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Brain Freeze
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by Jay Seaver

"A fun zombie movie that knows its audience."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2021 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I wish I were able to travel to Montréal to see what folks think about this one - though I'm sure the local filmmakers will get a warm welcome, how will those who always liked zombie-movie tropes feel about them as they are tentatively coming out of the Covid era, especially since this one occasionally feels like it's got both pre- and post-pandemic elements and is as such a bit off. Of course, what makes it as much fun as it is comes from a cock-eyed perspective that's both local-to-Montréal and more universal.

It takes place, by and large, on "Peacock Island'', one of the smaller isles off Île de Montréal that has more or less been developed into a gated community, most notable for a golf course whose fertilizer - developed by "Biotech M" - allows grass to grow and melt the snow even during a cold Montréal winter. Dan Gingras (Roy Dupuis) does security patrols even as he listens to a talk radio host (Simon-Olivier Fecteau) who rails against the "elites" living there, while daughter Patricia (Marianne Fortier) works at the country club. As some of the fertilizer starts to make it into the water supply, teenager André (Iani Bédard) - the sort whose nose is always in his phone - is frantically calling mother Josée (Anne-Élisabeth Bossé) because baby sister Annie's nanny Camila (Claudia Ferri) hasn't arrived, and Josée arrives home just as things are starting to go to hell.

I'm mildly curious about when Brain Freeze filmed, because it often has the hallmarks of things shot while everybody was trying to maintain distance without specifically taking place in 2020, where most scenes are a little less crowded than seems right, to the point where you only get a proper horde or dogpile once or twice and the radio studio feels a bit more like an underground bunker than the city's top station. Still, if that occasionally seems not quite right, it does so in a way that says something about how the well-off can build themselves comfortable cocoons in comparison to Dan's apartment. It may just be limited resources, of course, although I also wonder if Dan went from being a certain stock zombie-movie character - the paranoid doomsday prepper who is ironically well-prepared - to a more generous father figure once filmmakers saw the old trope wouldn't play as well, or if that was just always part of the story.

However it came about, the fact that Dan is generally not callous but more a cranky dad may wind up being a big part of the film's appeal for some, if the ease with which people acclimate to killing one's sick neighbors in this genre has worn on a viewer. Which is not to say that the film lacks a mean streak, mining a lot of laughs from just what a death wish that baby Annie seems to have on top of not exactly considering characters' four-legged friends safe. Writer/director Julien Knafo is well-prepared to skewer his yuppy characters without necessarily demonizing them, and there's some enjoyable oddball takes on how a contaminant meant to help grass grow makes for a different sort of zombie (though I'm not sure why it would make people bitey) and how not wanting to kill reshapes the characters' tactics.

Knafo proves pretty capable when it comes time to get down to business even when there's not exactly a lot happening on-screen; even when the action isn't obviously complicated, there's always a sense of people being on a mission with a goal. Once he establishes water as a vector, he does a nice job of building thrills around how potential danger is everywhere, maybe enhanced by the times but still well-constructed. The effects can be a bit kitschy, but fit the tone well enough. The story kind of reverts to genre form toward the end, but by then he and his film have built more good will than a conventional finale can squander.

I suspect "Brain Freeze" is going to play better in its home city than it necessarily will elsewhere, since it's a bit rough around the edges. Still, future zombie movies could do worse than taking a page from what Knafo does here; it's may not break wide but it gets a lot of mileage out of knowing its setting and not always assuming the worst of its characters.

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originally posted: 08/06/21 10:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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