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Quebec buddy/zombie movie Brain Freeze has striking parallels to pandemic

The plot of Brain Freeze, if you must know, involves a golf club and chemical fertilizer used to make grass grow year-round, which sets off a zombie apocalypse.

“I came up with this weird idea for a zombie movie set on Nun’s Island,” says Brain Freeze director Julien Knafo.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic , when people would cross the street to avoid others, I would joke with my partner on our daily walks that it felt like we were living a zombie movie.

Director Julien Knafo admits the parallels are striking, but swears virtually all of his French-language (or English-dubbed) debut feature Brain Freeze was written and shot before Quebec went on lockdown in March 2020.

Nearly a decade in the making, the Quebec director’s highly entertaining, star-studded zombie romp was five days away from wrapping shooting when everything was put on hold. The final scenes were filmed in June of last year. Aside from a well-timed, ironic insertion of the line “Ça va bien aller” near the end of the gleefully gory saga, he didn’t change a thing.

As the old disclaimer goes: “any resemblance to real persons, living or (un)dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental,” but no, Knafo didn’t foresee a global pandemic. He just thought it would be fun to make a zombie movie.

“I was trying to write my first personal film,” he said. “The famous advice is, ‘write about what you know.’ I was getting lost in that. Then I came up with this weird idea for a zombie movie set on Nun’s Island. So I wrote something, (Quebec funding agency) SODEC gave me a grant right away, and I thought, ‘OK, this is serious.’ I never thought it would take nine years (to complete).”

The plot of Brain Freeze, if you must know, involves a golf club and chemical fertilizer used to make grass grow year-round, which sets off a zombie apocalypse.

Driving the narrative are the heartstring-tugging stories of survivalist security guard Dan (Quebec icon Roy Dupuis), who tries to keep his zombified adult daughter (Marianne Fortier) safe in increasingly challenging circumstances, and mischievous teenager André (Iani Bédard), who is left to care for his baby sister after their kale-smoothie-chugging mother (Anne-Élisabeth Bossé) joins the flesh-eating masses.

“It’s really a character-driven movie,” Knafo said. “Zombies are there, for sure. But what I really wanted to write about is this teenager. It’s a coming-of-age buddy movie/zombie movie; but when you look at it, it’s about that kid (André) and the arc he goes through.”

Though Bédard is endearing as the rebellious teen who must learn to take on real responsibility while fending off throngs of zombies, Dupuis anchors the film with a performance steeped in stoicism, earnestness and gravitas.

Knafo admits to initially being unsure whether to cast the veteran dramatic actor in his madcap genre movie.

Marianne Fortier, Roy Dupuis and Iani Bédard in a scene from Quebec director Julien Knafo’s zombie movie Brain Freeze.
Marianne Fortier, Roy Dupuis and Iani Bédard in a scene from Quebec director Julien Knafo’s zombie movie Brain Freeze. Photo by Lou Scamble /Ixion

“The tone I was looking for was so specific, and I don’t think he fit that tone until the character became this survivalist, in contrast to this kid. That’s when I realized how right it was. I put the two actors together for a reading, and Roy Dupuis had no idea what TikTok was, and the kid was looking at Roy Dupuis talking about his collection of miniature trains. Roy was like, ‘Oh, you’re into that, are you?’ They already had this relationship of opposites.

“The most famous buddy movie is Lethal Weapon. They’re all about these two people who are totally different, who have to work together and stop being afraid of each other and appreciate what the other brings to solve the problem.”

Knafo notes that Dupuis — who is credited as associate producer on the film — has strong opinions and didn’t hesitate to challenge him about his choices on set.

“I learned a lot working with Roy Dupuis,” he said. “He’s a very interesting human being. He’s not hard to work with, but he knows why he’s there and why he’s playing a character. In that sense, it’s a blessing to have him on set. I’m not saying it was easy, but he’s an interesting actor to have.”

Involved in Brain Freeze are producer Barbara Shrier, Quebec icon Roy Dupuis and actors Iani Bédard and Marianne Fortier.
Involved in Brain Freeze are producer Barbara Shrier, Quebec icon Roy Dupuis and actors Iani Bédard and Marianne Fortier. Photo by Allen McInnis /Montreal Gazette

The cast of Brain Freeze features other notable Quebec talent, including Simon-Olivier Fecteau (known to anglos as half of Ces gars là, with Sugar Sammy) playing a cynical talk radio host, and Mylène Mackay in a dual role as Terminator-style twins who come in to clean up the mess.

Many actors may have been attracted to the project for similar reasons to Bossé.

“I had her in mind,” Knafo said of the rising actress, whose CV includes appearances in Xavier Dolan’s Amours imaginaires and Laurence Anyways, and Monia Chokri’s Cannes-acclaimed La femme de mon frère. “I went to a café to talk to her, and the first thing she said was, ‘Count me in. It’s on my bucket list to play a zombie.’ ”

Even Dupuis, who could have been intrigued by the project’s environmentalist undertones, appeared more drawn in by that zombie je ne sais quoi.

“He was the first one who said yes,” Knafo recalled. “I don’t think Roy Dupuis says yes to just anything. He told me he likes dark comedy and he really liked the demo we did.”

Dark comedy is the driving force of Brain Freeze, which nonetheless remains on the lighthearted side of things. Though not a zombie movie fan, per se, the director was inspired by modern takes on the genre from the UK, including Danny Boyle’s 2002 post-apocalyptic outing 28 Days Later and Edgar Wright’s wry 2004 farce Shawn of the Dead.

Iani Bédard and baby Claire Ledru in a scene from Quebec director Julien Knafo’s zombie movie Brain Freeze. Credit: Lou Scamble / Ixion
Iani Bédard and baby Claire Ledru in a scene from Quebec director Julien Knafo’s zombie movie Brain Freeze. Credit: Lou Scamble / Ixion Photo by Lou Scamble /Ixion

He also mentions Max (son of Mel) Brooks’s World War Z, “the book, not the film,” which looks at the aftermath of a global zombie war. “It’s really funny, but really dark,” Knafo said.

“Tone for me is really important. I really enjoy dark comedy. I didn’t have a lot of comparison in French comedy — on TV, maybe (the Quebec show) Idées noires. My references were in England and the U.S., like the Coen brothers, who use dark humour sometimes.

“I like humour where you’re not sure if you should laugh. That’s how Brain Freeze happened. Everyone has been asking me if I wanted to make a statement film about the environment or the pandemic. Of course, those themes are there. But no, reality came toward us.”

AT A GLANCE: Brain Freeze is in theatres Friday, including English-dubbed versions at the Cineplex Forum, Spheretech and Ciné Starz Côte-des-Neiges.

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