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

Subversive Summonings

A Review of Claude Lalumiere’s The Ministry of Sacred Affairs (In Here Be Monsters: Tongues and Teeth: Issue Seven, 2012)
By Derek Newman-Stille

In The Ministry of Sacred Affairs, Lalumiere demonstrates his love of questioning social conventions and enforced messages by giving voice to a socially abject figure: the goblin, a figure hated by the public and viewed as a general threat to public safety.

Lalumiere creates a world where the Ministry of the Sacred has dogmatic control, gradually declaring anything that does not fit within its purview as blasphemous and subversive. The world becomes one of fear and isolation where anyone can be viewed as a danger to others, a traitor, or a potential terrorist. Any humanitarian outlook toward those judged to be subversive – whether rendering them aid or voicing concerns for their safety – can be viewed as an act of terrorism itself.

This is a world where secrecy is the most important lesson – keeping things hidden and never revealing too much of yourself, even to friends, family, and lovers. Lalumiere cautions readers about the dangers of giving in to fear of the Other and accepting the government and religious authority message of submission through fear, a government that uses the name of protection to enforce its control. Everything has been made into a threat.

Lalumiere uses the figure of the golem, an animated clay body without a will of its own, an image of the body subjected to total control to question the control that is imposed by religious and political authorities. Family secrets intersect with religious secrets as Leo’s father refuses to share the secrets of the creation of golems with him. But the golem becomes a figure that Leo shares his adolescent secrets with, all of the things that he couldn’t share with others. The golem becomes a manifestation of secrecy, the hidden, the unspoken. The golem becomes a vessel of secrets, of hidden fears, and the concerns that cannot be revealed to a society charged with terror and hatred. Despite being a figure that is designed by virtue of its creation itself as an unquestioning, silent vessel, the golem comes to illustrate the need for social change, the desire to challenge authority, and an image of resistance to the hegemony of fear. Lalumiere’s golem becomes a symbol for members of society without agency or voice. It is the golem who begins the process of standing up for the rights of the oppressed goblins in this society, taking on agency when it is needed to defend others.

Lalumiere unconventionally uses the figure of an old man, a 70 year old, to challenge convention. This, in itself challenges the too-often-seen portrayal of the elderly as unshaking and unchanging in their way of life and conservative in their viewpoints. Often the elderly are portrayed as people who enjoy the political use of fear to enforce conformity, so Lalumiere’s use of an elderly man to question the status quo impressively changes the reader’s preconceptions.

Lalumiere delightfully invites the reader to question everything and ignore limiting social messages by displaying a society where people who ask questions or challenge norms are cast as threats. Lalumiere uses the demonic figure of the goblin to represent the demonising of others in our society. He illustrates that the notion of “Truth” is subjective.

Explore more about this volume at and find out more about Claude Lalumiere and his current projects at

Monster Worlds and Mental Illness

A Review of D D Barant’s Dying Bites (St Martin’s, 2009)
By Derek Newman-Stille

Jace Valchek is an FBI officer and a forensic scientist. She is used to things following understandable rules and used to having a strict moral code: no grey areas.

Author photo courtesy of D D Barant

When she is tossed into a world where the population is made up of 37% vampires, 43% werewolves, and 19% golems and humanity represents less than 1% of the population, she is forced to question the taken-for-granted notions she used to have, and enter into an ambiguous space where nothing is the same.

Vampires, werewolves, and golems are incapable of having mental illness, so, when a serial killer starts torturing and killing them, they need someone who has a bit of experience with mental illness, and they choose a forensic psychologist from an entirely human world. D D Barant’s Dying Bites explores what it is like to move from a position of privilege in a world that mostly caters to you and your body type to a world that is entirely foreign and that casts you as a minority, an abject outsider, a victim of hate crimes, and, potentially food. Jace is surrounded by manipulation, lied to by government officials and confronted with a group that could be freedom fighters or could be terrorists. Her firm view of right and wrong is called into question when she is part of the minority that the “terrorists” are advocating for.

Jace has to adapt to a world that doesn’t belong to her, whose structures and customs are not just foreign to her, but also excluding. In order to gain some degree of respect, she must wear perfume that allows her to pass as a werewolf (at least until the full moon comes around). She encounters tremendous amounts of racism from the society, where “pure blood” werewolves and vampires are trying to pass laws that deny humanity any rights and render them essentially cattle. She encounters human enthusiasts – people from supernatural races who have an interest in the un-supernatural and collectors of comics about human beings (the ‘underheroes’) and their amazing ability to still accomplish things while lacking so much. She is perpetually surrounded by reminders that she is a minority living in a world that is not built for her. And, as a vegetarian in a world of predators, she also learns what it is like to be a minority that may be an appetizer.

D D Barant portrays a world that diverged from our own in the 12th century when our world invented guns and theirs began the widespread use of the golem (a figure from Jewish mythology made of animated clay). Many of the events of their world are similar, but with nuances that separate them from our own. Bram Stoker existed in this world, but instead of writing about vampires, he was out killing them. Jace finds herself stranded in this world of monsters living everyday lives, but her faith in ideas of right and wrong and the law are called into question as she discovers government conspiracies, genocide, and secret projects. Dying Bites is only book one of The Bloodhound Files and already the world has been shaken.

You can explore more about D D Barant and his series The Bloodhound Files on his website at .