Monday, 24 January 2011

#3 Pontypool: Orally Transmitted Disease

So, we’ve looked at the film that set out the rules for all the zombie movies to follow. We’ve found a zombie movie in denial and pointed out that yeah, it’s playing by the same rules as everyone else. Today we’re going to look at a film that’s well within the territory of the zombie movie, but does something completely original with the zombie apocalypse idea. Oh, and there will probably be some spoilers here, but hopefully not too much.
Okay, so we’ve already established that zombie movies tend not to focus on the big picture. They’re rarely interested in Frodo and his friends journeying to Mount Doom- they’re more likely to focus on the story of some anonymous Middle Earth peasant who gets his farm fucked over by orcs but never finds out why.
The majority of zombie films like to lock their main characters up in a room together, only giving them hints of the wider story through radio and TV broadcasts.
A Second Hand Apocalypse
Even the adventures of our main characters are often relayed to us second hand: In Night of the Living Dead we hear Ben tell us in detail about a gasoline truck he saw being chased down by a horde of zombies. In 28 Days Later Mark describes how he lost his family when Paddington Station was overrun. Telling us these stories second-hand does important scene-setting work. If it’s set in the early days of the outbreak, it helps give the impression that we are only seeing a fragment of a larger national or global narrative, set in the aftermath, it lets us know that we missed the party- that the war for survival happened long before the opening credits rolled, and we lost.
So it’s actually surprising it took this long for someone to think of telling the story of what happens in one of these radio stations, with the apocalypse relayed to us entirely second hand as the world finally goes to hell. Oh, we see a bit of it in Dawn of the Dead, as the TV station struggles to stay on the air while the city burns, but only long enough for our main characters to realise everything’s going to shit and decide to make a run for it.
With Pontypool we find out what happens to the characters who don’t make a run for it. Set in the small, snowbound Canadian town of Pontypool (That the setting is Canadian will prove important later) this film follows washed out shock jock Grant Mazzy, his put-upon producer Sydney Briar, and “technical cowboy” Laurel-Ann Drummond.
One of the first things we find out is- at the radio station Ben, Barbra and co were listening to, desperately hoping for an answer to the crisis, the announcers had no more idea what was going on than the poor folk stranded in the farmhouses, shopping malls and the Winchester Pub.
For the first half of the film, we only hear fragmentary reports, a doctor’s office getting mobbed by what looks like a protest or riot, a BBC journalist asking if the rioting and military roadblocks are the result of separatist terrorists, and the DJ isn’t convinced it’s not all some War of the Worlds style radio hoax. Anybody who’s seen a zombie movie will recognise the signs, but you won’t see a zombie directly until over 50 minutes into the film, and it’ll be over an hour before the horde appears.
Everything else we hear from listeners calling in, from the pilot of the radio station’s traffic chopper (which is actually a car parked on a hill) and from the news wire. It’s a claustrophobic, doom-laden film and if that was all there was to this movie it would still be a great addition to the genre. But that isn’t what makes this film stand out.
It’s the nature of the infection. This epidemic isn’t brought about by a crashed Venusian space probe, or by some sort of hyper-rabies. In Pontypool the infection is spread by words- specifically, the understanding of words.
Despite the sprinty/not undead nature of the zombies, these zombies are much closer to the Romero zombies of old, because they are as much objects of sympathy as fear. When we see an infected person hurling herself at the glass of the recording booth until the glass is smeared with her blood, we’re not frightened she’ll break in, we just don’t want to see her killing herself. When the military come in and begin putting down the infected, Mazzy’s outraged cry is that “You’re just killing scared people- it’s what you always do.” There’s none of the usual self-justification that “he’s not the person he was” when a zombie gets killed. We see the terror in their eyes as they lose their ability to speak, and when they finally turn to violence it’s almost understandable.
Everybody’s Heard About The Word
There is a theory that in the event of a Rage virus style zombie outbreak, it would go something like this:

I would watch this movie.

But a virus spread by words? Well let me make my point in the most painful way possible: The Game.
For those of lucky enough not to know what that means, and are therefore not swearing out loud and trying to punch your computer monitor in the face click here. I’m sorry, there’s no going back.
In a wider sense, words behave virally all the time, the infection stands as a metaphor for memes, ideas, religion, you name it. But purely in the terms of the film, it also presents a host of unique problems. Certain words are infected- but how do you find out which ones are infected. If you find which words are infected, how can you communicate that to anyone else?
This is where it becomes important that this film is set in Canada. The military that moves in to put down the outbreak (and who turn out to not be much help- don’t worry, we’ll tally up the shots at the end of the blog) is explicitly stated to be the French Canadian military. When the radio station’s broadcast is interrupted by an announcement in French, telling people to avoid terms of endearment, baby talk and “rhetorical discourse” it also warns people to avoid the English language, and asks that listeners not translate the message. To contain the disease, there is an attempt to actually quarantine the English language.
But we’re never in any doubt about how effective this strategy will be. If there is an effective way to contain an idea I haven’t heard of it (So, you know, well done!) and this is a film fascinated by language and ideas and the way they propagate. When zombie movies show you anything of life before the outbreak, it will usually be a shortcut to whatever themes it wants to explore. 28 Days Later starts with stock footage of riots and wars and the everyday violence humans inflict on one another regardless of any “virus”.
Shaun of the Dead opens with shots of people lumbering about their everyday lives, doing the same tasks over and over, looking like zombies. Pontypool starts out with Mazzy’s producer telling him that his attempt to spread the truth in a small town is pointless because “Gossip is way ahead of you”. The film opens on a monologue from Mazzy, talking about the meanings and etymologies of words, repeating them until they lose all meaning.
Zombie movies never being afraid to stick their subtext up on a fifty foot high billboard, we see plenty of examples of the kind of dangerous, viral ideas they are talking about. From the dangerous inflammatory rumours of booby trapped marijuana farms Mazzy is spreading at the start of the film, to the singers of a Lawrence of Arabia musical that come to perform in the studio, and feature a black-faced actor playing Osama Bin-Laden.
Pictured: Satire
Perhaps the lesson of this film is that some of the worst things humanity can produce are simply spread by words, and it forces the audience to ask itself- have you heard the word?
Right, let’s bring out the drinking game shall we? (Yes: You just lost The Game again)
Our characters spend most of the story under siege in a radio station (one shot) where the French-Canadian military coming to contain the situation are incompetent, and more dangerous than the zombies (two shots) because mankind is the real monster (one shot) also, there is a kiddy zombie (two shots) and nobody ever calls them zombies (one shot).
Next week I’m going to be writing about the Left 4 Dead games, and also Batman.


  1. I would like to watch this film, Christopher. This seems like a film I shold watch. We have discussed Canada at length, you know how I feel. Also, it is meta, so double-triple points. Please embed youtube clips and further multimedia items for my delectation.


  2. Ask Becky, and you shall receive, here is a trailer:

    I also didn't manage to mention that Pontypool is an adaptation of a book, written by the same guy, called Pontypool Changes Everything. I've been unable to lay my hands on a copy so far, but from what I've read it's even more meta than the movie: