I don’t like to invoke the name of lost masters often but I kept thinking the same thing while watching “Blood Quantum,” dropping on Shudder today as a little pandemic treat for horror fans: “George Romero would have dug this.” Clearly inspired by the King of the Undead, Jeff Barnaby’s film doesn’t just mimic Romero’s obsession with zombies but how he weaved social commentary through his “Dead” franchise while never being afraid of a grisly count of human bodies being ripped into pieces. A zombie film that also comments on our abuse of the planet and treatment of indigenous people is a brilliant idea, and it’s easy to see why TIFF chose this to open their Midnight Madness program last year. Sadly, some of the elements of “Blood Quantum” feel distractedly unrefined, including poor performances and awkward dialogue. Despite its flaws, it’s a promising film with some great ideas—and that alone should satisfy Shudder subscribers.
Barnaby wastes no time getting to the good stuff. And by that I mean zombie fish. A fisherman of the Mi’gmaq tribe in northern Quebec is gutting his haul for the day when the fish start flopping around, even the ones who no longer have insides. Before you know it, everything that should be dead around this tribe comes back to life and wants to chew on human flesh. Red Crow Reservation Sheriff Traylor (Michael Greyeyes) and his ex-wife Joss (Elle-Maija Tailfeathers) are right in the eye of the storm, joined by their son Joseph (Forrest Goodluck), his pregnant girlfriend Charlie (Olive Scriven), and Joe’s half-brother and obvious troublemaker Alan (Kiowa Gordon). Alan goes by the nickname “Lysol,” which almost seems to good to be true given current headlines but trust me that it wasn’t changed to be more pandemic timely.
The first third of “Blood Quantum” is tight and grisly, featuring several buckets of blood and well-produced action. It’s almost as if Barnaby made that half-hour as a short film and then realized he had to fill out the rest to feature length. And so that promising opening act jumps to “Six Months Later,” and “Blood Quantum” becomes a different film, a story of survivors in a compound that’s closer to later Romero than the early stuff. The clever twist is that the tribal members discover they are immune to bites of the undead. It’s almost as if the planet is trying to give itself back to the ones who truly deserve it.
The disagreements within the tribe of survivors and family members are often underdeveloped, feeling like the kind of thing that would set up better for a pilot for a spin-off to the AMC hit than they do here. Bluntly, I didn’t care about the characters at all, even the pregnant one, and I think that’s a weakness of the storytelling. I found myself admiring Barnaby’s editing and production skills—“Blood Quantum” looks great—but he’s not quite yet there in directing performances or writing dialogue. Everything here feels a bit too first draft or first take when the characters aren’t fighting off growling zombies.
Luckily, they’re doing that enough for the movie to pass, especially for fans of the genre. There are robust sequences of body parts flying in “Blood Quantum,” and it’s one of those movies that undeniably benefits from its timing. After all, we’re all stuck inside, questioning the health levels and intent of the people on the other side of the door. At least they don’t want to eat our brains out here in the real world. Well, not yet anyway.
Premieres on Shudder today, 4/28.