Forget the thinly veiled misogyny of the traditional romcoms haunting the airwaves at this time of year, this Valentine’s Day there’s only one film you need sink your teeth into. Cuddle up with your loved ones – although not too close – and cower in silence to the overlooked genius of Bruce McDonald and Tony Burgess’ Pontypool.
I have often spoken about the political implication of horror narratives – and particularly the ideology on display in zombie stories. Often, the undead horde represents the masses potential for mass uprising – the possibility of standing up to a minority of oppressors and tearing apart their exploitative system; however, they also reflect the duality of our society’s shared potential. As seen with the rioting consumers of Dawn of the Dead, for example, the dead can represent what happens when the forces of reaction win the battle for our souls. There is a dark fork in the road ahead in the future of humanity – the choice, as Rosa Luxemburg put it, between “socialism and barbarism” – and Pontypool is a fantastic mobilisation of the zombie mythos to illustrate the horrors of the latter.
As with Dawn of the Dead, in Pontypool we see the horde mindlessly following ideological impulses. In Dawn of the Dead, we bore witness to scenes not dissimilar to the London riots, where the poor taught from cradle to grave to admire a consumerist lifestyle – who had been denied the means to live it – rose up to satisfy that hunger by any means necessary. In the case of Pontypool though, we see even deeper into the madness of everyday ‘normality,’ as the film plays with the learned messages embed ideological assumptions in the English language itself – with apocalyptic consequences.
The action unfolds in the bleak February snow, almost entirely within in a backwater radio station – both an ingenious measure to convey to us the mass panic of society’s collapse on a shoe-string budget, and a mechanism placing us right at the forefront of the semantic battle taking place. In the depths of the “dungeon” (actually the basement of a church) which constitutes the station’s studio, washed up DJ Grant Mazzey (the relentless Stephen McHattie) begins receiving reports of a mob surging about the snowy Canadian town of Pontypool – bleating nonsensical chants as they go.
The crowd becomes violent, as you might predict, leading to increasingly grizzly reports of visceral carnage flooding the airwaves. However, the “God bug” responsible for the ensuing slaughter is unlike anything those well acquainted with the zombie sub-genre might expect. The infection does not transmit via bites or scratches – the madness seizes control of each victim when they hear a word – and understands it within its learned ideological ‘meaning.’
As I pointed out in my old documentary film Dawn of the Red:
“Certain loaded words combined in any situation can reduce people to blood-thirsty savages. The only way to overcome this virus is to forcibly de-construct your trigger word, and see beyond the ‘natural’ meaning you’ve been raised to see in it. It’s impossible not to feel a hideous sense of unease in the fact that any combination of syllables from ‘Ant-eater’ to ‘Single teenage Muslim lesbian mothers’ could trigger a murderous response from the mass of ordinary people. Especially since its essentially what the British press do every day.”
Arguably, the film has become even more insightful than when I wrote that in 2013. Since then, political campaigns centring on dog-whistle racism linked to opaque gibbering jargon have delivered referendum victories, general election landslides, and the Whitehouse. And while you might be feeling smug about the fact that the first POTUS to have been bitten by the God bug to have occupied the Oval Office has been removed from power, I beg you to take a second look at his replacement.
In all his babbling senility, Joe Biden has the potential to be every bit as toxic as predecessor, while using another line of gobbledygook to disseminate his ideology. Materially, there is little difference between Trump’s refusal of a Covid-19 lockdown or Biden’s refusal to “shut down the economy,” or the ‘camps’ which so infuriated us under Trump and the ‘overflow facilities’ now being defended by Biden’s horde of commentators – the evasive, euphemistic word-salad associated with it is just different.
Corporate communications are also skewered by Pontypool. Throughout the film, the radio station features looping sound effects and nonsense advertising messages, echoing an unseen hegemony on repeat in the background. They churn away in our subconscious, as they undoubtedly do the hundreds of listeners out in the snow. These anonymous messages are received, and they inform the behaviour of those listening, whether they consciously pay attention or not. It’s an experience anyone who’s ever been exposed to the infamous MatressMan adverts will be unnervingly aware of. As a sinister reminder of the potential of language to effect behaviour, by the end of the film, one particularly creepy soundbite featuring the discordant chanting of children will be lodged firmly within your skull, on constant repeat.
Pontypool prompts us to examine the loaded terms in our lives that we treat as second nature, and prods us into asking “what does that really mean, what is it telling me to do?” And that’s an excellent message to spread; both in this moment of supposed political transition – when one wing of the establishment attempts to differentiate itself from the other primarily through it’s ‘elegant’ or ‘respectful’ messaging – as well as for us as consumers on another Valentine’s Day.
What the hell is Valentine’s day, really, but a colossal marketing exercise disguised in the language of love? And what is “love” [baby don’t hurt me] here, but a coded threat of losing that special someone unless you buy them plastic, heart-shaped pieces of landfill fodder to prove that you care? Never mind the endless seas of cinematic drivel trotted out on TV that reinforces that. Screw the films centring on gaslighting and co-dependence, which routinely feature leading men ignoring the laws of consent to harass a woman into ‘loving’ them – and of course, indulging in some consumption as the archetypal couple, aspiring to own a home, to reproduce, and to fill the holes in their souls with little bits of plastic and cheap chocolate once a year.
That’s just a hollow, undead, ideological caricature of ‘love’. You can do better – save yourselves form the plastic-wrapped, moisture protected seating of the 50 Shades cinematic experience. Instead, settle in for the evening, and watch yourself a film that cuts through that crap. Don’t feast mindlessly on the oppression of others and don’t buy into a rhetoric that feasts on the life force of the exploited in order to sustain a false sense of ‘romance’. Love each other without this crutch – and your relationship might just live to see tomorrow, all the stronger for it.