[A big special thank-you to recurring Cinecast guest host Matt Gamble (and author of Where the Long Tail Ends) for allowing us to re-print his essay on Bruce McDonald’s semiotic horror picture Pontypool, apropos of its Canadian DVD release yesterday. Matt tackles the meaning and the metaphor of the word Zombie, where the genre has been, and were it is going:]
Pontypool: Or How I Learned to Start Worrying and Fear the New Zombie
Being born in 1976 I have missed most, if not all, of what I would consider the major tide changes in horror film making here in the United States. The two closest to my heart, and in my opinion the two most important films, being Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Some might say that I was able to witness a similar precedent with The Blair Witch Project, which is a fair point to make. But I think that over the course of time since The Blair Witch Project was released has proven the film to be far more influential in the marketing of films, and specifically the rise of viral marketing, then it has influenced the horror genre.
But while The Blair Witch Project certainly was influential, Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were revolutionary by comparison. Both were low budget shock fests that relied far more on mood and atmosphere to set the table for the scares they were about to serve the audience then most of the other low budget fare of their time. Night of the Living Dead was serious whereas other horror films of the day were campy. And The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, despite its reputation, isn’t bathing in gore as many of its contemporaries were, but rather is a subtle and subdued fright fest. Neither are particularly scary by today’s standards and styles, with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre relying on an general level of creepiness rarely matched in any other film, and Night of the Living Dead almost suffocating the viewer with tension. And while these two might not be the best horror films ever made, particularly in the case of Night of the Living Dead where most people, myself included, view its sequel Dawn of the Dead to be the superior film, but these two films introduced audiences to new concepts and styles in horror, with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre masterfully manipulating audiences with its “based on actual events” premise. As much as I would like to discuss The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the lack of zombies in the film make it a bit difficult to directly correlate to the film that made me want to write this piece in the first place. But Night of the Living Dead on the other hand, brought about a whole new and terrifying meaning to the word zombie, which is quite relevant to what I wish to discuss.
Before the walking, brain-eating living dead zombies that flood current pop culture ever existed, the zombie was a vastly different monster. The concept of the zombie originated in the Caribbean where the belief is held that a certain kind of puffer fish is poisonous enough to cause people to slip into a death like coma for several days and the inevitable result of this being that people are often buried alive. It is believed that this technique had been co-opted by various criminal elements, and through their employment of Voodoo sorcerer’s (called bokors), that they can control these beings once they are revived from their horrific slumber. The region’s strong religious beliefs have led to the notion that anyone this happens to is at the mercy of the bokor that revives them. This practice was of course showcased in the fantastic film The Serpent and the Rainbow as well as the totally unappreciated, yet equally fantastic, Weekend at Bernie’s II. And while these films are now modern day exceptions to the norm, up until the release of Night of the Living Dead the basic premise of the zombie was someone who was powerless to resist the mind control of another person. But then Night of the Living Dead changed everything.
Since the release of Night of the Living Dead and its revolutionary seminal take on zombies, this has become a relatively stale sub-genre. There are still plenty of good zombie films being made, but there have been few innovations on the zombie concept in the decades since. Fast moving zombies, considered revolutionary by the uneducated when they appeared in Zach Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead, had already been implemented in 1985’s Return of the Living Dead. The idea of worms or parasites controlling a host body, used most recently in the film Slither, was used earlier in the 1987 film Night of the Creeps, and even then it was clearly an homage to the iconic 1957 horror film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. 28 Days Later showed perhaps the most innovation of this group by changing from living dead zombies to a viral hate plague, but even it relied on a blood born pathogen for transmission and used what would soon become the cinematic standard of using fast moving ghouls. Even the Spanish horror film [Rec] showed further innovation by sequestering the victims in the same building as the zombies rather then have them hiding in a building with the menace outside. [Rec]2 looks to increase the claustrophobia even more by using first-person camera angles to draw the viewer directly into the film. All of these are welcomed additions to the sub-genre, and when used well can make for a unique and enjoyable viewing experience, but by no means has the sub-genre done much more then implement minor tweaks on a premise that has existed relatively undisturbed for fifty years. That is, until Pontypool came along and changed everything.
Gone is your garden variety living dead zombies, instead replaced with what author/screenwriter Tony Burgess and director Bruce McDonald refer to as “Conversationalists”, but make no mistake, in-spite of this literal flourish, they are zombies. But these zombies are driven by something else. They have no desire to feast on human flesh or consume brains by the bucket full, rather, they simply want to eat your face off. Why? Because something has placed the idea in their head that it is the only way they can stop the madness trapped inside them and save themselves. These zombies are hunting for their very survival.
Now the survival instinct has never been explored to great length in a zombie film. More often then not they are driven by an insatiable desire to consume, and not to prevent themselves from dying, and this brings about the first difference from your standard zombie, in that the zombies of Pontypool are not dead! Similar to the people infected with the rage virus in 28 Days Later, these zombies are people infected with a virus that turns them into these monsters. They are compelled to defend themselves and are incapable of controlling their actions, and these mindless mimics will do whatever they can to find a victim and save themselves from certain doom.
It is this defensive reaction that separates the Pontypool zombie from all the others, and that coupled with the fact that these zombies are still alive, is what makes for the most compelling and chilling form of the zombie to date. These zombies don’t kill because they crave human flesh. They don’t hunt because they desire destruction. These zombies are sick, to the point of appearing schizophrenic, and they do not know what they are doing is dangerous and causing harm. Their humanity is still intact, they simply can no longer reach it. They attack because they believe it will help them, because if they don’t act, they will die. They are not merely acting on base impulse, but fighting for their survival, and what they believe is their remaining humanity. That is the crux of the matter, and what makes Pontypool legitimately stand alongside the titans of the sub-genre, accomplishing quite eloquently what George Romero has failed to do with his past two zombie films, by making the zombies sympathetic. And with that ingenious twist, Pontypool has potentially altered the course of future zombie films.
But should zombies be sympathetic? One of the things most frightening about zombies is how they are not sympathetic. They are simply a tidal wave of death that is impossible to escape from. You can run, you can hide, you can cut their frakking heads off, but you can never stop them. You can’t even hope to contain them. That they are this mindless, destructive, unstoppable force is what makes them so terrifying. That same herd mentality is what makes them such effective allegorical conduits as well. Most zombie films go to great lengths to imply that the zombie is a metaphor, and as such they are representing something that should be feared or looked down upon. And because of that, the idea of a sympathetic zombie is theoretically an oxymoron. Giving villain depth is typically a good thing. But giving a villain depth is detrimental when that villain’s effectiveness is directly dependent on being devoid of any individuality or substance. For years I have thought this to be an immutable fact, but Pontypool has convinced me otherwise.
The zombies in Pontypool are something far more terrifying to imagine, and more horrible to face, then their undead counterparts. They aren’t rotting shells of their former selves, lurching around with nary a thought in their brain except “Braaaaaaaaaaains!” Romero attempted to re-invent the zombie in Land of the Dead, but his version remains fatally flawed because he tried to inject humanity into something that was well established as empty and soulless. The result is a rather clumsy device that makes zombies seem silly rather than menacing, and the humans fighting them particularly inept for being unable to out think something without a working brain. Romero attempted the same thing, albeit it a different manner, in his follow up film Diary of the Dead, where he made the humans in the film out to be shallow, vacuous and entirely unsympathetic creatures. The obvious problem being that the lack of an identifiable or sympathetic protagonist does not directly correlate to a sympathetic antagonist. Instead you simply have a ton of walking corpses (some living, some not) and the sooner they all bite the dust you can go find something far more worth your time to watch.
But Pontypool doesn’t fall into these traps that Romero has been unable to avoid in his recent work. It retains the humanity of the zombies by putting up an invisible barrier that prevents them from connecting with it. For the zombie this creates a cycle of frustration as they attempt to reconnect with it, but each attempt only pushes them further and further away from what they both desire and depend on. But for the audience, and the protagonists, something far more chilling occurs. Because they can still see the person they once knew and cared for, these zombies aren’t a creature that is already lost, but rather someone struggling to survive. They aren’t monsters, but tortured souls, trapped in a Hell that exists within their own mind.
And while hiding has always been a prime component of any zombie film, with the Pontypool zombies it becomes the only rational and ethical defense against them. These people aren’t ghouls, and they certainly aren’t dead. What’s even worse? They can be cured. And while no one seems to know just how to go about curing them, that it is a possibility presents the characters with a moral dilemma absent in other zombie films. While killing these characters ravaged by disease and trapped in a walking coma might free them or ease their pain in the short term, it also removes all possibility of them ever recovering and once again leading a normal life. Thus the characters, and the audience by proxy, are left in the unenviable quandary of not wanting to harm the beings that are attempting to kill them.
And while that moral dilemma is certainly the most obvious in the film, there is another lurking beneath the surface. Hiding from a Pontypool zombie inevitably results in them dying, meaning inaction is just as harmful to the Pontypool zombie as destroying the brain of a standard zombie is. With the Pontypool zombies, they seek out a singular victim, and when they finally hone in on their prey, the process of killing it kills them. But if they can’t find a victim, they simply turn on themselves until they self-destruct in a bloody fury of frustration. So if action causes the death of these zombies, and so does inaction, then what is one to do?
The answer would seem to be, find a cure. But with really no idea how to go about it it seems a foolhardy course at best. But when faced with the potential death of you friends and family, what other course is there? But finding a cure requires something very different then you will ever see in any other zombie film, and that is actively engaging with the zombie. You must openly initiate a dialog with these zombies, in the hopes that something you say will snuff the fuse that is burning in their brain, in effect drawing them away from a rash decision and convincing them to finally think about their actions. The Pontypool zombies are not mindless creatures of evil that can be easily categorized as something that must be destroyed, but rather these zombies provide a mass of complex ethical dilemmas and issues that must be talked about if you have any hope of ever solving the plague.
And that is the beauty of Pontypool. These creations perfectly fit into the modern world, where everyone is far more cognizant of what is going around them and the danger that lurks around every corner. Faceless terrors and boogeymen can have a short-term visceral effect, making them potentially effective during a ninety minute film, but pale in comparison to the anger of those you know and understand yet struggle to ever find a common ground with. The struggle to have a dialogue with those who you fear and might harm you is a very real and dangerous fear for many people, and Pontypool has splayed it onto the screen with terrifying effect. Pontypool has mainlined this fear into the audience by creating a rich and complicated villain that can stand along side any of the giants of the horror genre. A villain that is terrifying not because of it is unrelatable, but because it views the same events as you do in a fundamentally different way. Pontypool has changed the zombie, for it is no longer a mass of fear that you can’t identify with. No, now it is someone who is much like you, only, something is stuck that makes communication seemingly impossible due to its uncontrollable delusions. And unless you can work through that issue, things won’t end well for anyone.