Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Pontypool: Language Is A Virus From Outer Space

I'm sort of on the fence about zombie movies. On the one hand, some of my favorite horror films are generally considered zombie movies (Night of the Living Dead, [REC], 28 Days Later), but on the other, the genre is responsible for a whole lot of cheap direct-to-DVD gorefests with little value above the gross-out factor. Either way, the general formula is pretty simple: The dead walk (or run), people attempt to flee (or make a final stand), with at least some of their number getting infected along the way and/or having to fight someone close to them after they rise from the dead. Outcomes vary from wearily triumphant to bleak, bleak, bleak. That's okay, though. Both [REC] and The Diary of the Dead are found-footage takes on the zombie movie, but one is really good, tense, sharp, and scary as hell, and the other is The Diary of the Dead. Two musicians can play the same notes, but it's how they play them that matters.

Pontypool opens with the voice of Grant Mazzy, morning drive DJ at CLSY in the small town of Pontypool, Ontario. He's sort of like Don Imus with Ken Nordine's voice, a big city bad boy whose on-air antics have reduced him to reading off school cancellations out in the sticks, broadcasting from a church basement. He's the elderly lion, a once great beast brought low by time and bad decisions. His day begins in the early dark, just him, his producer Sydney, and Laurel-Ann, the intern. You get the sense that Grant's maybe a little hard to work with - his banter with Sydney has some needles in it - but once he starts broadcasting, his voice is the only thing in the room. This voice shouldn't be reading bus route changes, local ads and PSAs. It should be telling stories, spinning yarns, shooting the breeze about history and philosophy. Grant's not happy here. He's here because this is all that's left. Just another morning in a long series of mornings talking to the people out there about the small things that occupy their days.  (It occurs to me just now that it would have been cool if the only zombie in this movie had been Grant, a man dead and not knowing it. But that's not how it plays out.)

Just another morning for the most part, with Grant interspersing his monologue with announcements, ads, and calls from various people, including his traffic helicopter reporter. It's all very small-town and quaint, and the caller who starts stammering and having trouble with words seems a little odd, but nothing to get worked up over. But then the stammering starts to spread from person to person. People are having trouble talking. Words are beginning to lose their meaning, and worse. Eventually, reports of aphasia turn into reports of seizures. People emerge from the seizures violent and insensate. Reports of people hunting in packs for other people. As the spoken word falls away, so does humanity.

Pontypool is collapsing into savagery, and whatever is responsible spreads through language.

Grant, Sydney, and Laurel-Ann are in a difficult position. They appear to be safe in the studio (certainly safer than the people calling in, sometimes meeting horrible ends over the air) , but they're basically trapped there. Worse, if the vector of infection really is language, they have to watch everything they say, and everything they hear. Is it one specific word? Is it a specific combination of words? The enemy is in the room with them even as they're listening to its ravages outside. What are their responsibilities to the outside world? They have all of the resources they need to call for help, but they don't dare broadcast anything that might spread the infection. Language as a threat or weapon shows up in all kinds of places, from Monty Python's Joke That Kills to Dune's Killing Word to the nam-shubs in Snow Crash to the Warren Ellis story "Invasive", words can hurt you far worse than sticks or stones. There's something insidious about it, and because it's such a basic part of storytelling, we almost don't notice until it's too late. Someone starts repeating a word over and over again, it takes us a second. Are they upset? Are they confused? Why are they-oh, shit.

It's a tense, claustrophobic film, and hearing the atrocity at a remove, through the speakers, as eyewitness reporting, somehow makes it worse. We're used to graphic dismemberment and disemboweling in our zombie movies, but this is suffering and agony without spectacle. Usually zombie movies feature a lot of running from zombies. This is horror from the age of the radio play, and our imagination fills in the blanks where practical or digital effects would usually go. There's nowhere to run, and setting it in a radio station, with soundproof booths and speakers just sharpens the precariousness of their situation. Sound and meaning are the enemy here, and they are unavoidable. For the first part of the movie, at least, we are in the same position as they are. We can only sit and listen in horror.

In some ways, though, it hearkens back to the big daddy of zombie movies, Night of the Living Dead. Why are the dead walking? Who the hell knows? Somebody might have said something about a meteor or something, but the point is that the dead are fucking walking. We can figure out the "why" later when we aren't being eaten. What about language is doing this? That doesn't matter as much as not being torn apart by the mob outside. So there are some nice ties to tradition combined with a way to make a very visceral type of movie more cerebral without resorting to irony or "stick zombies into everything lol" pop-culture pastiche. Pontypool neatly sidesteps many zombie movie clich├ęs. It's a small cast, set in one location, the violence is almost entirely inferred, and it's not toxic waste, it's not a bite, it's not the fault of the body that monsters are created, it's the mind. It's the least visceral zombie movie ever made. You barely even see a zombie.

Had the filmmakers trusted the audience to watch carefully and make the connections and discoveries themselves, this would have been a great movie. Unfortunately, we get a new character in the third act who pretty much just serves as a massive infodump, laying out the idea that the infection moves through language in the most gratingly obvious fashion possible at a point in the story when the only logical response is "yeah, no shit."  What was up to now a careful, smart movie descends into histrionics that treat the central conceit like something defeatable. It might mark the first time in horror cinema that the writings of Jacques Derrida and Mikhail Bakhtin are more useful in a zombie apocalypse than the presence of Bruce Campbell. That has a lot of potential, but none of it is realized here. Instead, in the final moments of the film, we get nonsense.

IMDB entry
Purchase on Amazon
Available from Netflix


  1. It's a shame that the ending is so bad, because it seems like this one has a tremendous amount of potential.

    Bruce McDonald tends (tended?) to be pretty good, but looking at his imdb entry, it looks like he's done a lot of bad TV work since his classic films (Hard Core Logo and Highway 61).

  2. The premise reminds me of Jose Saramago's Blindess. Language as a weapon! I love it.

    Compare with Misery Index' frontman's musings on language and the latest Coen Brothers film here:


  3. I just followed you over from a comment you left on my blog and just wanted to say that you do good work. Count me a fan.

  4. Watched it last night. For a good twenty minutes I thought I was going to die of boredom, then, it got good. Right around the time the intern stops moving.

    I must say, the dude playing Grant Massy was masterful.

  5. I swiped the pic you used, and linked it to this post from my podcast blog (InverseDelirium.com). I didn't steal your title, I swear! Just a Laurie Anderson fan. Anyway, nice piece. I like this movie too, keep coming back to it.