Blood Quantum Jeff Barnaby

Only Indigenous people are immune to a global pandemic in Jeff Barnaby’s zombie movie Blood Quantum

“It takes a different connotation when you look at it through the lens of a Native perspective. It’s not just a zombie film, because there are politics behind it. Even though they’re never explicitly stated, it’s pretty clear why everyone is motivated by what they are.”

Processing great tragedy and disruption through fictional works is nothing new. One of the recurring thoughts in the wake of 9/11 was the idea that it looked so much like a bad action movie. Though it might be a stretch to claim that the very purpose of disaster and action movies is to give us an in through which we can process incredible, unprecedented trauma, the surge in popularity that Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion has enjoyed since the beginning of confinement seems to support part of that theory. But what happens when the movie you made winds up having relevance you couldn’t have dreamed of – before most have even seen it, to boot?

“The most I’ve ever heard that was after 9/11,” says Jeff Barnaby, director of the new film Blood Quantum. “It’s gotten me thinking about how media shapes our reaction to these tragedies or these events that we only see in cinema. I’m wondering how much of that has had an impact on people doing stuff like hoarding — is it something they saw in zombie films?! (laughs) In all these movies, the first place that people go is the grocery store, and there are just empty shelves everywhere. That’s the first time you see those images: in cinema, and here we are living it. That’s the blight on our culture in general: we don’t seem to know how to separate reality from fiction anymore. It’s not even about dealing with misinformation about the virus — fuck, that was a problem even before! As a culture, we cannot separate entertainment from reality anymore — arguably because we have a gameshow president and he’s the most powerful person on the planet right now. Everything has been surreal for the past three years and now it’s only getting worse.”

I was originally supposed to speak with Barnaby a few days after confinement began; the distributor had planned for us to meet in person, which, of course, didn’t happen. That interview was delayed, and then it seemed more obvious that Blood Quantum was not going to get a theatrical release any time soon. When we finally spoke a few weeks ago, it was over the phone – and with no inkling of how and when people might see his oddly prescient zombie movie. Blood Quantum will hit video-on-demand this Tuesday, April 28.

Jeff Barnaby Blood Quantum
Jeff Barnaby, director of Blood Quantum

In Blood Quantum, the residents of a remote Mi’gmaq reserve start to notice that dead things aren’t staying dead. It starts with fish, then dogs – before long, it’s humans that are apparently choosing not to shuffle off their mortal coil. Traylor (Michael Greyeyes), the reservation’s sheriff, pretty soon picks up on the fact that the Mi’gmaq don’t seem to be affected by this “virus” at all — which offers them a significant advantage over the rest of the world, but also makes them everyone else’s first target. Six months into the epidemic, the Red Crow Reservation is a stronghold very reticent to let in outsiders — and one that contains factions at odds with each other even within its walls.

Although Blood Quantum has a lot on its mind when it comes to themes of colonialism and Barnaby’s own identity as a Mi’gmaq man, it is also openly, gleefully a zombie movie. “It was always gonna be a hardcore zombie film,” says Barnaby. “We never really had to sell anybody on that. We’re gonna have dead babies, coughing all this blood up, people are gonna get their heads sawed in half. (laughs) One of the great things about having a film like Rhymes for Young Ghouls and the kind of career that I’ve had here in Quebec is that I’m recognized as being a pretty competent filmmaker. You can say what you want about the content, but I think that, at this point, everybody realizes that I can execute a film. The only thing that’s going to ultimately end up holding us back is the money we have. I think that was never really an issue — nobody fought us. There were a couple of pushbacks. For example, I wanted a zombie to be naked in the baby scene and they were like ‘nah, nah, the stunt woman can’t be naked!’ (laughs) Nudity is, I feel, a thing that adds to the viscera of Night of the Living Dead. In that, you see a corpse that’s naked. I think that’s a very shocking image, because a denuded body is so vulnerable. It shows the fragility of humanity, and when you see that coming to consume you, therein lies the horror. I think that’s what makes the baby scene kind of crazy — the idea that there’s no respect for that life at all.”

Jeff Barnaby is aware that the zombie genre has been booming for so long now that the crest of it may already be in the past — but the angle and setting of Blood Quantum do give the material — classic in its approach as it may be: a new spin. 

“It takes a different connotation when you look at it through the lens of a Native perspective,” says Barnaby. “It’s not just a zombie film, because there are politics behind it. Even though they’re never explicitly stated on-screen by the characters, it’s obvious in the environment that it’s pretty clear why everyone is motivated by what they are. I think all of that is a response to the saturation of The Walking Dead and its spinoff shows; it became a phenomenon, but not necessarily in a good way. It did crest 10 years ago, and that’s what we were talking about when we were talking about doing a zombie film. Everyone was trying to discourage us, because everybody was doing zombies, man. You’d make more money shooting a porno! (laughs) So it became about how to make our own zombie movie, while also paying homage to all these movies we loved growing up. In fact, I feel that the climate that we’re in is speaking more and more to the content as we go on. It’s weird to speak to stuff that hasn’t happened yet. That’s kind of what the film is going to be contending with — not the environment that we have now, but how people are going to react to it six months down the road.” ■

Blood Quantum by Jeff Barnaby is on video-on-demand as of Tuesday, April 28.

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