Canadian director Jeff Barnaby gives zombies a new vehicle in Indigenous horror film Blood Quantum

If you think every possible zombie movie has already been made, you’re dead wrong.

Canadian filmmaker Jeff Barnaby has found a unique angle with Blood Quantum. With a title that borrows from an American policy of measuring Indigenous bloodlines, Barnaby’s thriller tells the tale of a zombie outbreak that seemingly only infects non-Indigenous people outside a Mi’kmaq reserve that’s immune to the pandemic.

The eerily topical thriller was supposed to open in theatres in March, but with COVID-19 shuttering cinemas, the film is now on all major on-demand and streaming platforms as of April 28. We caught up with Barnaby to discuss the movie and the universality of the undead.

Q: The timing of this film is interesting. We’ve seen a surge of interest in zombie films and movies like Outbreak with this pandemic. Since Blood Quantum falls in an apocalyptic category like those films, does it feel particularly prescient to come out now?

A: It’s supposed to hit all those beats but at the same time, all the (immune) native people aren’t phased by it. They seem to roll into the lifestyle quite easily. We flash forward six months and no one looks like they’re starving or destitute or anything like that. I think the ultimate comment was First Nations people have been going through apocalypse scenarios for 400 or 500 years so they’re quite accustomed to it. That was the real link to viruses and it has more to do with the weaponizing of smallpox than it does as a predictor of new viruses coming. I wasn’t predicting any kind of apocalypse per se. It was more of this idea that we’ve already gone through this and here are the beats – I’m just reinventing it as a zombie film.

Q: That leads to my next question: What’s your theory? Why do zombies make such great metaphors for social commentary in movies – whether it’s this or George Romero’s classics?

A: They’re quite adaptable in the sense that that they’re zombies – by definition there’s no anima or motivations. You can shape them to fit whatever you are trying to say to a certain extent. You bring up Romero, (his) first film was a protest against Vietnam and racism, his second film was a protest against consumerism and they’re zombie films that take on those topics. I think the most prescient zombie film out of all them is 28 Days Later where it made a direct correlation between the virus and the zombie, (and now) it seems like the social commentary has gone out of the zombie film and I think that was one of the reasons why I wanted to make Blood Quantum the way I wanted to make it – to bring it back in there.

Q: How did you draw that line so as not to nail audiences over the head with it and keep them entertained? How important is it to maintain an audience?

A: As a native director, I want to make films for native people but at the same time, I think the nature of the beast is to make money. It’s kind of like what Jordan Peele did (with Get Out); he made a film criticizing white liberals and white liberals loved it and gave him an Oscar. It’s like how do you figure that out? How do you do that without alienating or preaching to the audience and, to me, it was putting it in a zombie vehicle.

Blood Quantum is available on all major on-demand and streaming platforms.

Steve Gow has spent a good amount of his time conducting interviews for a variety of publications as well as on television. Most notably, he was a film reporter for The Movie Network/HBO Canada and his written stories that were regularly featured in Calgary’s former “go-to guide” FFWD weekly, as well as Metro, Toronto Star and more.