31 Nights of Halloween: Jeff Barnaby’s ‘Blood Quantum’ (2020)

Well, Boils and Ghouls, we’ve come once again to October.  We’ve made it through seven months of plague, a populist uprising against police brutality, the continuing downward spiral of J. K. Rowling’s reputation, the deaths of Chadwick Boseman, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and well over 200,000 of our friends, families and neighbors, not to mention the increasingly rapid litany of escalating presidential scandals.  And with an increasingly uncertain presidential election on the horizon, the question of a peaceful transition of power, the slow-motion train wreck of theatrical film distribution, the deadly future of the ongoing pandemic and whatever the Hell 2021 decides to throw our way, things have never seemed scarier in America (at least in my lifetime).

And yet, with Halloween rapidly approaching us,, and if the resurgent of popularity of movies like Outbreak (1995) and Contagion (2011) have anything to teach us, it’s that the horror genre is uniquely primed to offer us a sense of catharsis and relief in these uncertain times.  So in the lead-up to Halloween this year, I will take time to highlight the 31 best, scariest and otherwise must-see horror movies from the last 31 years.  Each entry is the peak of its year in horror, the scrèam de la scrèam as it were, and provides a chilling look into the pulsing heart of the human psyche:  After all, horror films do so much more than merely “reflect and refract the terrors that contemporary society faces;” Shock Value  author Jason Zinoman aptly notes that modern horror films have both “established a vocabulary for us to articulate our fears [as well as] taught us what to be scared of.” Or, as horror royalty Stephen King aptly put it:

the mythic horror movie, like the sick joke, has a dirty job to do. It deliberately appeals to all that is worst in us. It is morbidity unchained, our most base instincts let free, our nastiest fantasies realized… and it all happens, fittingly enough, in the dark.

Accordingly, horror movies work by “lifting a trap door in the civilized forebrain and throwing a basket of raw meat to the hungry alligators swimming around in that subterranean river beneath.” The reason why filmmakers, audiences and even social scientists should engage with the genre is “because it keeps [the alligators] from getting out […] It keeps them down there and me [safely] up here.” So even though “Lennon and McCartney […] said that all you need is love,” that only matters “as long as you keep the gators fed.”

Our journey into the long dark night of the horror genre, then, begins with its most recent exemplars: that is to say, the class of 2020.  While it would be easy to dismiss the current unfinished year – especially when seemingly every movie worth getting excited for is getting pushed further and further back into 2021 – the truth is that the horror films of this year have been both plentiful and exemplary.  After all, unlike major blockbusters like Black Widow and Dune, horror movies are typically made on the cheap, with a skeletal cast and crew, and don’t need to earn hundreds of millions of dollars in order to turn even a meager profit.  2020 is also hot off the heels of the 2010s, a decade that is notable for its exceptional outpouring of horror cinema, and the current decade shows no slowdown in that trend of high-end scares.  And while it was tempting to pick something like the absolutely manic Color Out of Space (2020), either of South Korea’s latest zombie flicks, #Alive (2020) and Peninsula (2020), the folkloric La Llorona (2020), the Afro-Latino Vampires vs, el Bronx (2020), the pandemic-inspired Host (2020), the #MeToo-charged The Invisible Man (2020) or Gretel & Hansel (2020) or the poignant Relic (2020) – seriously, 2020 has been an amazing year for this genre – the clear heavyweight in the room is director Jeff Barnaby’s out-of-nowhere debut Blood Quantum (2020).

Set during a zombie outbreak in early 1980’s Canada, the film follows a heretofore marginalized First Nations tribe as they first must weather the initial onslaught of the cannibalistic undead, and then must wait out the resulting hordes on their fortified reservation land.  Due to a quirk of genetics, however, their tribe is immune to whatever pathogen is turning everybody else into zombies, so while they can still be injured and die like everybody else, a simple scratch or bite is not an automatic death sentence.  This, in turn, has lead to waves of White refugees swarming their settlement, seeking respite from the ongoing apocalypse and causing a rift to develop in the tribal community about what to do with all of the asylum-seeking refugees encroaching on their borders.

Obviously, there was a lot on Director Barnaby’s mind as he made this film.  The mere fact that the cast is made up almost entirely of American Indigenous and Canadian First Nations actors is reason enough to give this film a look.  Representation, after all, matters deeply in society, and indigenous and dark-skinned communities are invariably the ones that are cast as the monstrous, inhuman hordes in White-fronted films, not the other way around.  As one film critic noted, it’s probably this movie probably represents the most indigenous characters ever assembled on-screen that weren’t either being saved by Kevin Costner or killed by John Wayne.  Three, maybe four, of the lead actors acquit themselves so well in their given roles that it is downright infuriating that they haven’t had long and notable careers as leading-men already.

That alone would have been enough.  A handsomely made and ultimately kick-ass genre movie, starring a cast of more-than-capable indigenous actors in roles that show off the depths of their talents, would have been enough to warrant a watch.  The thing is, though, that that’s not all that Blood Quantum has on its mind.

After a chilling opening scene that perfectly captures the impending dread of the apocalypse-to-come, and a first-act that crams in exactly as many iconic monster-movie scenes as it can manage, we get into the meat of the film, which is everything to do with the socio-historical intersections of White colonialism, Native marginalization, the modern-day refugee crisis, public health and even miscegenation.  The film’s title, Blood Quantum, is an obvious reference to the American Blood Quantum laws that legally categorized indigenous peoples by the percentage of “native blood” similar to the One Drop Rule that legally defined who was and wasn’t Black in the American South.  The year in which the film is set, 1981, deeply informs the themes that develop throughout the film, as that was the year of mass indigenous protests against the Canadian government for their treatment of their First Nations citizens.  Even that opening scene, where we see recently gutted salmon reanimate at a fisherman’s feet, exists within a fraught tradition of hard-fought indigenous land and resource rights that the White-dominant federal governments of North America frequently transgress upon.

There is, in fact, so much bursting at the seems of this one film – both on a thematic level and on a more viscerally filmic level – that it is sometimes the case that too little attention is given to any one feature before moving on to the next big idea that Barnaby and his crew wanted to address.  The movie wildly shifts theme, tone and attention from one horror set-piece or character beat to another, playing out a lot like Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (2018), a film that felt like a lot of renegade film students snuck onto a Hollywood backlot and shot every last fever dream that had been stewing in their heads for the last twenty-odd years because they knew that they’d never be let back onto the set again afterwards.  So while not every individual beat or scene or transition works in Blood Quantum, it is plainly evident that Barnaby & Co. have left everything they have on every frame of the film.  It is a staggering monument to their experience as both genre fanatics and First Nations filmmakers.  The production exudes the kind of boundless enthusiasm and energy that you would expect from an early Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson movie and, if there’s any justice in the world, its architect will have just as meteoric and celebrated a career as those men had before him.

Even before the pandemic, Blood Quantum sits perfectly at the intersection of our daily lives: one where issues of race, nationality, health and justice are the cornerstones of our survival and the powers that be have proven themselves woefully unsuited to the task of addressing them straight-on.  This movie aims to do for indigenous peoples what The Witch (2016) did for women: bringing to the fore the historical and ongoing injustices done to its subjects, framed by the familiar trappings and metaphoric possibilities of the horror genre.  And while this is not quite as finely a tuned feature as Robert Eggers’s debut film, the Evil Dead-alike scenes of splatterhouse action will doubtless appeal more to a larger and more mainstream audience.  Especially after a summer of resurgent Black Lives Matter protests and the ongoing moral crisis of concentration camps along the Southern United States, Blood Quantum is not a movie to miss.

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