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Decolonizing the zombie apocalypse:  An interview with Jeff Barnaby about his new film ‘Blood Quantum’

Indigenous Politics

Promotional artwork for writer-director Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum. Illustration by Chippewar.

With people sheltering in place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many are turning to their TVs for comfort and binging disaster movies.

Teaser poster by Chippewar

If you’ve already watched popular choices like Contagion and Outbreak and are still craving more disaster content, don’t worry. On April 28, Mi’kmaq director Jeff Barnaby’s new anti-colonial zombie film, Blood Quantum, is being released across all on-demand and digital platforms.

Building on classic zombie films like George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Barnaby situates the zombie apocalypse in Canada’s colonial setting. Blood Quantum depicts the gruesome and gory effects of a zombie uprising in a white town bordering an Indigenous reserve whose residents are immune to the virus. After those living on reserve decide to accept white refugees seeking shelter, Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples must figure out a way to survive the pandemic, together. Reconciliation is not dead in Barnaby’s fictional world. Instead, survival requires Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples to work together to defeat the undead, transforming themselves and their relations in the process.

Like Barnaby’s acclaimed Rhymes for Young Ghouls, Blood Quantum joins a growing list of Indigenous fictional creations that grapple with the horrors of colonialism in creative ways. Alicia Elliot has recently written about the rise of Indigenous horror. In the context of Canada’s ongoing genocide against Indigenous peoples, Elliot argues that “there is comfort in witnessing a world where the horror eventually stops—even if that world is fictional.”

Blood Quantum does just that, skillfully balancing horror and humour with hope. Barnaby envisions a bloody but better world, one built from the ashes of decolonizing and defeating the zombie apocalypse. Blood Quantum is a must watch in these pandemic times.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Barnaby about the film and the timely issues it explores.


Sean Carleton (for Canadian Dimension): Thanks for making time to chat about your new film, Blood Quantum.

Jeff Barnaby (JB): No worries.

CD: I first saw the film back in October at the Calgary International Film Festival. A lot has changed since then, with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you feel about releasing a disaster film about a fictional pandemic during a real pandemic?

JB: Honestly, I don’t know how to feel. One of things about being an artist is that once you release something it’s not yours anymore. I’m not sure what the audience reaction will be given what’s going on in the world right now. So, we’ll have to wait and see.

CD: Why did you choose the zombie genre to make a critical commentary about colonialism in Canada?

JB: As an Indigenous filmmaker, I’m trying to present a new perspective that allows us to ask new questions in the zombie genre. So many representations of Indigenous peoples dehumanize us as a way of assuaging colonial guilt. I wanted to challenge all that.

My goal, quite similar to Rhymes for Young Ghouls, is taking an alternate reality and using it as a vehicle to make comments about the world around me. With Blood Quantum, I think it’s even more explicit. It’s not even a fabled metaphor. It’s pretty obvious what I’m driving at: colonialism and capitalism are pandemics.

If you look at the way colonialism has consumed everything, how could you not compare it and late-stage capitalism to a cannibal that devours everything in its sight mindlessly?

CD: Yeah. A lot of anti-colonial writers such as Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon talked about European colonialism as a disease. Arthur Manuel (Secwepemc) recently argued that Canada/Canadians similarly suffer from the sickness of colonialism.

JB: I don’t know how anyone couldn’t intricately link colonialism with disease, with sickness. History makes that link very clear. When we first started coming up with the idea for the movie, the premise just seemed so obvious and on the nose, and yet it hadn’t been done before.

I mean, of course colonizers are zombies. Colonialism and capitalism have just consumed everything and everyone in their sight. And it’s been endless for centuries.

We’re starting to see it all come to a head here with the pandemic, and it’s scary because it’s not just a movie you can turn off and walk away from. We’re seeing the evils of late-state capitalism just consuming humanity. That’s scarier than the pandemic, honestly. There is no consciousness behind a virus, but the decision to force people back to work in the midst of a pandemic to produce profit is fucked up. There is a consciousness behind it and that’s terrifying. When you sit there and chose profit over people, that’s just pure evil.

CD: I want to ask you about the film’s aesthetics. It seems like you’re making a number of visual references to the long history of Indigenous resistance, such as the so-called “Oka crisis” of 1990.

JB: Absolutely. Alanis Obomsawin’s films have been inspirational for me. Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance shaped my view of things, yes, but the big one was Incident at Restigouche, which was shot on my Mi’kmaq reserve in Quebec in 1981. So those two films and their images have been kicking around in my head and shaping the way I see and represent things, and all that played out in Blood Quantum.

If you watch Incident at Restigouche, you’ll notice that we set up the zombie blockade in Blood Quantum exactly where the police set up their blockade in 1981. So, there is a lot of imagery that we have layered in that speaks to the history of Indigenous resistance for people to look for and interpret. Also, Romero’s film has this documentary vibe and to me there is a parallel to the kinds of shots Obomsawin was using in her films, and I wanted to riff off of that and bring it into conversation with the zombie genre.

CD: I also felt like a lot of what you were depicting anticipated the kinds of conflict we saw earlier this year in Wet’suwet’en territory. One image stands out where the RCMP were arresting people and dismantling a bridge blockade that had “reconciliation” written on it, again highlighting the tensions regarding access/restriction under colonialism.

JB: Yeah, written across the gate in our film is “If they’re red they’re dead, and if they’re white they’ll bite.”

CD: And there is an image, used in the film’s promotional posters, that seems to be a reference to the famous photo of the “Face to Face” confrontation during the 1990.

JB: Yes. To use the same imagery in my film that Obomsawin uses in 270 Years of Resistance was special, it adds another level, and I hope people can pick up on that.

CD: Finally, what do you want audiences to take away from Blood Quantum?

JB: That I wanted to use the zombie genre as a way of introducing audiences to the themes of colonialism and reconciliation. I’m just trying to bring people together to talk about these subjects in a different way. Laughing and being scared can do that in pretty fun ways, I think. It’s more relatable and disarming.

The ultimate message of the film is that if we’re going to survive–from the sickness of colonialism and capitalism–we’re going to need to work together.

Sean Carleton is a coordinating editor with Canadian Dimension.

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