Brain Freeze, the opening film at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival, gives us a new twist on the walking dead that’s somewhere between a conventional zombie and Swamp Thing or maybe more fittingly, The Mad Doctor of Blood Island and its sequels. Then it adds a helping of George Romero-style social commentary and sets it in an exclusive Montreal community straight out of early Cronenberg.
That community is Peacock Island, not just gated but with a natural moat provided by the Atlantic Ocean. It has a world-class golf course that is being treated with a new chemical to keep snow from settling on it, allowing year-round play, because “Golf isn’t a sport or a game, it’s a social status” as the course’s owner Marcel (Louis-Georges Girard, Mafia Inc.) puts it. And if he can milk that for year-round greens fees, so much the better.
André (Iani Bédard, Mon Ami Walid), somewhere in his early teens, lives on the island, with his workaholic mother and infant sister Annie (Claire Ledru). Dan (Roy Dupuis, Screamers, Hemoglobin) and his daughter Patricia (Marianne Fortier, Barefoot at Dawn) on the other hand commutes to their jobs on the island. She’s a caddy at the golf course, he’s a security guard. As they struggle to survive we see the outside world’s reaction to the situation, frequently filtered through Patrick Nault (Simon-Olivier Fecteau) a right-wing radio host Dan listens to obsessively.
Writer/director Julien Knafo (Mon Ami Walid) opens the film with sequences of hazmat-suited workers applying the chemical, scenes that recall another of Romero’s films, The Crazies, a film that Brain Freeze will return to in its final scenes. In between is a mix of scares, humour and political commentary that doesn’t spare any ideology. Everyone gets skewered, from the health faddists, the island’s grocery store is a Whole Foods type establishment and kale becomes a running joke, to right-wing radio and its listeners.
I’m not sure if Knafo meant the film’s Minister of Public Security (Jean Pierre Bergeron, Sticky Fingers) to be a reflection of Canada’s current Liberal government or politicians in general, but either way, those in power get their lumps as well. And it’s done without being overly partisan or resorting to Qanon-type conspiracy gags, either of which would have ruined Brain Freeze’s carefully constructed mood.
The most scathing commentary though is saved for corporate greed and the anything-for-a-profit attitude of the CEO class. When they first encounter the zombies, Biotech executive Michel (Stéphane Crête) mistakes them for union organizers. His company’s response is to send in twin assassins (Mylène Mackay) to make sure their involvement is covered up And it all ends with what looks like a nod to another Canadian eco-thriller, the unjustly hard-to-find Psycho Pike.
There’s some nice chemistry between Bédard and Dupuis which adds a level of believability to the teaming of the cell phone and selfie-obsessed teen and the survivalist security guard who loathes technology and can barely manage his flip phone. It also helps humanize Brain Freeze’s two lead characters either of which could have devolved into cliches and keeps the audience interested in them and their fate.
Canada has given us two of the most interesting zombie films of recent years, Blood Quantum and Les Affamés. Brain Freeze, which includes a visual reference to the latter film, certainly deserves to be classed with them. It’s fast-paced, fun, and gives you something to think about. One note, there are both dubbed and subtitled versions available. I saw the dubbed and at times the dialogue seemed out of sync with the actors, I’d suggest going with the subtitles.
Brain Freeze has been playing festivals and will hit the theatres in its native Quebec on October 29th. It’s available in the UK via Blue Finch Films and the US it’s currently available on Screambox. You can check its website and Facebook page for news of releases elsewhere.