Pontypool: Interview with Bruce McDonald
Part Two of the Zombie Exposé
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
The Film Club of the Air: Host Maureen Cavanaugh and critics Beth Accomando and Scott Marks discuss "Pontypool."
Zombies are all the rage at the moment. Borders even has a whole wall devoted to zombie literature ranging from "The Zombie Survival Guide" to "Zombie Haiku" to "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." Yesterday I posted Part One of my Zombie Exposé and focused on the Norwegian zombie film "Dead Snow," now I'll be looking to "Pontypool," a film based on a book and serving up a zombie film without zombies. What's that? A zombie film without zombies? But how can that be? Well it can and it works.
Yesterday I posted my interview with Tommy Wirkola whose film "Dead Snow" served up Nazi zombies in a gorefest tribute to Sam Raimi's "The Evil Dead" and Peter Jackson's "Braindead." Now I want to turn your attention to the other end of the zombie spectrum with Bruce McDonald's independent Canadian film "Pontypool." McDonald's film is inspired more by George A. Romero's socially conscious zombie films than by Raimi's splatterfest. But the two films, both being released by IFC Films On Demand, represent the full range of the genre, and display the reasons why zombies are so popular and malleable.
Phil Luque is a zombie fan and he's the programmer for the San Diego Asian Film Festival's Extreme late night film series in October. He says, "the horror films that freak me out are ones with killers in human form -- not monsters. Zombies look like us. In the recent remake of 'Dawn of the Dead,' a guys' wife comes after him and the whole idea is that you have to switch off the idea that that person was once your spouse and is now attacking you."
For horror screenwriter Kirsten Elms, "the whole zombie genre is about what does it mean to be human? It's the most poignant because you're falling apart."
Zombies are hollow shells of what we once were and that's part of what makes them interesting horror creatures. They scare us not only because they pose a threat but also because we fear we might become one. But it's that vague sense of their former humanity that can make them difficult to deal with. Elms puts it this way, "rule number one for zombies is you have to want to kill people. You have to want to rip someone's throat out it doesn't matter if they are your mother or your wife or your dog or your priest."
So zombies can't remember who they once were and no longer feel any attachment to the human race. But how hard is it to kill one of these undead creatures when it looks like your mother or your wife? Are you killing something that's already dead?
"Deadness is the cornerstone of being a zombie," Elms adds, "but how do you define dead if they are up and walking around? They are animated so maybe they are not physically dead but spiritually dead. You get into tricky ground."
It's not tricky when you are dealing with the Nazi zombies of "Dead Snow;" it's easy to kill them without mercy. That's one way of depicting the undead, as a faceless horde of creatures to be mowed down with maximum carnage. But "Pontypool" shows us the other extreme of the genre. Director Bruce McDonald says, "Zombies are not malicious. Traditionally there's not malicious intent. I mean they're not quite sure where they are going, they kind of bump around and into each other and they look a little disheveled and a little forlorn as opposed to other sort of monsters with great intent, the zombie is the sort of a common man's monster."
Which brings us back to what happens when someone you know or someone you love gets turned?
In "Pontypool," we are trapped inside a radio station for essentially the whole movie and the characters hear about bizarre things happening in the town – unprovoked attacks, people turning on loved ones, mobs terrorizing people. But inside the station, everything is on a smaller scale. When someone turns, it is someone these characters know and that makes it all the scarier and makes dealing with the attackers more difficult. This notion has been explored in films before, whether it's the original "Dawn of the Dead," where a group tries to keep one of their bitten friends alive and normal, or "Shaun of the Dead" where Shaun has to face his zombified mother. But in all these films, the zombies are not just monsters. These films want to remind us that the monsters were once like us, and that's what makes it chilling. It's not like getting turned into a vampire – that's cool – being turned into a zombie is horrible.
The innovation that "Pontypool" brings to the table is how the infection is spread. It's not from a virus or from bite or even because there's no more room in hell. The infection in this case is spread through language. That's right, if you hear an "infected" word, you can become something that's essentially a zombie. You don't die and become reanimated but your brain ceases to function normally and you suddenly want to attack those who are uninfected. The way this zombification process works taps into our fear about loss of identity and fear of some degenerative mental illness like dementia that slowly robs us of who we are.
The book "Pontypool Changes Everything" came out in the late 1990s and much of it was told from the point of view of one of the zombie characters. The film "Pontypool" doesn't take that perspective but rather makes us a trapped observer that keeps hearing about the chaos just outside the radio station. At one point a group of actors come in to perform a scene from their musical "Lawrence of Arabia." A young girl in the group forgets her lines and starts to repeat words in an endless and nonsensical loop as she frantically searches for a word that has some meaning she can latch onto. It is a terrifying moment and not a drop of blood is spilled. It's terrifying because it taps into a very primal fear about loss of self.
The film arrives at a time when the word "zombie" has managed to infiltrate if not infect our everyday language.
Fredd Sanchez, an undead aficionado and mariachi player, thinks applying the term zombie to other things is quite effective and evocative: "giving something a 'zombie' label refers to something that kind of goes through the motions of something but it's not getting any value out of it. It's kind of like an empty shell, it's doing something automatically by instinct but it's not really working, like zombie banks. They are trying to stay afloat and go through all the motions of a bank but in reality they have failed in the same way that a zombie has failed at being human."
Kevin Workman, an IT architect, says, "In my field if it's 'zombified,' it's a zombie process and that means it's alive but it's not responding to normal stimulus. It's kind of got a will of its own at that point and then we got to kill it, literally, there's a command called kill."
So "Pontypool's" emphasis on language seems especially apt. Then you can through in all the current technology from cell phones to texting to the Internet and you have found yet another way for zombies to be a contemporary metaphor. Has all this technology that is meant to bring us together and improve communication actually done the opposite and just overloaded us and turned us into braindead zombies? Maybe ask your kids after 8 hours of video gaming or your roommate after a day on the couch watching TV. Maybe we are turning ourselves into zombies through mindless media entertainment.
I have to give kudos to McDonald and Burgess for refreshing the zombie genre in ways I never thought possible. Telling McDonald this pleased him. "It's nice when you don't know where it's going especially when you're kind of an expert on the genre," he said. "And you start to not know what it is or where it's going so that can be exciting too."
And that's why "Pontypool" is so good – it manages to surprise you by working within a familiar genre but delivering the traditional elements in fresh new ways. I had a chance to hook up with McDonald, who lives in Canada, by phone. In contrast to Wirkola, who referenced Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, McDonald's film influences include Polanski, Hitchcock, and Orson Welles. That just goes to show how adaptable the zombie genre is and how it can accommodate all types of filmmakers and all sorts of ideas and styles.
How closely did you follow Tony Burgess' book in terms of the way the infection spreads?
BRUCE McDONALD: We took the central idea about the language being infected, and our model for the movie was actually not the book but this radio drama that was done in the thirties in New York called "War of the Worlds" by Orson Welles and Mercury Theater about an ordinary broadcast that is then transformed into this kind of attack from the Martians and we used that model for our script and injected, instead of Martians, we injected Tony's notion of an infection that would sit in the English language itself and how the language becomes the dangerous threat rather than Martians. My attraction to Tony's book was that it was such a fresh and original and different kind of approach to a genre that in a way for the last ten years has had this huge renaissance. I've always loved zombie movies and this was a kind of license for me to go and kind of play in that world but I can bring something new to the table. I can feel that I'm not just exploiting the genre. I'm not just redoing something for the sake of it. Tony and I hoped that we could add something new to that kind of family of horror movies.
Film is such a visual medium so was there ever a point at which you were concerned that so much of this was going to have to do with language and how were you going to make that work on the screen?
BRUCE McDONALD: Oh very much I mean we were entering a genre of the horror movies and horror movies especially in this day and age have become very full frontal assaults and a lot of effects and gore and blood and action and that sort of thing. We decided to go the opposite way and almost an old style Hitchcock way and we decided we were going to do something unusual and sort of stay inside the station and stay as claustrophobic as possible and we wouldn't see anything, we would hear things. We would experience the terror and the chaos through the radio and through communication devices – cell phones and telephones and police radios and that sort of thing and we figured if it worked in radio it should probably work in the cinema because sometimes our best special effects are created by our imaginations so we were not totally sure that this was going to work but then there are movies that I've really loved watching that are very claustrophobic, independent movie like "My Dinner with Andre," which is essentially two guys talking at a table in a restaurant and it's one of the most riveting movies that I've ever seen. And we thought if we were clever and we get good actors and we have a clever story we can hopefully pull people's attention and make it suspenseful and scary.
It was also a very smartly made film, considering you do have these huge budgets.
BRUCE McDONALD: I was a little nervous, my background had been road movies where you are going all about and going here and there. So to be in this one place so I thought what's going to really engage people is finding the right actors, it's all going to be about their faces and then having a really strong script. I think because it was set in the radio station and because it was dealing with language and communication just the idea of radio and technology and the things that we use to communicate being up front and center you know it allowed people to see some kind of interesting metaphors in how people talk to each other and the kind of modern world of electronic devices that we use to try and get closer to each other so lots of rich metaphors in the movie and an interesting sort of scare thing – what would happen if your language became the most dangerous thing in the room. How do you get out of that situation? So it presents some interesting obstacles for our characters that they suddenly have to resort to their high school French or they are trying to write things on paper to communicate and it is something we all have in common especially people in communication, in radio and books and that sort of thing more than ever I think in the modern world people are relying on communicating with each other on email and blackberries and cell phones and telephones.
There's also mention made of the location of Canada may have been important because you have the dual language and that represents some cultural and social conflicts that go beyond just which language you're using.
BRUCE McDONALD: Canada has always had this idea of two solitudes, of two very distinct parts, the French and the English, going back to these European conflicts that are still there to this day with the French trying to maintain their language and the English trying to oppress them, and the French wanting to separate from their English overlord. So culturally there's a kind of interesting kinds of shimmers in the politics of that.
I've heard your films describes as a zombie film without zombies. How do you feel about that, is it accurate? Do you like it?
BRUCE McDONALD: I'm a big fan of the zombie movies. As a kid growing up I loves all the films by George Romero, "Night of the Living Dead," and the recent kind of explosion of scary movies like "28 Days Later," and things like that. I don't want to mislead people into thinking it's a film with people's heads exploding and zombies sticking their arms through the through the wall. And we have a little bit if that because we love that sort of thing but it's more a suspense film, more a thriller, it's more kind of a Polanski film than a Romero film. It's much more about what you don't see; it's more about the theater of the mind. Your imagination is very powerful. So I kind of dig that it's a zombie movie without zombies.
What do you think the appeal is of zombies? What's made them so popular and malleable that they seem to adapt to each decade and represent different things?
BRUCE McDONALD: The idea of a zombie state has come up a number of times when people describe the state of an audience member watching television: you go into that kind of zombified not quite there state and maybe the modern world, maybe the availability in the modern world of many things that can anesthetize you, whether it's drugs or alcohol or whatever so maybe it's the kind of prevalence of the zombie state that has kind of reached a kind of that has become familiar to people, they identify with the zombie.
Can you talk about how the infection works in your film? Or how language is used? What does it mean to say the language is infected?
BRUCE McDONALD: The first thing that happens in the picture is there are certain words that become infected and in some cases these initial words are terms of endearment like "honey" and "sweetheart" and "sugar pie." These words become dangerous and if you hear this word it enters your kind of language system and the first thing that happens is if you become infected with one of these terms of endearment, one of these words is that you begin repeating the word obsessively and the second stage is that your language becomes scrambled and you know when you want to ask for a glass of water you might say "Maserati purple Buffalo." And you become frustrated because you can't string a sentence together that makes sense and then the third stage you become so distraught at not being able to express yourself that you tend to gravitate and try to attack healthy people to try and chew your way through their mouth. I asked the writer why do the people who are infected repeat the word over and over, and we came up with the idea that maybe this is the body's initial defense mechanism. Whenever a disease enters your body there's an initial attempt to kind of shut it down, your blood cells or different things sort of attack that disease so by repeating a word over and over you're hoping to kind of take the meaning way from that word and thus maybe if you take away the meaning you take away the teeth of that word and then your body's immune system cures you. So those are the basics of it: repetition of the infected word, scrambling of meaning and then a violent attack.
Did you ever talk to the author about where he got the notion of using language as the means of spreading the infection?
BRUCE McDONALD: The book's called "Pontypool Changes Everything," and it's described as an autobiography of a zombie. I thought that's an odd thing to say and I asked Tony what do you mean by that? Tony says, 'Well I don't really tell people this too much but there was a time in my life when I was in my twenties and just a bad time and I was living in a part of Vancouver that's very notorious for being a really nasty neighborhood full of heroin addicts and junkies.' So once he recovered from his long lost weekend I think he fused that experience together with his study of French symbiosis that he had in university and tried to sort of describe the experience of being on the street, homeless, and a drug addict. The metaphor he came up with was a zombie.
Did you say you plan to make more in this series?
BRUCE McDONALD: We always sort of thought of this as this trilogy because the book is quite rich with all kinds of encounters and carrying through ideas to their illogical conclusion so whereas the first movie is all set inside as this kind of zombie apocalypse happens outside and they get reports and different things are happening. So the first movie asks the question what's happening, what's going on? And the second movie sort of answers the question well this is what's happening. It happens around the same time but we are sort of much more in the world much more with the action of things. And the third one you could call it a zombie rehab.
Companion viewing: "The Birds," "Repulsion," "Shaun of the Dead," "Dawn of the Dead" (1978)
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