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‘Blood Quantum’ offers new twist on zombie tale

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It isn’t easy to tell old stories in new ways.

Tackling genre fare is tricky business; it’s no longer enough to simply follow in the footsteps of those who came before you. You have to use that template to do something different, and when you’re talking about treading a trail as well-worn as that of the zombie movie, well … you’d better bring something special to the table.

That’s what makes “Blood Quantum,” the second feature from Canadian writer/director Jeff Barnaby now streaming on Shudder, so interesting. It’s a marriage of B-movie viscera and social commentary that captures an energy reminiscent of the work of the best-known names in the genre, though the execution perhaps doesn’t quite ascend to the same heights.

Even with that degree of unevenness, however, “Blood Quantum” is a success. It spatters and sprays the screen with buckets upon buckets of blood, unleashing some solid (and unsettling) practical effects work. And it offers a thoughtful, if occasionally on the nose exploration of colonialism and its impact on Canada’s indigenous peoples.

If all that has you thinking about George Romero, rest assured that you’re not alone.

In 1981, on the Red Crow reserve in northern Quebec, things start to get .... strange. As Sheriff Traylor (Michael Greyeyes, “Togo”) works his way through a number of increasingly disturbing and inexplicable calls, it slowly becomes clear that something is terribly wrong. His father Gisigu (Stonehorse Lone Goeman), a fisherman, discovers that dead fish don’t stay dead – even after gutting.

Traylor and his ex-wife Joss (Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open”) get the call that their son Joseph (Forrest Goodluck, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post”) is in the town lockup, along with his half-brother Alan (Kiowa Gordon, “Castle in the Ground”), a ne’er-do-well who calls himself “Lysol” and is Traylor’s son from a previous relationship. During their retrieval from the jail, it becomes clear that fish aren’t the only creatures dying and refusing to stay dead – it’s happening to humans too.

Flash forward six months. The affliction has spread far and wide, leaving devastation and an army of the dead in its wake. The Red Crow reserve has become a stronghold, one of the last bastions of safety for the uninfected, and Traylor serves as its de facto leader. As it turns out, the Mi’kmaq people native to the region are immune to the infection – they don’t turn into zombies even when bitten. They provide sanctuary to the vulnerable survivors, though they are ruthless in ensuring that the infected are neutralized.

There are those, however, who don’t think it is enough. There are those who think that Red Crow and the Mi’kmaq won’t be truly safe until all dangers – present AND potential – are removed from the equation. Violently, if necessary. And when anger turns into betrayal, the fate of the group – and potentially all of humanity – hangs in the balance.

“Blood Quantum” is a relentlessly grim and gruesome bit of grindhouse fare. It is blood-soaked in the best way, with a handful of particularly grisly moments that are both wildly over the top and legitimately unsettling. It is a cavalcade of slicing blades and point-blank gunshots, sure, but we also get some solid spear work and the obligatory chainsaw. Gouts of blood burst forth from severed extremities, fountaining all over the scene. It is brutal and nasty and gleefully unapologetic about it.

And if that was all Jeff Barnaby gave us, that would be enough. However, we also get a blunt-force allegory about humanity’s lack of respect for the planet and society’s general mistreatment of indigenous peoples. The idea of natives being immune to an affliction that impacts the general population is a twist with a razor-sharp edge, and if it’s a little too on the nose, so what? It’s no less effective for its straightforwardness.

It really is a brilliant conceit, one that is very much in the spirit of the genre masters that came before. “Blood Quantum” shares DNA with the work of the zombie master for sure, with the film’s first part feeling of a piece with Romero’s early work and the latter part reminiscent of the auteur’s later-stage output. It’s just conceptually exceptional.

The execution, however, doesn’t quite hold up. That isn’t to say that it’s poorly executed – it’s a great-looking film that puts Barnaby’s strong and unique aesthetic sense on full display. And to be perfectly clear – the zombie-killing stuff is the stuff of gory, sticky greatness. However, there are some narrative gaps that feel like the product of a slightly rushed script; it feels as though we’re 10% short on story.

That unevenness carries over to the performances as well, with a noticeable gap between the top tier and the rest of the cast. Again, some of that springs from the script – some of the emotional connections and familial dynamics just aren’t as fleshed out as they should be. It removes some of the empathetic impact of the narrative, though the action and the ideas are both unblunted. Greyeyes and Tailfeathers give probably the most effective overall performances, while some of their castmates struggle a bit to handle the heft of the more nuanced scenes. That said, everyone handles their business when it comes to the screaming and the shooting and the stabbing.

“Blood Quantum” is an imperfect movie, but it is no less enjoyable or valuable because of those imperfections. It is deliciously gory and ideologically complex, a blood-and-guts-covered commentary that offers up multi-layered provocation. It’s a spurting, sweeping societal allegory unlike anything you’ve seen. Genre fans would do well to check this one out.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 03 May 2020 13:38

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