BLOOD QUANTUM (2019)
Directed by Jeff Barnaby
Written by Jeff Barnaby
Starring Michael Greyeyes, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Forrest Goodluck, Kiowa Gordon, Olivia Scriven, Stonehorse Lone Goeman, Brandon Oakes, William Belleau, Devery Jacobs, Gary Farmer, Felicia Shulman, Natalie Liconti
BLOOD QUANTUM may be tonally all over the place, but it does work as a straight up entertaining zombie flick. The film conveniently splits itself into two portions, one amazing and one…a second portion.
It’s the zombie apocalypse circa 1981 and everyone’s getting bit and turned into snarling flesh-eaters, except the Indigenous native population who seem to be immune. The zombie virus is bringing everything from fish to dogs to all of the white people back from the dead, leaving the Red Crow reservation to regulate for the living. The film takes place within two time periods; one during the outbreak, and then six months later as the survivors have set up a fortified sanctuary to keep the zombies (or ZED as they call them here, and yes, there is a ZED’s dead reference) at bay. Leading this war party is police officer Traylor (Michael Greyeyes) who attempts to keep the sanctuary safe for his family, including two hellraising sons, Joseph (Forrest Goodluck, who has impregnated a white woman and fears it is infected) and Lysol (Kiowa Gordon, who has a deathwish, a drug/alcohol addiction, and deep hatred for the white man). With the zombies gathering outside of the walls and the family becoming more unsettled, it is just a matter of time until the careful infrastructure of safety comes tumbling down.
I found one half of BLOOD QUANTUM to be absolutely fantastic. And it’s the half that I usually dislike in all zombie movies—the outbreak. While this type of zombie story is often repetitive and filled with cliches, the opening half hour to forty-five minutes before the six month leap into the future is perfectly paced and filled with creepy and terrifying moments. The film methodically introduces the threat as it pops around the reservation and seemingly unconnected incidents begin to form a pattern for Officer Traylor. Memorable characters are introduced. We get some cool discourse about Mother Earth, the impact of the white man on the indigenous natives of the land, and some awesome reanimated animal scenes. All of them done on a restricted budget, but still looking downright stellar. I can’t really find anything wrong with the first half of BLOOD QUANTUM and feel that had this movie simply tackled the outbreak of this zombie plague, it would go down as one of the best in the genre.
Unfortunately, when we zip six months into the future, BLOOD QUANTUM suffers from clichés and a tone that goes all over the place. Nothing in the second half hasn’t been done a million times in other zombie films and even more times on THE WALKING DEAD. We’ve seen the soundly structured sanctuary fall victim to one simple mistake. We’ve seen the multitude of precautions the survivors take to ensure their safety, though it is never enough. We’ve seen the pregnant woman who just happens to go into labor when the zombies break through the gates. Also, six months is quite a quick descent into MAD MAX times with masked warriors and weapons customized from outdated machinery parts. All of it feels familiar and rote, undercutting the fantastic lead in.
To add to the second half’s troubles is the fact that the film flits from a serious horror film with strong metaphors involving the massacres of indigenous tribes by the whites when they arrived in North America and then switches gears to a slapstick action romp with over the top moments of messy grue and knee-slapping carnage. I don’t mind either type of film. I like Romero’s societal statements about consumerism, race relations, and the military as much as ZOMBIELAND or DEAD SNOW’s goofy and gory set pieces, but BLOOD QUANTUM tries to have it both ways and it makes for an uneven watch. This isn’t something that is impossible to accomplish. Many zombie films add a pinch of twisted glee to even out the dire tone, but for some reason the horror and humor just didn’t mix well with me.
Maybe it is because the film deals with subject matter that deserves a more serious tone. There aren’t too many films that deal with the imposition of rights of the indigenous people who were slaughtered and oppressed since whitey set foot on American soil. The film deals with the resentment felt by the Native American population as well as setbacks the population has due to lack of jobs, addiction, and overall depression. The first half does an amazing job of illustrating all of this with a stoic and steady lens. Sure there are small moments of slight goofiness such as gutted fish flopping all over the place, but that’s more uncanny than funny. It’s almost as if filmmaker Jeff Barnaby realized he was taking things too seriously and switched gears tonally midstream.
There is so much to like about BLOOD QUANTUM though. Interspersed in between key scenes are some amazingly cool animation sequences. It looks as if they might have been added to either pick up shots that were missed or too elaborate for the budget. Either way, it works and I kind of wish there were more of them. While it is a film that ends with some heft, the goofy scenes really do knock the wind out of the heavier scenes. Every time there is a heavy death scene, it is counterbalanced by a chainsaw through someone’s face or a mulcher taking out a crowd of the undead. And maybe I’m completely wrong, but when did Native Americans become samurais brandishing swords? Seeing Stonehorse Lone Goeman (AMAZING name, by the way!) take on scores of zombies with his broadsword was cool, but again, it felt more like the character should have been in feudal Japan than on the shores of Canada.
The term mixed bag seems to be tailor made to describe BLOOD QUANTUM. There’s a whole lot of fun and I can see this as being a crowd pleaser, but the gonzo antics just don’t jive well with the heavy themes going on. Had Jeff Barnaby picked a tone and stuck with it, either metaphorically resonant or balls to the wall mania, I would have been happier with BLOOD QUANTUM. As is, the scattershot tone makes a potentially impactful film simply entertaining.