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Blood Quantum
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by Jay Seaver

"A new-enough twist on the zombie apocalypse."
3 stars

SCREENED AT BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL 45: "Blood Quantum" feels less like a movie than what you'd get if you took the pilot to a television series about the zombie apocalypse and edited it together with the first-season finale, and even if it was a good show, that probably wouldn't be the best way to experience it, at least the first time around. There's a big hole in the middle that can't be filled, and just a general feeling that you can't make the story mean something if you don't tell the whole thing from beginning to end.

It begins on the Red Crow Indian Reservation in Québec, where fisherman Gisigu (Stonehorse Lone Goeman) is understandably alarmed when the fish he catches don't stop flopping around after he guts them. He calls his son Traylor (Michael Greyeyes), the sheriff of the Mi'gmaq nation, although without details, so he's got a lot of other things on his plate as well, from picking up son Joseph (Forrest Goodluck) and his half-brother Lysol (Kiowa Gordon), who managed to get thrown in jail on the other side of the bridge that connects the reservation to white Canada. Ex-wife Joss (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), a nurse, is also getting a number of strange calls, Joseph's white girlfriend Charlie (Olivia Scriven) is pregnant, and by the end of the day, there's apparently a full-on zombie outbreak, with the twist that the Mi'gmaq appear to be immune. Six months later, the reservation has been fortified, but not everybody is happy about the increasing refugee population.

Expand this to a limited series, or just build the movie so that you're not skipping over all the tension between the big violent moments, and you've got a heck of a satiric hook there as the sort of North American white person who opposes accepting immigrants fleeing violence must depend on the kindness of those they've wronged while the Mi'gmaq must consider all the history between themselves and their neighbors - how do you act when you've gone from little power to a position of strength overnight? It's still there, as are a few potentially interesting bits of world-building, but so much has been elided that it's only at half power.

Instead, you get a zombie movie, albeit one where enough of the main characters are immune that there's not much room for the "I have to shoot this person I love in the head because they're turning into a monster" tortured nobility that's become a genre cliché. The 1981 setting gives it a rugged post-apocalyptic air, a nice throwback to the subgenre's origins without having to spend time on the loss of Twenty-First Century tech. Writer/director Jeff Barnaby and his crew supply the audience with a lot of creatively gruesome gore, from the darkly funny zombie fish to a blockade that grinds the living dead to a pulp with a genuinely-transgressive moment or two in between. The budget is clearly not huge but Barnaby et al squeeze both some nasty effects and a camp that seems both appropriately fortified and disheveled out of it.

There's a cast that would be worth potentially hanging around with for the length of a series as well, particularly Michael Greyeyes, who does the lawman without a whole lot of patience for nonsense very well indeed; his scenes with Elle-M√°ij√° Tailfeathers maybe don't quite hint so much at how their marriage collapsed as how good they would have been when they were together and things were going well, but there's enough there to show how smart and capable both are, able to put differences aside in a bad situation. There's a simpler likability to Forrest Goodluck and Olivia Scriven as the young lovers, while Stonehorse Lone Goeman and Gary Farmer handle unflappable vet duty well. The audience doesn't get much of a chance to see Kowa Gordon's Lysol go from troubled kid to the guy whose anger can bring everything crashing down, but his willingness to go for broke gives a nasty edge to the second half.

As someone fairly burnt out on zombie movies that don't do a lot more than provide nasty prosthetics work and solemnly reluctant headshots, I wanted to like "Blood Quantum" a lot more for its unique setting and chance to use a familiar template to say something new. There's some of that in there - and odds are good that a First Nations viewer will be able to extract a heck of a lot more than I could - but it's too often just another flick following the same script as others with the undead, even if it does that pretty well.

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originally posted: 02/24/20 09:16:24
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

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