Zombies on The Rez
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 Lapse 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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All of the actors for the four main characters have been cast, including the lead character Dwayne Peltier played by 27-year-old actor Remington Louie and his mentor Vic ‘Doc’ Murdoch, played by actor Douglas E. Davidson.
Although the movie is in the horror film genre, the film is far from being one-dimensional. “It is common for good horror, science fiction and fantasy films to comment on social justice issues,” he said. “In the original Star Trek, race relations, the civil rights movement, oppression and privilege were woven into scenes featuring green skinned aliens and phaser battles.”
The film location is the fictional small fly-in Northern village of Serpent Lake, a community of 350 souls whose only contact with the outside world is by float plane or a seasonal ice road. “The ice road has not been open for very long in recent years because of the impact of global warming,” noted Mr. Stewart, citing just one of the modern commentaries layered within the production.
The characters are also more multi-dimensional and contain a depth not common to the zombie flick cadre. “There are different types of people, including a strong female lead and a character who follows a strong traditional Native path,” he said. There is also a two-spirited main character. “So there is the LGTB tie-in as well.” Most of the characters are under 30.
“In our film, REZilience, the character Dwayne Peltier, taken from his home reserve by the foster care system, returns and discovers who he is and how his community has been affected by residential schools, genocide, treaty violations, poverty and loss of culture,” said Mr. Stewart. “In fact, the zombies in the film are a result of a biological weapon tested on the people the same way smallpox was weaponized during early colonization of North America.”
So the film broaches many important subjects, but includes a lot of the nuances favoured by the zombie/horror set.
“In essence, we are broaching these important subjects as the characters discover who they are throughout the film,” said Mr. Stewart. “They use this knowledge and sense of self to survive and thrive. Their strength comes from their history and their discovery and rediscovery of who they are.” Mr. Stewart explains that the zombies are a “mixed metaphor for people who have lost their way, lost their connection to what’s important, of the infighting that can happen in communities, and our heroes represent those who are rising against oppression, against historical and modern acts of genocide and are taking their traditions into the future as powerful leaders in the community.”
So why zombies?
“We could have done this story without it being a zombie film but I’m a zombie fan and, if it makes other horror fans think a little, then we’ve done our job,” laughed Mr. Stewart. “It opens these stories to a fanbase who might otherwise tune out of a story about Natives.”
Mr. Stewart is proud of the fact that his is not only the first Canadian zombie movie, “it is also the first in North America.” He points out that while there is another zombie flick with zombies, that film is a comedy, not a true horror film.
Dealing with issues such as the residential school system call for a more dramatic approach, but Mr. Stewart said that he is sensitive to the delicacy of the topic. “I can understand the sensitivity some feel and have full respect to all survivors, their families and those impacted by the system, racism and oppression,” he said. But adds that “the film isn’t about residential schools, it mentions them as one of the many issues that are affecting indigenous nations today. At no point will there be a mockery made of any issue. No issue will be made light of, in fact, the opposite is true and the issues will be woven into the story with the utmost respect.”
The project crew are primarily volunteer, at this point, but Mr. Stewart notes that there are three key people who are paid staff. “Although they are being paid, it is largely for their equipment,” he added.
Mr. Stewart hopes to have the film ready for the spring of 2017, just in time for the festival circuit.
ZOMBIES INVADE MASSEY
Massey - you’re probably used to hearing about dinner and a theatre performance paired together, but what about a car wash and a show?
It’s a twist that Jayson Stewart and his team put together as a fundraiser for his Indigenous film titled REZilience (previously known as The Darkest Dawn).
For $5 you can have a sparkling clean car, or for a little more you get a performance you wouldn’t normally see at a car wash.
“For $10 you are asked to prepare your cameras because zombies will attack your vehicle, smearing blood over the windows before pausing, shaking off their rage and cleaning up the mess and your car,” explained Stewart.
Don’t worry, it is not real blood that the zombie’s will be using on the vehicles. Stewart opted for the washable, non-staining stage blood like substances made from dish detergent, creamy sugar-free peanut butter, sugar-free chocolate syrup and washable poster paint.
Stewart said he confirmed 10 zombies willing to participate, however he is looking for double to triple the number to come out for the day.
“We need 20 to 40 native zombies for the movie and five zombies of any heritage for the car wash,” he said.
Stewart’s film is an Indigenous-based cast, and he wants the day event to represent the genre of the movie.
While you’re car is getting washed or attacked, you can browse the yard sale held in conjunction. Both run from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at CJ Auto located on 210 Sables (Highway 17) in Massey.
The day doesn’t end at a freshly washed car. Stewart has prepared a day of zombie theme events with the help of neighbours.
“The residents have been very excited about the movie, and even non-zombie fans are excited,” Stewart said. “The owner of Inspired Creations Cafe won’t watch any horror film, but supports the arts and had offered full and free use of her cafe after hours for our spaghetti supper and movie night.”
The price of admission, $10 for adults and $5 for children under eight years, covers the spaghetti dinner and the screening of the 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead. An extra $5 will buy you popcorn to snack on or spill over yourself when you jump at the scary parts of the film.
Massey’s Day of the Undead takes place on July 25.
Stewart and his film team, made up of 60 people, struggled with the new name after their original was unusable.
“I made a first-time director’s mistake of not registering the name with the Writer’s Guild,” adding that a project in the United States claimed the name. “We racked our brains as a team and ended up (with) nothing we liked or (that) was available. Late one night, I searched for words that started with REZ I found “resilience” and REZilience was born.”
The REZilience team has been fundraising throughout the year, and came up with original ideas aside from the Day of the Undead. An online art auction was used to raise money off Stewart’s artwork.
Stewart and his team were aiming to raise $15,000 for filming the movie. He is hoping they will raise the $500 needed at the Saturday event.
They received $2,000 in private donations, more than $1,300 has been collected on their online fundraising page on Indigogo and Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation’s donation brought them even closer to their goal.
“Two days ago, I had a meeting with Chief Paul Eshkakogan and council, and they donated 67% ($10,000) of what we need in exchange for producer credits and help in establishing an arts program in Sagamok,” said Stewart. “Sagamok council is exceptionally happy with the plot and they are excited about funding the project. Having the Sagamok community fund and endorse it legitimizes what we are doing and is a huge moral boost.”
Stewart said filming the zombie scene for REZilience beginning Aug. 7.
For more on the movie or ways to donate money, visit: www.judgementfilms.com.
MEDIA COVERAGE OF REZilience