“This old, tired, angry animal turned these stupid fucking white men into something she can use again: Fertilizer.”
There’s a fallacy floating around that, because it often relies on cheap thrills and cheaper special-effects, Horror is apolitical. Somehow we lay down the need for a film to have meaning when we decide it needs to be about violence, sex or terror: Pulp cinema is excused from the more difficult, nuanced responsibilities of filmmaking because it aims for the gut and not the head. Horror is easy. It’s cheap. The impulse says that, because the experience of Fear doesn’t sides, Horror gets to be neutral.
Horror, as we’ve gone over before, is a reflection of the conditions of its creation. It’s a taxonomy of what scares us, sure, but it’s always a portrait of its audience, too. In 1968, audiences looked at Night of the Living Dead and saw their anxieties about racism in America and the horrors of the Vietnam war. Poltergeist reflected 1982’s gentrification and mindless domestic development without due care for the original stewards of the land. In its final scene, a mass grave literally swallows a white-picket neighborhood. Friday the 13th is about a small-town community’s mass, unresolved guilt – which manifests as a bogeyman who hunts their children in the one place their parents can’t protect them. Look at Candyman and Ganja and Hess. More recently, look at Get Out and US. Can we say these films are apolitical, when they’re so clearly carrying on conversations about race in America? No way.
I can go forever – and I’d love to, the history of Lowbrow Art is fascinating! – but the point is this: Horror, like all other forms of storytelling, cannot avoid addressing the culture it represents. So long as there is an audience, Horror will be political. The difference comes in the ways we respond to it: Horror is ‘allowed’ to go places other genres aren’t, it plays by a different set of rules. Horror content crosses conservative boundaries with ease because we have a different set of expectations for its subject matter. It’s meant to shock, which means it serves as a perfect avenue for exploring marginalized voices. Horror absolutely has its own issues with representation, make no mistake. But like so many forms of outsider art, the taboo-studded borders of Horror are permeable to communities that might otherwise find themselves without representation in mainstream pop culture.
This is the magic of Genre Filmmaking as a whole: look at The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Look at anything John Waters has ever made – let’s go with Hairspray. And, yes, look at clear Trans allegory The Matrix.
Look at Blood Quantum.
Blood Quantum doesn’t mince words. From the title itself – the breathtakingly racist blood-science that determines whether someone receives government classification as an Indigenous person – to its countless tweaks to the zombie-movie formula, it’s an aggressively frank and direct piece of filmmaking. It’s a film about rage: whether that’s the mindless rage of the all-white ‘Zed’ pressing in from outside, or of the Indigenous people within its few safe settlements, whose resentment or internalization of Colonialism is too deep to be unseated by the apocalypse. It’s a film that dares to question what ‘Apocalypse’ means in the context of a people whose ancestral lands are suddenly and violently returned to them. More than that, it’s an earnest exploration of inter-generational trauma and resilience, set against an historical allegory in the shape of a zombie outbreak.
It’s a film in which a plague rips through the settler-Colonial state, but leaves those with Indigenous blood untouched. And what happens once the power dynamic of casual, institutional Canadian racism is suddenly reversed.
So yes. It is very, very Political.
It’s also an absolute blast to watch. Blood Quantum can be unbearably heavy at one moment and an ass-kicking exploitation film in the next. It’s the rare zombie movie that actually made me tear up – and that’s without getting into the moments of human drama, genuinely hilarious comedy and totally gross-out gore effects. I’ll happily list it among the best Zombie films I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen them all. It’s easily the most refreshing.
If you don’t want me to ruin anything else about this film, stop reading and go watch it right now. Blood Quantum is a high-water mark for Canadian Horror and deserves every one of its many awards. I can’t wait to see what it inspires.
Every Zombie movie has its ‘drop’: the moment where you realize everything has gone horribly wrong and the previous world has come to an end. These can be very good and fast (Dawn of the Dead!), and they can be drawn-out nonsense (the other Dawn of the Dead!), but you can typically take the measure of a Zombie film by how much care goes into these scenes. How fleshed out is the world, how does it establish its characters, and do we have a sense of power dynamics before the fall, so we can appreciate how they change after?
Blood Quantum is a case-study in how to do this right.
It’s either ten seconds or half an hour before we meet our first ‘real’ zombie in Blood Quantum, depending on whether you count infected animals. For the first act of the film it’s easy to forget that the Zed are coming at all. Our protagonist is Traylor, the police sheriff of the Red Crow Reservation. The year is 1981 and Traylor’s teenage son Joseph is in police custody just outside the reserve after a night of vandalism and mischief. Traylor’s relationship with his ex, Joss, is strained. It’s strained further when she discovers that Joseph, the son she shares with Traylor, is locked up with his son from a previous marriage: a man nicknamed Lysol, who can’t keep himself out of trouble. Joseph has a pregnant girlfriend and can’t keep making mistakes like this, but Joss doesn’t know how to keep him safe. Traylor isn’t sure either, and the overt racial tensions on the ‘townie’ side – outside the reservation, dominated by whites – aren’t making things easier. It’s obvious that he cares about Joseph, and he sees the trauma and pain at the heart of Lysol’s behavior, but he isn’t sure how to proceed. Every relationship in Traylor’s life feels like it’s hanging by a thread.
He’s already at a loss when his father, a veteran who runs a local pawn shop, shows him a salmon he gutted that morning. It’s slamming around in the fishing cooler as if alive.
Later that day, everything changes.
Director Jeff Barnaby’s attention to detail in these opening scenes is remarkable. I could have watched this family drama play out for the full run-time (and in sense it does). Everything has a lived-in, earnest quality that could only come from someone who knows this world intimately. Barnaby is also the director, the editor, and a co-producer of the soundtrack: everything in Blood Quantum feels crafted by the hand of a director with a deep love of these places and the complicated people within them.
It makes sense: he literally grew up there.
In 1981, the Listuguj Mi’kmaq Reservation, where the film was shot, saw brutal raids by the Quebec Provincial Police. Jeff Barnaby, who is Mi’kmaq himself, grew up watching footage of those events. Blood Quantum is a film made in Jeff’s home, about his people, set during a year of infamous, well-documented atrocities committed by the Canadian government. All of this informs his film, it has to, and the racism he witnessed and experienced growing up is at its core. It couldn’t be more personal.
Despite the intensity of its themes, Blood Quantum has an energy and optimism that never recedes beneath its rage. Oftentimes the two walk hand-in-hand: it is, after all, a Zombie flick.
There’s a great deal of joy to Blood Quantum, and an obvious, intense local pride. Characters slip into spoken Mi’kmaq in moments of excitement, or sometimes just to drop killer one-liners. There’s prop comedy, and laugh-out-loud-gruesome zombie kills. There’s at least one real groaner of a movie reference, lovingly delivered by an old man with a samurai sword. Despite the trauma of the zombie invasion, there’s a warmth to the scenes with Traylor’s family that feels earned and honest. Characters laugh together, they share moments of camaraderie and bravery – and then they battle mindless hoards that happen to perfectly resemble their former oppressors. Like any great zombie film, the zombies themselves are more of a setting than a proper villain: all of the pieces of an excellent family and community drama are in place. The Zed just push them into motion.
A film does not need to be pretentious to be powerful, and Blood Quantum understands this very well. What we’re left with is an incredibly refreshing Zombie film, one completely unafraid to speak for itself. Blood Quantum is a thought-provoking, intense and meaningful piece of filmmaking. It has real depth, and isn’t afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve. It also happens to be an unapologetic exploitation flick about blood, guts and Indigenous pride.
I say this as a non-Indigenous person, and an immigrant whose education about Indigenous peoples is always ongoing: Blood Quantum rules, and it wasn’t made for me.
It’s about fucking time.
This has been entry 9/31 of The Long Hallowe’en 2021!