At the cold, undead heart of REZilience is a social conscience.
Jayson Stewart is director of what's billed as the first ever First Nations zombie movie, a feature about a handful of survivors trying to escape an outbreak, caused by an evil corporation, at a fly-in reserve up north.
REZilience will deliver more than enough guts and gore to satisfy fans of the genre, Stewart said, as well as a strong socio-political message.
"For those who like action, there's going to be a lot of action, for those who like zombie movies, yes, there will be gore, and for those who like character-driven films, you get very invested in these four characters and in wanting them to survive and to pass on this knowledge as they uncover it, so there's also the thriller side of it, too," said Stewart, a schoolteacher and head of Laps in Judgement Films, which begins shooting a proof-of-concept in the Massey area next month.
"But the big thing is it's also a political story, too. There are many layers to the story, even something as simple as the villain's name, Duncan Scott, who is the CEO of the DCS Group."
That's a reference to Duncan Campbell Scott, Canada's first Indian Affairs minister, who in his day advocated for the assimilation of First Nations peoples.
"The was one of the main authors of the Indian Act, which is seen worldwide as a racist piece of legislation that needs major, major work, if not dismantling entirely," Stewart said. "So we're hitting on those issues of colonization, of poverty, of loss of identity, but also the beauty and power of indigenous culture to be resilient, for language to come back and for culture to be something that shouldn't be shunned or hidden, but should be celebrated, and in this case, there's a twist where that culture actually saves their lives."
Stewart came up with the idea a few years ago, "when a writer friend and I were just bantering back and forth, throwing out as many crazy story ideas as possible.
"We never thought we'd pick up on one that could actually be worked on."
But he eventually got serious about the story and on Aug. 4, he'll join the cast and crew to film the proof-of-concept – roughly, the first 20 minutes of the film – at the Massey airfield and other locations in the area.
"We hope to market this to producers who would pay big bucks for the whole feature," Stewart said.
"Our thought on that, too, was even if we didn't get a producer interested in the whole piece, maybe we could do it as an online serial, which is becoming more and more popular, or like a miniseries-type of idea, but I think there's going to be enough interest here that we will be able to do a full feature."
Much of the film will take place in the fictional community of Serpent Lake, home to about 350 people and unfortunately, chosen by DCS as an ideal test location for a biological weapon meant to neutralize a large population by paralysing and knocking them unconscious for a period of time.
While the corporation has tested the weapon at other out-of-the-way locales, such as villages in the Congo or Latin America, its effectiveness in colder climates is unproven – hence the focus on Serpent Lake.
"What they don't realize is there's something about First Nations DNA that is susceptible to this pathogen and it paralyses them and knocks them unconscious, but the paralysis goes deeper and it paralyzes the heart and lungs, which they had never seen anywhere else," Stewart said. "And beyond that, it actually brings them back from the dead.
"Now, you have a population that's almost entirely zombified in a contained area, a far Northern reserve, surrounded by hundreds of miles of rugged bushland to get to the nearest community. There's no communication in and out, because they had paid someone internally to sabotage the only communication system they had."
It's in that situation that the lead character, Dwayne Peltier, played by 27-year-old Winnipeger Remington Louie, and aging bush pilot Victor (Doc) Murdoch, portrayed by Sudburian Douglas Davidson, find themselves at the start of the story.
Yet to be cast as major characters are a strong, young First Nations woman who has been away for medical training, a police officer steeped in traditional culture, and his brother, a local thug and drug dealer who "is an antagonist, a villain at first, but you'll grow to love him."
Most actors in the film, including the zombies themselves, are Aboriginal.
Stewart is not of First Nations heritage himself and admitted to initial fears he would be charged with cultural appropriation.
"I'm very cognizant and aware and respectful of that," he said. "Fortunately, I have brought on so many people who are Chippewa and Mohawk and Ojibwe and Cree and Kootenay, so I could rely on them and if ever it seemed like I was going astray or had a lens that wasn't respectful, that they would rein me in. And fortunately, they haven't had to do that, because maybe it's just in my DNA to be respectful and celebratory of all the people involved."
In fact, the biggest donor to the project so far has been the Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation, located near Massey.
"They came forward with a $10,000 contribution, so that makes them one of our producers," Stewart said. "Not only did they love the concept and the story and they loved the number of their own community members who are part of it enough to give 10 grand, but just their support of it, legitimizes it. Any worries I had about cultural appropriation were kind of erased when they gave their stamp of approval."
For more information, visit www.judgementfilms.com.
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