Meme Zombies

A Review of Tony Burgess and Bruce McDonald’s film Pontypool (Maple Pictures, 2009)
By Derek Newman-Stille

As many of you know, I tend to focus Speculating Canada primarily on literature. This is not meant to ignore other types of texts and media, but has been an area that fascinates me.  I have recently been drawn to the film Pontypool through my love of representations of the monstrous. Since it is based on the novel Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, I thought it was worth exploring further.

I am not normally a huge fan of the zombie genre. I tend to find a lot of recent explorations of the zombie to be repetitive – involving the idea of viral contamination, chase scenes, and general body horror. This is not to say that there isn’t value in these zombie depictions, but it has been overdone a bit for my taste. I tend to like innovative new treatments of the zombie, and I think that is what drew me to Pontypool. The zombies in this film aren’t created by biting, scratching, an airborn virus… they are created by language.

Set in the small Ontario town of Pontypool, the movie features a small town radio station who gradually receives filtered news of a huge event. People have seemingly gone mad and are destroying the downtown, attacking one another, and mumbling gibberish the entire time. There is no official word on what is happening, and the radio station is only getting reports from random citizens as official channels stay silent on the issue.

Things hit close to home when people in the radio station itself begin to repeat phrases, alliterate, and get stuck in cycles of rhyming. This is the first stage of the virus – since the virus is contained in language, the body’s immune system kicks in to try to expel the virus by playing with language. When this immune response fails, the infected host seeks out others, homing in on them by the sound of their voice, fixating on the vocalisation of the English language to find new victims and spread to them.

Pontypool explores the idea that there could be something living in language, in consciousness that replicates itself when the brain of the new host recognises and understands words. This is a personification of the idea of the viral meme, made literal. It spreads through cultural expressions, replicating itself and moving from one area to another, expanding, spreading. Although most zombie movies involve a great deal of physical movement, one of the striking parts of this movie is that all of the movement occurs intellectually. There is little physical movement since the entire plot of the movie takes place in a radio station (and largely in the sound booth). The movement that occurs is through conversations, through hearing of events conveyed through voice and through leaps of awareness. All of the action of this movie is carried in words, through hearing action, which makes it a particularly apt medium for a movie about a virus that spreads through words. As one watches the movie, one becomes very sensitive to sound, noting differences in sound and becoming hypersensitive to the spoken word. Words feel weightier, more significant, louder, and awkward. The viewer becomes alienated from language itself.

Pontypool plays with ideas of fear and the spread of fear, focusing on the idea of voice as a medium for both understanding, but also for the spread of fear. The shock radio jockey star of this movie, Grant Massey (Stephen McHattie), begins his radio broadcast of the morning by trying to shock his listeners when he describes the threat of drug culture and drug dealers coming into small towns to create grow-ops. When his producer, Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) tells him not to scare the small town populace, he informs her that fear is what sells news, and getting people angry means bigger ratings. Here, Burgess and McDonald provide a subtle warning about the nature of media and the use of fear as a marketing tool, as well as the conflict that happens in small town Ontario where people often are both attracted to the idea of hearing about threats, but also don’t really want to hear too much about the potential horrors of the world.

The idea of fear in the media is played on further when people come into the radio station in Arabic-face (i.e. white Canadians painted to appear Arabic) in order to play music about the Middle East. Calling themselves Laurence and the Arabians, one of the members of the group is compared to Osama bin Laden and he ends his song on the radio by firing a toy machine gun in the air. This musical interlude occurs as the first inklings of a crisis begin to filter into the radio through reports, and comments well on the state of today’s society where often the Middle East, and images of terror far away, is used as a mechanism for distracting people from threats and issues close to home.

The image of terrorism resurfaces again when Massey talks to a reporter from the BBC who is calling to get clarification about reports he has received that an act of terrorism has occurred. When Massey tells him that they don’t have any details and that information is scarce, the BBC correspondant begins discussing Canada’s history of French separatism and ends his broadcast by concluding that the issue in Pontypool Ontario is actually a terrorist attack by French separatists. The media once again focuses on the notion of easy scapegoats and figures that inspire fear rather than further investigating and interrogating the notion that threats can occur locally. It is easier to search for a pre-established and culturally accepted threat than to look for new threats.

The character Grant Massey brings critical attention to the issue of the military and fear culture when he says to the military personelle who are monitoring his broadcast as they begin bombing the small community to stop the threat: “You are just killing scared people.” He later notes, when talking about how people who have the zombie virus stop making sense: “We were never making sense”, bringing critical attention to the notion of the spoken word and its ability to disseminate confusion. Pontypool evokes in the viewer a sense that more is being said through the figure of the zombie and its location in a centre of media – one finds oneself contemplating the notion that terrorism makes zombies of us all, that fear of terrorism and radical responses to beliefs in the threat of terrorism make us willing to blindly follow the voices that guide us. As a society, we are more willing to follow voices (like the zombies in this movie do when seeking new hosts for the virus) than to think for ourselves and look deeply at underlying issues.

You can check out a trailer for Pontypool at http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi1386283545/

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5 thoughts on “Meme Zombies

  1. Matt Moore says:

    If you dug PONTYPOOL, Burgess and McDonald are teaming up again to make CASHTOWN CORNERS, based on Burgess’ novel People Live Still in Cashtown Corners.

    Then, they’re making the sequel to PONTYPOOL, PONTYPOOL CHANGES!

    CASHTOWN CORNERS on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Cashtown-Corners/115053722011167) and IMDB (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2747898/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1).

    People Live Still in Cashtown Corners: http://chizinepub.com/books/people-live-still-cashtown-corners.php

  2. Thanks Matt! I am really looking forward to Pontypool Changes and Cashtown Corners. I have had People Live Still in Cashtown Corners on my shelf for a while and have been looking forward to reading it. I will have to hurry up and read it before the movie comes out.

  3. Dominik says:

    My wife and I watched Pontypool today. Terrific movie. Derek, you are spot on in your observations on the movie and its themes. I hope you’ll consider tackling more Canadian movies – your perspective is a welcome one, and I’ve no doubt you’d have insightful opinions on other Canadian productions.

    • Thank you Dominik! I look forward to tackling a few other Canadian films in the future and perhaps even examining some Canadian television. I am really glad that you enjoyed Pontypool. I am looking forward to the sequel!!

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