(Photo by © Shudder / Courtesy Everett Collection)
For decades, the horror genre has fed on Indigenous stories for inspiration like a horde of zombies feasting on the body of a victim. “Ancient Indian burial ground,” anyone?
While there is plenty of Indigenous-themed horror out there – 2017’s Mohawk, Ozploitation classic Dark Age, and Pet Sematary, for example – few have been made by Indigenous filmmakers and told from that perspective. Now, Indigenous creators are exorcizing their demons by reclaiming the narrative and making horror on their own terms.
These filmmakers are using the genre to comment on the effects of colonization (Blood Quantum), imagine ancient worlds (The Dead Lands), question what and who you believe (The Darkside), and represent themselves where they haven’t been represented before (The Dead Can’t Dance). And they’re doing it all as they challenge assumptions about the form of cinema itself (BeDevil).
Below are some of the most inventive horror and mixed-genre films of the last few decades – all made by and featuring Indigenous artists.
About the author: Rhianna Patrick is a Torres Strait Islander media professional with over 20 years experience. She’s worked across news, television, radio, communications, and Indigenous Australian media. Dive deeper on these titles and more in a piece she recently wrote for website IndigenousX. Follow her on Twitter at @RhiannaPatrick.
Blood Quantum (2020)
Written and directed by Jeff Barnaby
Steaming on Shudder
What is it? A zombie movie with a twist, Blood Quantum centers on an outbreak in which the non-Indigenous locals are turning into the undead and the Indigenous population finds itself immune.
Mi’kmaq director-writer Jeff Barnaby’s second feature is an exploration of indigeneity and the ongoing effects of colonization. The film is set in 1981, which is a reference to the Alanis Obomsawin documentary Incident at Restigouche, about the raids on Listuguj Mi’gmaq First Nation by Quebec police over salmon fishing rights, an act Barnaby witnessed as a 4-year-old. This film is layered with history like this throughout – including some eerie use of undead fish! – and also features zombie film references and animated interludes.
The Dead Lands (2015)
Directed by Toa Fraser, written by Glenn Standring
Streaming free (with ads) on Tubi, and on Shudder; available to rent or buy on FandangoNOW, Vudu, YouTube Movies, Amazon Prime, and iTunes
What is it? The Dead Lands follows Maori teenager Hongi as he seeks revenge for his slain father in order to bring peace and honor to his tribe.
Although pegged as an action adventure, the level of blood loss pushes this Fresh New Zealand film into the horror realm – and there are plenty of bone crunching battles to keep gore hounds happy. What makes this film unique is that the script was originally written in English and then translated into Maori. The linguist who worked on the translation searched to find ancient words and expressions which might have been used 500-600 years ago, the time in which the film is set – prior to British colonization.
The Darkside (2013)
Directed by Warwick Thornton
Available to rent or buy on iTunes
What is it? Acclaimed director Warwick Thornton developed The Darkside after a callout seeking first-hand ghost stories from Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
Some 150 ghost stories were submitted for The Darkside, and the 13 that were selected were recorded by the filmmakers; three of the original recordings feature in the film, along with 10 more delivered as monologues by Australian actors like Bryan Brown, Claudia Karvan, and legendary Indigenous actor Jack Charles. It’s tough to describe, and more of a mood piece than a conventional genre film, but Thornton’s presentation of believable, everyday creepy tales will leave you unnerved.
The Dead Can't Dance (2013)
Written and directed by Rod Pocowatchit
Available to rent or buy on Amazon
What is it? Shaun of the Dead was the inspiration for this zombie comedy about three Comanche men who discover they’re somehow immune to a mysterious plague after their car breaks down.
A journalist by trade, Rod Pocowatchit started making genre films because he wanted to see Indigenous people represented in pop culture. The Dead Can’t Dance sees Pocowatchit apply his Indigenous perspective to a zombie comedy which delivers on the laughs but also on the Indigenous twists for the genre. Despite being obviously low-budget flick, Dead is entertaining, thought-provoking, and speaks to the DIY horror filmmaking tradition.
Written and directed by Tracey Moffatt
Available on Ovid (with subscription)
What is it? BeDevil is a trilogy of ghost stories that follows characters having real, remembered, and imagined visions.
This was the first ever feature film by an Australian Aboriginal woman and it’s an experimental feast for all the senses – although can be hard to find. Shot on highly stylized sets and on location – frequently cutting dreamily between both – it’s a mixture of theater, film, and art. The opening notes of the score are not what you expect for a horror film, but the music perfectly sets up the strange and captivating journey on which director Tracey Moffatt takes you.