency.
Those coming to Blood Quantum expecting violence will not be disappointed. Those coming for zombie action like you’d see on The Walking Dead, however, will be disappointed. Blood Quantum brings with it two varieties of violence: over-the-top gore and starkly cruel death. If you want to see zombies get chainsawed through the head or zombies going through a wood-chipper, you will get that. However, you ought to know you will also witness a man killing his poisoned dog, a zombie eating its newborn infant and a man executing a comatose child with an ax through the head — all within the first half hour of the film.
This is also a film whose concept will be taken out of context by people who want to hate this film. Yes, the zombies are primarily white people. Yes, the Indigenous do at one point wonder if the cause of the zombie outbreak is just the Earth got sick of white people’s nonsense and took revenge. However, the film really isn’t about white people. It’s about Indigenous culture, facing conflict from within on how to deal with an outside world who has continuously threatened to devour them. It’s a film about the challenges of trying to come together. It says some people will just ruin lives — even those of the people who love them — for the sheer meanness of it.
Many elements of this film will sound familiar to long-time horror fans. All of the conventions of the zombie genre are here, ultimately. However, much like films like 28 Days Later or Shaun of the Dead, Blood Quantum succeeds not because of originality but because it peers at familiar tropes through a new lens. Like the very best zombie films, Blood Quantum is about something. This is easily one of the best horror films in 2020, that brings new blood to the genre the way 30 Days of Night did to vampire films.
Blood Quantum is now streaming on Shudder.
Blood Quantum is to zombie films what 30 Days of Night was to vampire films: fresh blood that brings the undead horror subgenre to life.