It’s that time of year again! Time to celebrate the Resurrection with a weeklong plunge into all things zombie! Here’s the history: In 2008, Dr. Girlfriend and I decided to spend a week or so each year marathoning through zombie films that we’d never seen before and I would blog short reviews. And simple as that, the Easter Zombie Movie Marathon was born.
For the curious, here are links to 2008, 2009 (a bad year), 2010, 2011, 2012 (when we left the blog behind), 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017.
Ten years ago, Dr. Girlfriend and I kicked off the Easter Zombie Movie Marathon (because, you know, the resurrection!) and for the tenth anniversary marathon, we’ve decided to go back and rewatch some of the best films from (nearly) every year. We had to make a few cuts here and there to have time to end the week with a tribute to the late, great George A. Romero on the 50th anniversary of the release of Night of the Living Dead.
Editor’s Note: Due to technical issues, Day 3’s Dead Snow Double Feature has had to be shuffled.
Over the past seven years, Pontypool has been written about four times on Psycho Drive-In. John E. Meredith loved it, Joshua Mattern didn’t care for it, and I fucking loved it so much I’ve written about it twice. So, let’s see what else I can come up with…
For those who haven’t seen it, Pontypool is a zombie film like no other. The zombies are not the dead, but are infected by a language virus that ultimately destroys meaning and drives people into a murderous frenzy. The film was written by Tony Burgess and based on his novel, Pontypool Changes Everything. The entire film (outside of the opening shots) is set in a church basement that has been converted into a radio station, and there are only a few main characters: failed shock jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), station manager Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle), and technical assistant Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly).
Over the course of the film, we hear about, rather than see, violent riots breaking out across the small Canadian town of Pontypool, Ontario, while our heroes try to maintain their sanity and avoid infection. As one might expect, that doesn’t turn out very well. There’s not a lot of graphic violence in the film, but when something gory does happen, it’s disgusting as fuck.
The idea of language as a virus is not a new concept, but it’s not one that rears its head very often. William S. Burroughs famously described language itself as “a virus from outer space” in his novel The Ticket That Exploded, and the phrase was then borrowed by Laurie Anderson for her song “Language is a Virus (From Outer Space).” Philosopher Georges Bataille also wrote about communication as a form of contagion – in a way similar to Richard Dawkins concept of the meme – where, for example, an author is simply a nodal point in a network of ideas.
Burgess avoids calling his monsters zombies, instead preferring “conversationalists.” There are three stages of the disease:
The first stage is you might begin to repeat a word. Something gets stuck. And usually it’s words that are terms of endearment like sweetheart or honey. The second stage is your language becomes scrambled and you can’t express yourself properly. The third stage you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.
As with Les Revenants, the infected find themselves trapped in the equivalent of an earworm or the stage between wakefulness and dreaming until words lose all meaning. There are parallels with the loss of communication skills as dementia progresses, which adds to the subtle steadily-building tension. This isn’t a purely fantastical horror, or a simple dread of inescapable death. This is a slow descent into frustrated isolation that only finds expression in rage.
Which puts Mazzy in a unique position to both unintentionally spread and finally understand the problem. As a DJ, language is his world. His livelihood depends on his ability to communicate. His isolation in this new town, in this new job, finds expression in his own form of hostility as he pushes buttons and attempts to cause controversy before the real horrors begin.
Director Bruce McDonald makes fantastic use of the limited setting, essentially presenting the story as a play (a radio play was produced at the same time as the film), which allows the actors to really ground the emotional impact in their performances. McHattie, in particular, keeps you engaged and on the edge of your seat, with his low growl and ability to shift seamlessly from the verge of panic to soothing platitudes. Based on his performance here, I will watch any film in which McHattie appears.
I can honestly say that there’s not a single film in ten years of Easter Zombie Movies that creates as much tension and tangible anxiety in me like Pontypool. That this film isn’t more widely known is a crime. It is one of the best variations on the zombie apocalypse theme ever put on film.