Grade: B-
Not rated (would be R)

Blood Quantum isn’t a title that screams “family friendly”—just plain screams, is more like it, considering that this 2019 horror film finds a few inventive new ways to kill zombies. There’s blood and gore and f-bombs galore, but if we’re being honest it’s the kind of film that appeals to older teens and families that enjoy a good frightfest every now and then.

Plus, Blood Quantum deserves a shout-out because this 2019 Canadian film from Jeff Barnaby is that rare horror film made by a First Nations director. Barnaby, a Mi’gmaq, shot much of the film on the same reserve in Listuguj, Quebec where he was born and he spotlights a large cast of First Nations actors. The history of indigenous people in North America is a history of segregation and forced relocation, but this film gets its own symbolic revenge (a theme suggested by two animated segments) by having the reserve be a place where all of the whites now want to go. The film’s key concept is that indigenous people are immune to the zombie plague. While they can be killed, they can’t be turned into zombies themselves. That is, they are immune to whatever zombie virus is being transmitted through zombie bites. As a result, the reserve, ironically, has become the only safe haven in the world.

The title itself is also ironic, because “blood quantum” or “Indian blood” laws were enacted by the U.S. government as a way of legally defining racial groups—too often a first step toward isolation and persecution. Here, blood quantum is a saving grace, and the political statement that Barnaby makes in his second full-length feature (the politically charged Rhymes for Young Ghouls was his first) is unmistakable.

The film is set in 1981 and the landscape—Mohawk and Mi’gmaq land—gives zombie movie fans a different kind of sudden dystopia. An opening scene with zombie fish will forever remain etched in the brain long after the rest of the film has blurred. It’s fascinating and refreshingly different to have the fisherman-father (Stonehorse Lone Goeman) call his sheriff son to see the strange phenomena, which he’s put inside a cooler and weighed down the lid to keep them from escaping. Then there’s a zombie animal that turns up soon afterwards. But before you can say, “What species is next?” the film fast-forwards six months into the future, when what felt like a unique, quirky, unpolished-but-accomplished well-made indie film (or kin to Fargo) turns into a totally different film—one that’s much more familiar. Whether it’s George Romero’s hunkered-down survivors or scrambling dystopians in Walking Dead or Zombieland, the plot, however it’s dressed up, always comes down to the cinematic equivalent of an arcade game of Wac-A-Mole. Zombies pop up here and there, trying to eat people, and survivors keep trying to beat them down each time. It can get pretty graphic, but we’re talking zombies here.

The first half was dominated by characters like Red Crow Reserve sheriff Traylor (Michael Greyeyes), who has the kind of stoic-laconic personality you expect of a lawman in a relatively remote area. Early in the film he and his ex-wife Joss (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) bail their son out of jail. Joseph (Forrest Goodluck) was arrested in a nearby town for a rather unique act of vandalism. He’s in stir with his half-brother, Lysol (Kiowa Gordon), who becomes a second- and third-act antagonist because he heartily disagrees with the “open arms” policy that Traylor and the others have, opposed to taking in white survivors. So yeah, it becomes a kind of zombie referendum on the current pandemic and anti-immigrant nationalism that’s driving some countries.

Greyeyes, as the fictional Red Crow Reserve sheriff, is completely engaging in the first act, and I really wanted to see more of his story as he coped with a delinquent son and a growing zombie pandemic. When the emphasis shifts to action and creative ways of taking down the zombies, the stories of Traylor and Joss and Joseph and his white, pregnant girlfriend Charlie (Olivia Scriven) almost feel overshadowed. One other criticism I have is that one of my favorite actors, Gary Farmer (Powwow Highway, Dead Man) seems wasted in a minor role that really doesn’t give him much of a chance to do his thing. What it all adds up to is a B- in my grade book.

My college-age son, who watched with me, would give it a solid B. He thought the film held together just fine in the second and third acts. If you’re wondering what aggregate sites think, like so many political statements these days, Blood Quantum can be polarizing. Critics at Rotten Tomatoes (and I’m one of them) gave it a 90 percent “fresh” rating, while just 47 percent of the audience liked the film. Go figure. The acting is solid, the production values are solid, and the special effects are decent, for the most part (there’s really just one place where you can see the blood squirter inside a sleeve). And the fun zombie B movie gets a fascinating makeover from a First Nations perspective. I’d say this one’s a keeper . . . though I probably ought to put a few heavy weights on top of it.

Entire family: No (17 and older)
Run time: 98 min. (Color)
Studio/Distributor: RLJE Films
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: English and Mi’gmaq DTS-HDMA 5.1 (English subtitles)
Bonus features: n/a
Amazon link
Not rated (would be R for horror violence and language)

Language: 7/10—a good dozen or so f-bombs, other strong language, and racist language as well

Sex: 3/10—Nothing much here (at least by comparison); a couple is shown, but nothing graphic

Violence: 8/10—Zombies are beheaded, axed, shot slashed, stabbed, pounded, sliced, diced, and pretty much everything you can do to undead humans with a craving for human flesh—and some graphic moments where zombies chow down on entrails and body parts; humans and one pet are graphically killed as well, and there are pools of blood

Adult situations: 6/10—Some drinking, some drug use, and that memorable (and gross) bit of vandalism

Takeaway: Go fish!