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Thursday, May 19, 2016

What I’m Reading: Pontypool Changes Everything

“A face is a marvelous thing for those who possess it. It is really the only thing that distinguishes us. Not quite enough to recommend us, just a trickster feature of our anatomy that makes everyone appear famous. But still, the face is beautiful. A sensitive sign of obscure integration. And every once in a while that integration is challenged” (Burgess 184).

Zombies are the thing these days–though maybe the craze is starting to wane. Even so, we’re fascinated by the bleak, apocalyptic horror of the zombie story. They’re not like other monsters, not like other supernatural creatures of the night; they’re worse, more frightening because they are us. “[W]hat is especially terrifying with zombies is that their monstrous state is their human state, it never transforms or goes away” (Paffenroth 9).

Most Zombie books, graphic novels, movies, video games focus on the horror that arises from the disintegration of human society – the collapse of modern culture and the breakdown of human relationships. But Pontypool (both the novel (1995) and the movie (2009) are different; indeed, as the full title of the novel declares, Pontypool Changes Everything. Pontypool features that same psychological terror–the horror of watching human characters, not only being eaten by the undead, but also the horror of humans slaughtering creatures that still so closely resemble us humans, that is humanity consuming itself. (Paffenroth 9) But even more the disintegration of human civilization, Pontypool is about the disintegration of human language.

The novel is not a ‘regular’ novel. It’s a bit like the Dadaist poetry of Tristan Tzara and the cut-up writings of William Burroughs. It’s a pile up of nonsense, non-sequiturs like a multiple vehicle collision on the highway that eventually creates something that resembles reality, albeit a terrible, burnt out, wrecked and ruined reality. The movie, the screenplay of which was also written by Tony Burgess, is more straightforward, more linear than the novel, but is still fairly unlike most other zombie films.

“I’m not the person who wrote this book,” says Burgess in the afterward to a 2009 edition of the novel; “I remember him. He had just graduated with a degree in semiotics, which is to say he was insufferably preoccupied with literary malformations… He wanted to magnify the least recognizable parts of his thoughts and feelings” (Burgess 253).

In Pontypool, the zombies are not brought to unlife by mysterious radiation from a space probe returning from Venus (as in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead) or some sort of divine wrath, not by a disease or virus (as in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead) or some sort of biological weapon (as in Resident Evil or 28 Days Later). But neither is it left forever unexplained (as in The Walking Dead graphic novels and television series). In Pontypool the zombie virus is spread through language; the ‘virus’ infects words; its victims lose the ability to understand or communicate and are driven to states of rage and brutal animalistic violence, including the inevitable cannibalism.

“That night I had terrible dreams I was killing people. When I awoke it took some serious self-examination to convince myself that I was not repressing real acts of murder. So completely vivid was my sense of guilt that I felt nothing short of running through a full account of my life could provide me with the peace of mind I needed to fall back asleep. In spite of the three hours I spent combing over the details, I have, to this day, a persistent certainty that hidden inside me is the revolting knowledge of days when I wasn’t quite myself. I now suspect that my inexplicable bouts of exhaustion are due to the massive effort of keeping those days behind me” (Burgess 10).

Acclaimed horror writer, Stephen King says that we should “[b]egin by assuming that the tale of horror, no matter how primitive, is allegorical by its very nature; that it is symbolic” (King 31). The monster, the horror at the symbolic, dark heart of Pontypool is the fear that the world that we inhabit is inevitably and utterly incomprehensible, that we cannot make sense of the universe. In the end everything is madness and frenzy, and rage, and despair.

“You can’t pretend that you don’t feel very sorry for this man and his self-portrait. He has completely lost the ability to take care of himself. He will die soon, and the fact that that is merely all he ever wanted doesn’t make you feel any less protective of him now. You remember looking in the mirror and feeling awe: the self-portrait is complete.You think that you have found the face that can finally say goodbye” (Burgess 109).

“There is no life without prayer. Without prayer there is only madness and horror.” -Vasilii Rozanov

Burgess, Tony. Pontypool Changes Everything. Toronto, Canada: ECW Press. 1998. 2009. Print.

King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. New York, NY: Berkley Books. 1981. Print.

Paffenroth, Kim. The Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press. 2006. Print.

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