Indigenous Filmmaking, Satire, and Horror in “Blood Quantum”

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A guest review by John Truden

Editorial Note: Blood Quantum is a 2019 Canadian zombie horror film directed by Jeff Barnaby, a Canadian Mi’kmaq filmmaker. Barnaby’s film is rooted in an Indigenous perspective. It stars Indigenous actors and is a love letter to both classic zombie horror films and to “indignerds,” the self-proclaimed title of Indigenous people who love pop culture. Blood Quantum holds to many of the conventions of the zombie movie genre, along with influence from filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, but its main premise and some of the stylistic choices draw on Jeff Barnaby’s Mi’kmaq context. The following was written by my friend John Truden, who is currently getting his Ph.D. in Indigenous history, to give some context and history, so the film can be more enjoyable and understandable to a non-Indigenous audience. 

Blood Quantum follows the residents of the Red Crow Indian Reservation (a fictional reserve that stands in for many Indigenous communities in North America) who are overtaken by a zombie outbreak. The residents quickly discover that they are immune, but the surrounding white settlers and wildlife are vulnerable to infection.

The 1970 saw the beginning of a renaissance of Indigenous films, or films rooted in the perspectives of Indigenous peoples. That renaissance reached full bloom in the 1990s and has not stopped since. Smoke Signals, a 1998 film that followed the journey of three young people from the Coeur D’alene Reservation in Idaho, became a marker of this growth. Barnaby created Blood Quantum in this context. The film emphasizes community, ties to the land, and grounding in a specific time and place, reflecting precedents set by Indigenous filmmakers.

The film plays with themes of blood and colonialism. It takes the history of settlers who are a threat to Indigenous populations, and puts it within the genre, casting those settlers as zombies who pose the threat to the immune Indigenous population. It’s a theatrical reimagining of very real history (and recent divisions, colonization is not simply a thing of the past). It’s a reversal of what’s called “Settler Colonialism,” a process where people come to a region and re-shape it. In Blood Quantum, instead of settlers coming in and re-shaping the reservation, the Indigenous population is cleansing it. 

Blood quantum itself was a system devised by the United States and Canadian government to slowly eliminate Indigenous populations by essentially assimilating them out of existence. They did this by measuring Indigenous blood and then making it difficult for Indigenous people to marry one another. According to the blood quantum system, if you don’t have a certain amount of Indigenous blood and ancestry you’re not Indigenous, and if you marry a white person, your kid’s blood quantum goes down, making them even more removed from the Indigenous identity. Slowly but surely, entire indigenous bloodlines are erased. The irony of this film then is that these people who are fighting the zombies that have Indigenous ancestry, and that’s what keeps them safe.

The concept of the zombie came to the United States through an effort to explain Haitian independence. In the 1920s the United States occupied the country of Haiti. At this time the United State is in Jim Crow; it’s a white supremacist nation. But in Haiti, the Haitian are resisting and asserting their independence. In order to make sure no Black Americans got any ideas of revolution, journalists and politicians took the Haitian mythology of the zombie and used it to “explain” why the Black people in Haiti are asserting their independence. They depicted Haitians as being brainless and murderous, stupid and violent. This appropriation the zombie erases an important part of Haitian folklore, where the zombie originated somewhere between 1625 to 1800, and “was a projection of the African slaves’ relentless misery and subjugation. Haitian slaves believed that dying would release them back to lan guinée, literally Guinea, or Africa in general, a kind of afterlife where they could be free. Though suicide was common among slaves, those who took their own lives wouldn’t be allowed to return to lan guinée. Instead, they’d be condemned to skulk the Hispaniola plantations for eternity, an undead slave at once denied their own bodies and yet trapped inside them—a soulless zombie” (Mariani). 

In the 1960s, American director George Romero re-used the concept of zombies and turned them into the “undead,” through his films. He turns them into flesh-eating cannibalistic zombies as a stand-in for things. Night of the Living Dead is a critique of American race relations, in a lot of ways. Day of the Dead is a critique of the military-industrial complex. He starts a tradition where the dialogue between the characters is more important than the actual zombies themselves, which is true of this movie. He also sets the precedent of using zombies as other problems. The format is flexible, there’s a lot of different things you can do with a zombie movie. So there is a long canon that Blood Quantum is joining where the zombies stand for thing, usually various social anxieties. Here, the zombies are used to stand in for white settlers, and in this tells a uniquely Indigenous story. 

Blood Quantum is available on Shudder

Sources:

Zombies and Haiti: https://open.spotify.com/episode/0AF1qPSmvhPEjmSE3vEwu7?si=mPNsSf05Qf2kPZeXlSS20A

Mike Mariani: “The Tragic, Forgotten History of Zombies,” for The Atlantic

John Truden is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Oklahoma. His dissertation explores Indigenous-settler relationships in a settler-dominated Oklahoma. Upon graduation he would like to take on a full-time collaborative role by teaching at a tribal college. In his free time he enjoys historical research, working alongside marginalized communities, and investing in friendships. 

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