The Zombies of Pontypool: Language as a Virus

Last evening, I watched a strange film by Canadian film-maker Bruce McDonald called Pontypool (2009). It is a mock horror send-up of talk radio and logocentrism, also described as a “psychological thriller” or “political satire”. Outside the Canadian context, though, some features and allusions in the film might seem difficult to appreciate (which also becomes a bit of a subplot in the film).

I’m also quite sure that the real Ontario town of Pontypool and the town in the film are entirely different.

Shock-jock Grant Mazzy is a cocky, crusty radio talk show host in the town of Pontypool, Ontario. On one blizzardy morning in Pontypool, strange events begin to occur in the town leading up to reports of rioting and slaughter in the streets. The townsfolk have become zombified through unknown causes and they begin hunting down and killing each other, while anxious and lurid reports of the mayhem trickle into a now perplexed and bewildered Mazzy and the two other employees of the radio station (set in the basement of a local church).

Gradually, Mazzy and his producer begin to understand the nature of the virus that has changed Pontypool. The virus that has infected the minds of the townspeople uses language to extend and propagate itself. More specifically, it is carried only by the English language. French and other languages remain uninfected. Even more specifically, it seems to be triggered by one English word in particular in which the virus has lodged itself and through which it spreads itself between minds — the word “honey”. The epidemic spread initially, it seems, when an elderly woman advertised for her lost cat whose name was “Honey”.

As McDonald described it,

“There are three stages to this virus. The first stage is you might begin to repeat a word. Something gets stuck. And usually it’s words that are terms of endearment like sweetheart or honey. The second stage is your language becomes scrambled and you can’t express yourself properly. The third stage you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.”

Those might even be the three stages of dementia resulting from regular listening to talk-radio. More significantly, perhaps, as one of the radio station’s employees becomes infected with her garbled and babbling attempts to articulate, her mouth also becomes bloodied, distorted, and deformed manifesting visually and symptomatically the inarticulacy and violence of her mind.

Martial law is declared and the town of Pontypool is quarantined and occupied by the military. Since the French language is so far immune to the infection, French-speaking armed forces are brought in to suppress the outbreak and contain the epidemic, which they do by a process of elimination. Since the entire film is set in the radio station studio in the church basement, we only learn of this activity through reports trickling into the station and from the echo of gunfire outside.

Part of the satire occurs, though, when a television news host from the BBC World Service contacts Mazzy for an interview about the situation, which the BBC host garbles by misinterpreting it as an eruption of ethnocentric terrorism and civil strife between English- and French-speaking Canadians with English-speaking townspeople rioting against occupying French-speaking armed forces. So the BBC broadcaster spreads a distorted picture of the situation for his viewers, which hilariously reflects the distorted and deformed mouths of the infected inhabitants of Pontypool.

After his producer Syd becomes infected by the virus, Mazzy hits upon a “cure”, which is to make English meaningless or to change the intelligibility of certain words. Since, at this time, they still don’t know specifically how the virus spreads and which words might be carriers, they jumble up their own speech randomly. They also take to speaking to each other in broken French or by writing each other notes instead of taking the risk of inadvertently speaking the infected word or words.

Gradually, Mazzy comes to see that his own incendiary and inflammatory talk has partly contributed to the virulence of the disease, but by this time authorities have already apparently resolved to obliterate the town completely in a desperate attempt to stop the infection from spreading further. At the finale, we hear a countdown from dix to un, in French, and then… fade to black as Mazzy and Sydney huddle together isolated in a sound-proof broadcast booth.

Although the script could have been better, I think, in its satire of talk-radio, I did find its themes interesting if also a little disjointed. I do know people who are glued to the babble and garble of talk radio, and I was reminded of them while I watched the film. There is something equally diseased about the thinking and language of people who insist that the news media is unreliable (which is partially true, as the episode between Mazzy and the BBC TV host illustrates), yet who rely upon their seemingly addictive listening to talk radio for this same view.

Talk is not the same as speech. This could be why McDonald preferred to describe the infected townsfolk as “conversationalists” rather than as zombies.

In future, whenever I meet up with those addicted to talk radio (which is kind of pornographic and similar to the celebrity gossip magazines that are ubiquitous at grocery-store checkout stands) I think I will always be reminded of the garbled inarticulacy of the zombies of Pontypool and of their bloodily deformed and misshapen mouths (and I do know a few). For it reminds me of something,

“Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.”

9 responses to “The Zombies of Pontypool: Language as a Virus”

  1. Jay K says :

    I recently watched this movie too and enjoyed your review. I’m from Europe so some of the Canadian satire was a bit lost on me, but you helped with the understanding. The show was not as the same different always. Same, same, same, same…

    • Scott Preston says :

      Hi JayK. Thanks for the comment. If I’ld actually known that so many people were going to be taking an interest in this movie, I would have taken more care in watching it and (especially) reviewing it. In retrospect, I could have done a better job of it I think.

      • Drew Larsen says :

        Hey I just watched it its been a few years since you watched it, but I have to ask. How did the, “thing” happen like how did it all begin? I’m only 14 but I’ve never been this confused in my life as much as this movie. I think I figured out how the “thing” works but not its origin came about. If you figured anything I would love to know.

        • Scott Preston says :

          Hi Drew. How the “thing” happened is a bit ironic, but you might note that it begins with someone posting a notice for her missing cat. The missing cat’s name is “Honey”. As it turns out, such “terms of endearment” are the language virus that drives people crazy. But apparently only the English words, because the French troops who are sent in aren’t affected by them. I think some of the film takes a cue from the pop song “Language is a Virus” by Laurie Anderson. Have a look,

          In some ways, the movie is a parable about propaganda — about “talking points”, about “spin”, about cliche and commonplaces, and so on.

      • Margaret says :

        Try this interpretation: Mazzy is an unreliable narrator. Think “Jacob’s Ladder” with fewer “lucid” moments. In “Jacob’s Ladder” you get “flashes” that show where Jacob is and what’s really happening to him. In “Pontypool” you get ONE lucid moment: It occurs at the beginning of the film, and lasts just long enough for Mazzy to become infected when the wandering woman “steals his words”.

        It’s Mazzy who infects Laurel Ann, and It’s Mazzy who confuses “kiss” with “kill”. He doesn’t understand, and nor do we. Mazzy does NOT We, TOO, are watching through Mazzy’s delusional eyes and only able to see his reality; we are experiencing Pontypool as an “infected” person would.

        The final scene is the other “frame” of the movie, the opposite of the opening scene. The opening scene shows us reality; by the end, as color washes over the black and white, we find ourselves completely in Mazzy’s world.

        Just watch it again. Also there is a deleted scene, cut from where Mazzy is alone in the soundbooth. We see Mazzy looking under the desktop looking confused; he’s hallucinating. They cut it because it was too overt.

        «So the BBC broadcaster spreads a distorted picture of the situation for his viewers, which hilariously reflects the distorted and deformed mouths of the infected inhabitants of Pontypool» and we watch everything through Mazzy’s distorted viewpoint.

        «…which the BBC host garbles by misinterpreting it as an eruption of ethnocentric terrorism and civil strife between English- and French-speaking Canadians with English-speaking townspeople rioting against occupying French-speaking armed forces.»

        THAT was hilarious.

        A strange footnote to this: I could have sworn I read a review by Roger Ebert putting forth this interpretation, yet I can’t find the review. I’ve googled and binged and yandexed in search of it, to no avail. I know I didn’t figure this out by myself- I distinctly remember being stunned after reading it and watching the movie again. I know it had words to the effect of «… most people want to believe Mazzy and Syd are really in that basement, need to believe that, … »

        I can’t find the review anywhere.

        • Scott Preston says :

          Thanks for dropping by and the comment. It’s been quite some time since I’ve watched Pontypool, and I can’t for the life of me recall the half of it. Maybe I can find it and watch it again.

  2. Drew Larsen says :

    Thanks for the help.

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