Toronto Film Review: ‘Blood Quantum’

A Canadian tribal reservation is beset by zombies in a horror opus that's gory yet more stylish than scary.

Blood Quantum

“Blood Quantum” is a term applied to the long-standing, controversial practice of measuring a person’s percentage of indigenous heredity—and by extension, their supposed value, or lack thereof. As the title of Jeff Barnaby’s sophomore feature (following 2014’s more minimally horror-tinged drama “Rhymes for Young Ghouls”), that historic debit becomes a major plus, as the only people here miraculously immune to a zombie epidemic are full-blooded Natives living on Mi’gmaq tribal lands in northern Quebec.

This homegrown opener for TIFF’s Midnight Madness section has numerous strong elements, and the director-writer’s unforced cultural perspective refreshes some very well-trod genre ground, to a point. Still, despite sufficient gore, there’s more style than bite to this undead opus, which does not excel at scares or action set-pieces. It’s nonetheless been sold to Shudder for U.S. distribution, and should attract home-format buyers in other territories with a polished assembly that reflects its status as reportedly the highest-budgeted North American film by an indigenous director to date.

Barnaby wastes no time springing the bad news: Old Gisigu (Stonehorse Lone Goeman) is alarmed to discover that the salmon he’s just caught are flopping around again after they’ve been gutted. Soon a dog that’s been put down is likewise back to snarling “life.” Then people stop staying dead as well.

All this escalates within a few hours’ course as Red Crow Reservation sheriff Traylor (Michael Greyeyes) and nurse ex-wife Joss (Elle-Maija Tailfeathers) are dealing with the latest high jinks of their teenage son Joseph (Forrest Goodluck), which have once again landed him in the drunk tank. He got there with a little help as usual from older half-brother Alan, aka Lysol (Kiowa Gordon), Traylor’s hell-raising offspring by a previous marriage. But Joe required no fraternal assistance getting into another kind of trouble: namely, making his equally underaged girlfriend Charlie (Olive Scriven) pregnant.

These relatively ordinary cares must take a backseat as the above-named and other area residents find themselves fighting for their lives against a rapidly growing population of fast-moving, flesh-chomping zombies. Just when this crisis appears to be reaching critical mass at about the one-third mark, there’s a blackout followed by a title saying “Six Months Later.” Civilization hereabouts has by then boiled down to surviving immune tribespeople and any fleeing “townies” who’ve turned up sans infection living in a heavily guarded, gated compound.

Ne’er-do-well Lysol naturally enjoys being the chief enforcer, bringing grievous harm to anyone (alive or otherwise) who threatens the community’s fragile well-being. His penchant for partying hasn’t slowed, however, and this professed “a–hole’s” judgment goes from reckless to downright malevolent when he has an unfortunate incident with a “zed” himself while under the influence.

Shot on location, “Blood Quantum” looks fine in Michel St-Martin’s alternately handsome and muscular widescreen photography, while other tech and design contributions are solid. But the script’s initially intriguing leap to a post-zombie-apocalypse scenario soon turns out to have stranded us in all-too-familiar “The Walking Dead” terrain. While the characters here are interesting (as well as nicely played) enough, there’s no time to develop the kind of long-term investment in them that sustains that series.

Without original ideas, an enterprise like this just needs to deliver in visceral suspense terms. But while Barnaby manages to deftly work in his own brand of hard-boiled rural dialogue, and etch indigenous life in knowing, sometimes caustic terms (emphasizing dysfunctional family relations and substance abuse), he doesn’t demonstrate the same knack for producing thrills. There’s little in the way of creepy atmospherics here, let alone major jolts, and the often violent action isn’t staged or edited for maximum impact. Strangely, this is one zombie movie that keeps you interested in things that are usually incidental — cultural differences, problematic relationships — yet falls down when it comes to the basic “Boo!” factor.

Toronto Film Review: ‘Blood Quantum’

Reviewed at TIFF (Midnight Madness), Sept. 6, 2019. Running time: 98 MIN.

  • Production: (Canada) An XYZ Films, Madrona Drive, Elevation Pictures and Entract Films presentation in association with Crave of a Prospector Films production. (Int'l sales: XYZ, Los Angeles.) Producers: John Christou, Robert Vroom. Executive producers: Todd Brown, Nate Bolotin, Nick Spicer, Gabe Scarpelli, Ryan Shoup, Larie May, Noah Segal.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Jeff Barnaby. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Michel St-Martin. Editor: Barnaby. Music: Joe Barrucco.
  • With: Michael Greyeyes, Forrest Goodluck, Kiowa Gordon, Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, Olivia Scriven, Stonehorse Lone Goeman, Brandon Oakes, William Belleau, Devery Jacobs, Gary Farmer. (English, Mi’gmaq dialogue.)