Sunday, July 19, 2009


When thinking of those who, in our lifetimes, have made major contributions to the shape of pop mythology, let no one forget the name of George Romero. When I was a kid, growing up between the time that Romero's first and best movie, Night of the Living Dead, planted the seeds of his achievement, and the release of its sequel, Dawn of the Dead, cemented it, I spent maybe half my young life watching and reading about horror movies. Partly this was research: at the playground, the jury was still out on whether monsters actually existed, and if they did, I wanted to be ready for them when they stormed the house. Mummies didn't occupy my thoughts to any special degree: they were easy to outrun, and besides, so long as you didn't go violating any Egyptian tombs, it was easy to stay on their good side. Vampires and werewolves were a lot worse, but at least there were clear, set-in-stone guidelines for dealing with them: daylight, wooden stakes, silver bullets, full moons, everybody who dipped a toe into the horror genre knew the drill. But zombies? Now there was a disappointing monster. There weren't many zombie movie classics, and those seemed to be vague on the rules regarding zombiedom. Basically, a zombie was a big, reanimated dead guy with bugged-out eyes and no personality who, under the distraction of the voodoo master who had resurrected him, stagger up and throttle you. No zombie ever looked as if he enjoyed his work, and there was no consensus on how to deal with one, or even if it was the zombie you wanted to target or if you should go over his head and take it up with his boss. Vampires, werewolves, and even most mummies were free agents. Zombies were the hired help.

All that changed thanks to Romero. With two movies and some help from a few enthusiastic Italian imitators, Romero completely changed not just the rule book but the contemporary identity and meaning of zombies in horror movie culture. Voodoo? Fuck that noise. The modern zombie may still not be the life of the party, and he tends to travel in packs, but he's out for himself, and there's no mystery about what he wants. The boy is hungry. Zombies lurch around, using their superior numbers to overwhelm their victims, on whom they plan to dine. The solution to the problem is also simple and direct: bring a shotgun and a mop. Think of it: thirty years ago, when Dawn of the Dead was just being released and Night of the Living Dead was an acknowledged midnight classic but not yet seen as the starting point of a whole damn sub-genre, zombies were monster movie runner-ups on the verge of disappearing altogether on account of political correctness. (It's hard to give a dignified representation of a voodoo priestess.)

By now, we're already at a point where the cliches that Romero created are understood to be part of the shared general knowledge of moviegoers, and are drawn upon by filmmakers who like to insist that they're not "really" making a zombie movie. Bruce McDonald's Pontypool (which Scott von Doviak reviewed here when it played at SXSW, and which goes into release today) isn't "really" a zombie movie, in the same way that 28 Days Later, which (like Pontypool) was about virus-maddened mobs, wasn't a zombie movie, just as Guillermo del Toro's Cronos wasn't a vampire movie, and Mike Nichols's Wolf wasn't an update on Lon Chaney, Jr. But both Pontypool and 28 Days Later are zombie movies in the sense that they play by their own version of Romero's rules, and play on the expectations that the audience builds up based on cues the movies send out that we're in Living Dead territory. (In fact, one of the first not-really-zombies zombie movies was Romero's own The Crazies, which came out between the first two installments of his living dead saga and which established some durable new cliches of its own.) Neither Pontypool or 28 Days Later is really imaginable without Romero's movies, and Pontypool in particular depends on the precedent set by Romero's movies to keep the audience with it for the first half hour, when the prolonged wait for something to happen is actually made more tolerable by the fact that we have a pretty good idea of what that something will look like when it does happen.

Pontypool is set almost entirely in a small radio station in the title locale in rural Ontario, and for most of the first half there are only three characters onscreen: the morning DJ Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), his beleaguered producer Sydney (Lisa Houle), and the fresh-faced young techie Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly) who's just back from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. (And when circumstances take one of them out oif the picture, a new character appears out of nowhere to ease the transition.) Grant--described by New York magazine reviewer as "an egghead incarnation of Don Imus" (which I think may be a non-litigious way of saying a version of Don Imus that isn't a smug, lazy scumbag)--is an aging, haggard-looking "fight the power" type who likes to gas on about "developing a relationship" with his listeners by challenging them (i.e., pissing them off) and whose catch phrase is "taking no prisoners!" He has apparently been reduced to manning the mike in this jerkwater burg because of his past indiscretions, and the first half of the movie includes the makings of an entertaining comedy about this self-styled provocateur's attempts to adjust to his new surroundings as Sydney fills him in on the sorrows and family connections of the nobodies he's making fun of on the air and lets him in on the local trade secrets, such as the fact that the "Sunshine Chopper" from which the station's traffic reporter delivers his broadcasts is actually a Dodge Dart parked on a hill.

That all pretty much goes out the window as the suspense plot develops. Snug and isolated in their studio, Grant and company begin to pick up reports--from the traffic reporter, from phone-in callers, from a BBC reporter trying to get his own handle on the story--that a deranged, gibbering mob is tearing around Pontypool, tearing people apsrt with their bare hands. As the descriptions of the carnage going on outside the studio grew more detailed and grisly, evidence mounts that there's a virus at work that spreads through the English language; people who succumb to it are particularly susceptible when uttering terms of endearment, such as "honey" and "sweetheart." Conceptually, Pontypool might be a blood-soaked spin-off of William S. Burrough's zen koan "Language is a virus from outer space" (and also, maybe, one of Alan Moore's old comics stories for 2000 A.D.) The script, by Tony Burgess, is based on his novel Pontypool Changes Everything, but it would be a bang-up radio play. Given the War of the Worlds set-up and the metaphorical use of spoken language--and the use of a breakdown in language as a sign that a character is about to start slavering blood--it's kind of amazing that Burgess didn't shape the material with a radio play in mind. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that radio plays are one of the few forms that now have less cultural cachet than Canadian-based midnight movies.

Bruce McDonald, whose credits include Roadkill, Highway 61, Dance Me Outside, the Ellen Page showcase The Tracey Fragments, and the TV series Twitch City, has always struck me as being sort of like the Canadian Alex Cox. Like Cox, he's a self-styled hipster weirdo who picks his projects to serve his image, but unlike Cox, he's not so infatuated with himself that he makes the mistake of thinking that he's made a wild, provocative movie just by signing his name to it and hanging out on the set while the cameras roll: he does make a little effort to entertain. His greatest success here is with McHattie, who has a great radio voice and who, with his gaunt features and frame and black cowboy hat, is an indelible image of the motor-mouthed hipster malcontent who's just found himself on the wrong side of sixty. The scenes in which McHattie's Grant, on the air and flying by the seat of his pants, valiantly tries to string together the hazy reports coming his way into a coherent picture for his listeners add up to a stirring depiction of professional competence that may be more exciting than the reports themselves.

But the downside of McDonald's relative modesty as a director is that it costs him something in both energy and conviction. And his pursuit of cool at all costs can be self-defeating: a scene in which Sydney undercuts the news of a character's death with a cheap sick joke destroys the emotion that the movie has achieved without replacing it with anything stronger. The last third of Pontypool, which is when it's most like a conventional zombie-attack picture, is the weakest, and it devolves into a real mess. The film will be most satisfying to those who like their horror movies to wear their "conceptual" timber on their sleeve. (When a character says, "Talking is risky, and talk radio is high risk," he might be reading the Director's Statement on camera.) It's "interesting." But it's never scary, and I'm not enough of an avant-guardist to see that as a good thing in what's billed as a horror movie.

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