Interview: Director Jeff Barnaby on His Inspiration for BLOOD QUANTUM and Retro Gore Effects
George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) is often cited as the first zombie movie, but the subgenre actually dates back to 1932 with Victor Halperin’s White Zombie. Over the years there have been so many different takes on the zombie narrative, that it’s easy to lose track of how many different ways the living dead have walked the earth. Recently, we have seen some clever zombie stories with films like Anna and the Apocalypse (2017) and One Cut of the Dead (2017), but genre film, and especially the zombie subgenre, is still greatly lacking in films by culturally diverse storytellers.
With some of us suffering from zombie fatigue, while also trying to cope with a real-life pandemic, AMC’s horror streaming platform Shudder surprise released the unprecedented Indigenous zombie film, Blood Quantum, which premiered at Toronto International Film Festival in 2019. Written and directed by Jeff Barnaby, who is known for Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013), Blood Quantum tells the distinctive, grim, apocalyptic story of an isolated Mi’gMaq reserve of Red Crow dealing with an outbreak of the walking dead. Only the Indigenous inhabitants of the reserve are immune from the zombie plague and the Tribal Sheriff, his son, his pregnant girlfriend, and refugees must fight for their lives against legions of walking white corpses.
Jeff Barnaby is a First Nations filmmaker born on the Mi’gmaq reserve, where both Blood Quantum and his debut feature, Rhymes for Young Ghouls take place. Blood Quantum utilizes retro blood and gore effects and spectacular fight scenes interwoven with a story about family and survival.
Dread Central recently had the pleasure of speaking with Jeff Barnaby about the personal experiences that inspired him to write the story of Blood Quantum, the in-your-face bloody effects, and a lot more. Read on to find out what we talked about!
Dread Central: Honestly, I’ve grown tired of zombie movies, but Blood Quantum is such a fresh take on the subgenre, and it’s a poignant story. In addition to the zombie outbreak, the film depicts the everyday struggles that Indigenous people face, and I think it’s important for that story to be told. What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
Jeff Barnaby: Entertainment. As a filmmaker operating in this genre, what we’re really trying to do is entertain people. I think that was our focus really, from the outset as filmmakers. When I was writing, I was definitely focused on the political issues and the satire, but I knew that in order for that to work, I think it still needed to be a popcorn movie first. So, that was the approach, to make a popcorn movie first. You know what it is? When you’re a native person onscreen, that is a loaded image and it comes with a lot of baggage, so it’s really hard to negotiate it sometimes. My philosophy has always been to ignore it. Pretend that none of those westerns exist, or if you’re going to acknowledge them, do it in a way that’s really kind of subtle, like the way your sheriff wears a gun, or something like that [laughs].
You’re not adding any scenes that are acknowledging any historical misrepresentation, like the Washington Redskins, for example. “Oh, we made a pun, that’s so clever.” So, for me, it’s almost weird to say it, but I try to balance the political ideas with crowd-pleasing gore moments. It’s like, if you’re getting too bogged down with the politics, it’s just like, “Oh, look! Someone is getting a chainsaw to the head” or some other crazy things happen. The unspoken rule in a film like this is that you need something crazy to happen almost every ten minutes. That’s why the approach was to make it entertaining first and not really worry about the politics, because they were going to be there anyway.
DC: Every character has an interesting backstory and the entire cast is stellar. I especially like Michael Greyeyes as Traylor and his rather complex family situation. Did you have any real-life inspiration for any of the characters in the film?
JB: Well, all of them really, I knew from somewhere. My wife keeps telling me that I’m Lysol. I grew up in foster care and I knew my dad, but he didn’t really want to have anything to do with me, so that’s where a lot of that came from, my own experience. My brothers are the ones who initiated the bond with the other side of my family that I didn’t really grow up with because I was a foster kid. So, it was based on that experience to a certain extent, but you draw lines here and there. We’ve never been in jail together [laughs].
DC: That’s why I asked, because the characters feel so authentic.
JB: Yeah, I think I’m just like any other artist who draws on the really old saying which says a really good lie is eighty percent true [laughs]. Regardless of what it is, tentacles coming out of the sky, whatever, I think if you have a lot of yourself in that story, if it’s eighty percent true, then I think the emotion is going to carry the narrative. That’s kind of what I was going for. I knew what it felt like to be in that position, so I drew on my voice for Joss and a lot of other people. The character Moon is actually named after my uncle, to give you an idea of how close to the bone it is. My uncle passed away at my age, so it was quite pertinent to have him playing a drunk, because he passed away from alcohol use. So, him playing a drunk in a movie was a nod to my uncle.
Where I shot the final scene, I played there as a kid. I grew up about a hundred yards from that monolith. I grew up in the shadow of that church. Every day after school I went to church and Sunday School there. So, I have really close ties to that entire area. When I grew up there, I imagined it, I dreamt that there was a pirate ship or an old, rundown, futuristic, blown-up, apocalyptic site. And there’s a graveyard right there. Back in my day, when I was a kid, that whole area was trees, so it was a lot more prone to spark my imagination.
DC: Blood Quantum has great bloody special effects and some insane fight scenes. Some of the blood and gore effects feel like a throwback to the eighties. Was that intentional and can you tell me a little bit about creating the effects?
JB: It was intentional. The beauty of eighties effects is that some of them are kind of clunky, like you could see the strings, or I’m thinking about Schwarzenegger taking his eye out in the mirror [laughs]. It looks like it’s made completely out of rubber. There’s something to be said about that aesthetic that you don’t really see in the screensaver films we get these days. But mix it with an almost corporal, very brutal, very real violence, so you’re now seeing two worlds where you’re kind of poking fun and having fun. And you’re creating brutal kills that are meant to be taken seriously, so it’s kind of striking that fine balance and knowing when to hold ‘em and knowing when to fold ‘em [laughs].
The young girl who comes in at the beginning of the second act, and she’s infected, that kill takes place off screen. All you really need to see is that ax and the scene is brutal, so there you show restraint. You throw a little blood in the air and that’s it. But I think when you’re introducing one of your zombie killers, you kind of want to have almost a roadhouse reveal [laughs], to have it be more fun and to have him kill a zombie in a spectacular way. We did that, too, so that’s really the way we approached the film. We kind of picked and chose where we were going to make those stands. The fight scene was particularly weird, because that day the set flooded. So, we were staging this whole thing on the beach, but we knew we weren’t going to be able to finish shooting there, so we ended up having to move everything off of that lot. By the end of it, we were bringing people off and, on the rock, and the boat was flooded [laughs].
Another effect people like is the zombie falling out of the window. That was written completely different in the script and then we found the garage and it was like, “Well, the zombie gets thrown out the window, but he doesn’t necessarily need to land there. So, what if one half stays up and one half comes down?” And we just figured out fitting it to the location, and that was just trying to mechanically construct again, but it was kind of hard because we were using blanks and we needed them to create a muzzle flash, so we were using quarter blanks and half blanks. You’re not really supposed to do that when you’re standing that close to a stunt person, so we ended up figuring out some other way to do that. We ended up putting a flash bulb on the end or something like that, but it was harder to do, and I think that was our longest day. Some of the crew were there for twenty hours and we had to turn it around in like six hours [laughs], so we barely slept, and then we were back at it the next day.
I think there is a misconception that making horror movies is fun. Looking at them is fun [laughs] but making them is hard. We had a great effects team and we were lucky enough to really lean into the experience of some of these guys. Jean Frenette, our stunt guy, was nominated for an Oscar. It was just everybody doing their job and me articulating what I wanted and them doing it. I mean, some of the stuff was a bit clunky, and like I said, it added to the aesthetic, and I think we got lucky [laughs]. It could have looked ridiculous. I feel like everything was serendipitous. We got lucky with what we were doing.
DC: This film feels very timely because we’re currently experiencing of a global pandemic. I know that wasn’t your intent, but how does it feel to have it released at a time like this?
JB: It definitely feels, not weird, I was relieved, frankly. It was so up in the air and nobody knew what was going to happen. So, it was just a relief to get it out there, for better or for worse, just to have it finally out of my hands. I think that’s the final step of any artistic process, letting it go. For me, I was holding onto it for so long because we finished shooting in October 2018 [laughs]. It was supposed to be released in September, so it was months of waiting. It was quite an expensive post-production. You know, I’m not even one hundred percent sure why we waited so long. I guess they wanted it to play the festivals. If you look at the platform, it hit Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019, so I’m not sure why they waited so long. I think they were just trying to milk the film festival circuit and then release it and then release it in theaters and build up a buzz, and it worked. But I think it worked out well. The virus ended up bringing the themes out more than it would if it just got released in the theater. So, it all kind of worked out.
DC: It’s doing really well on Shudder, so that’s a good thing.
JB: That’s like saying, “My porn is doing really well on Pornhub [laughs].” They’re the audience who would appreciate it the most, so I think that had a lot to do with it too. Shudder knows its audience and XYZ Films knows its audience and Elevation knows its audience, so we had a really good sales and distribution team, and they know what they’re doing. They have experience dealing with offbeat horror films.