Monday, July 27, 2009

Supplemental zombie post

After my post a few days ago about my forays this summer into reading zombie fiction, I was reminded by my friend Jen Hale (aka Nikki Stafford) of the novel Pontypool Changes Everything by Canadian author Tony Burgess. I read it when it first came out (1998), and while it didn’t resonate with me then as much as it would now in the mild zombie obsession I seem to have fallen into, it was both a harrowing and fascinating read. Pontypool, for those unfamiliar with southern Ontario geography, is a small town northeast of Toronto about two-thirds of the way to Peterborough, and it is the site for Burgess’ zombie outbreak.

(Point of serendipitous trivia: not long before I read the novel, a guy I’d worked with had purchased a house in Pontypool, opting for a long commute into T.O. in exchange for the affordable property. Many discussions at work ensued about the general loveliness of the town, I think as much for him to convince himself as for anything else. This all was the first I’d ever heard of Pontypool, so when the novel came out I felt a little thrill of being in the know. Small victories, yes).

William S. Burroughs notoriously called language “a virus from outer space” and Burgess’ novel takes this to heart and makes the infection linguistic—that is to say, it spread by way of language. Something slipped inside the mind when an infected word was heard, and those infected lost the ability to make meaning, repeating random words and phrases over and over until they finally went mad, attacking non-infected people and trying to eat through their mouths to get at their words.

Or something to that effect. It’s been eleven years since I read it, and I loaned my copy to the guy I worked with so he could better imagine a zombie pandemic outside his door.

More recently however, Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald—he of Highway 61 and Hard Core Logo—teamed up with Tony Burgess and adapted the novel to film. The result, Pontypool, was featured at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and garnered a significant amount of critical acclaim. After reading Jen’s comments apropos of my zombie fiction post, I dropped by Blockbuster this past weekend on the off chance that they had the DVD. And much to my surprise, they did (only two copies, but that’s pretty big for Blockbuster).

Burgess, who wrote the screenplay, has changed the setting and the characters. While the novel is something of a horrific picaresque for protagonist Les Reardon through a town that has become a killing zone, Pontypool is a deeply claustrophobic experience, set entirely in a radio station in a church basement. There are very few characters, limited principally to the disk jockey, producer and assistant producer—a trio who listen to early morning reports come in of inexplicable violence and try to make sense of it all. There is a nod here to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, though in reverse, as the three of them are uncertain of whether a hoax is being played.
We don’t actually see the zombies until well into the film. The assistant producer becomes infected, and the requisite invasion of the small space does happen, but only a good three-quarters of the way in (and does not unfold at all in the typical way). For the most part, we experience the pandemic as the three main characters do—we hear it all unfolding as the jumbled and confused reports come in over the phone, and this works to make the entire experience a whole lot creepier.

This motif of listening, besides being deeply disturbing, also works very nicely in terms of Burgess’ innovative re-imagination of the zombie narrative. Language is the site of infection, and in making the protagonist a down-at-the-heels shock jock named Grant Mazzy (played by Steve McHattie, one of those brilliant but innocuous character actors Canada seems so adept at producing), who finds himself working in a small-town church basement because he’s managed to piss off all his former employers, the film gives itself a powerful thematic fulcrum. Talk is Mazzy’s raison d’ĂȘtre, and he drops references to semiotics and linguistic theory casually into the rants his producer angrily tries to curtail. McHattie’s embittered Mazzy is endearing but also evocative of the anger and alienation that marks the phenomenon of talk radio. When it becomes apparent that the spoken word is the infection’s vector, Mazzy has to weigh the dangers of talking on the air against the imperative to get the word out.

(I was reminded, obscurely, of the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night, an American expatriate in Germany during the rise of Nazism, who is encouraged by the OSS to accept a job offer as a propagandist for Goebels on the radio—his contact would give him coded phrases to embed in anti-Jewish tirades that would communicate key intelligence to the Allies. But neither the fact of his espionage, nor that he did not believe any of what he broadcast, can balance the very real impact of his words. As his father-in-law, a devout Nazi, sourly tells him at the end of the war, “I always knew you were a spy. But I didn’t care, because in the end everything you said helped us.”)

Beyond the fact that Pontypool is an extremely taut, terrifying and intelligent film, what interests me is that it represents a continuation of the trend of appropriating the zombie genre into more subtle and nuanced productions. It seems that if the 1980s was the cyborg decade and the 90s the era of the disaster film, the ’oughts are turning into the decade of the zombies. Beyond the slicker and larger-budget films like Dawn of the Dead 2004, I am Legend, Quarantine, the Resident Evil films, and George Romero’s own Land of the Dead, we’re seeing some very intelligent and innovative takes on the genre like 28 Days Later and Pontypool, as well as sharp satire like Shaun of the Dead. I was also turned on to a great little British mini-series called Dead Set in which the only survivors of a zombie pandemic are the contestants on Big Brother. And there’s a film version of World War Z in the works—let’s hope it continues the trend.

So, the question I want to throw out to my readers is what does it mean to have a genre traditionally so emphatically lodged in the B-movie category become fodder for sharp, intelligent and even innovative filmmaking? What kind of cultural preoccupations does this reflect?


Kelly said...

You know my take on this,you've read my PhD proposal:) Unfortunately, I have so much to say on the subject that I can't get it all out unless I attach the proposal;) In addition to Dead Set, you should look up a recent British film entered in the Sundance Film Festival and made for $75 entitled Colin. It's told from the perspective of the zombie once transformed, and fits perfectly into my thesis. Maybe I mentioned this at your Sangria party, for some reason I can't remember.... lol thanks for tagging me

Dave Reynolds said...

I used to be a huge zombie fiend myself, and I'd just like to mention "Stacey: Attack of the Zombie School Girls" and Guitar Wolf's "Wild Zero." Both are Japanese zombie films and, while hilarious, they may also serve up some potent academic fodder.

(Actually, Guitar Wolf is kind of like the Japanese Ramones, and "Wild Zero" is their "Rock n Roll High School.")

Check 'em out! Cheers!