Sometimes all it takes is a fresh angle to make a familiar concept work. Blood Quantum has one. On the surface, it's The Walking Dead, a story about a group of people on the run from a virus that kills and reanimates its victims. The twist is that it takes place on a reservation, focusing on the lives of its Native American residents. This small bit of originality infuses the story with incisive political undertones. You can see the movie on the Shudder streaming service.
The setting is the Mi’gMaq reservation of Red Crow. A virus has caused dead fish and later a dead dog to spring back to life. The tribal sheriff, Traylor (Michael Greyeyes), is brought in to investigate. He makes the shocking discovery that the disease can spread to humans. Then the film jumps ahead six months. Traylor lives in a self-styled Native encampment with his ex-wife Joss (Elle-Maija Tailfeathers), troubled son Joseph (Forrest Goodluck), and Joseph's pregnant white girlfriend Charlie (Olive Scriven). Other son Lysol (Kiowa Gordon) is there too, acting as an enforcer to keep the infected out.
Here's where Blood Quantum gets interesting. There's a bridge that connects the reservation to the outside – i.e. non-Native – world. Natives are immune to the virus, so it's only the white “townies” who are infected. And because they need people to munch on, they attempt to cross that bridge looking for food. Once in a while, a white person who isn't infected tries to come in, hoping to avoid that particular fate.
You can probably tell by now that the story draws parallels to real-life occasions in which whites have infringed upon Native lands. It never directly speaks of these times, although it absolutely encourages viewers to make the necessary associations to everything from Columbus's “discovery” of America to the more recent Dakota Access Pipeline. A sense of weightiness rests at the center of the picture, giving it more substance than many undead chillers.
Writer/director Jeff Barnaby stages some A+ gore sequences throughout the film. That includes one zombie who gets a chainsaw through the head, plus a rather bloody method of trying to keep undead from getting to the other side of that bridge. Scenes like this come sparingly, though, in order to make the biggest impact. Focusing on the often tense relationships between the characters is just as much a priority as the carnage. All the characters have varying levels of resentment toward one another, leading to plenty of interpersonal drama.
To be honest, Blood Quantum – whose title refers to an old practice instituted by the federal government to limit citizenship by measuring the amount of “Indian blood” an individual possesses – has a lot of rough edges. A lot. Some of the performances are not what you'd call polished, and the storytelling isn't always smooth. At points, it jumps around from one thing to another somewhat awkwardly.
Nevertheless, the freshness of the approach, the quality of the horror beats, and the provocative political undertones are enough to make Blood Quantum worth seeing. Barnaby has big ambitions, and at a time when zombie tales are starting to feel stale, he finds a way to inject a new perspective.
out of four
Blood Quantum is unrated, but contains strong bloody creature violence and adult language. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.