What are words? Are they merely ideas? Emotions? Tools we use to accomplish tasks simple and complex? Whatever their purpose or value, words exist because we need them. Now, imagine a world where words cause everything to unravel. Perhaps one doesn't need to imagine this happening- we live in an age where more words are being communicated than at any other time in our history. People seek meaning in those words- but what if words betray us?
All of this sounds philosophical and nonsensical, but imagine a film that takes on this issue, but does so with its own version of zombies! "Pontypool" is a recent film by Canadian director Bruce McDonald. McDonald and writer Tony Burgess revisit a classic set-up for the sci-fi/horror genre- the telling of a fantastic series of events by a radio broadcast. Like Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds," the world is interrupted by a series of inexplicable events that threaten our existence. Unlike "War of the Worlds," this threat is really happening- not a radio hoax or some other flight from reality. Radio DJ Grant Mazzy and his skeleton crew of a broadcast team attempt to filter through confusing pieces of information as they flow into the radio station, trying to construct a narrative of why the world is falling apart outside their snow-encased building. Mazzy is a Don Imus-like character, donning a cowboy hat and hitting the booze liberally for breakfast. His cocky veneer is slowly worn down as he becomes more aware of the horrors taking place outside the station. Actor Stephen McHattie is reliably fascinating in this role- carrying the film with his face, which literally serves as the barometer of the movie's tension-level. It's a fantastic performance, one which makes the movie worthwhile on its own.
Now, I'm going to spoil something big for the movie here, so stop reading if you want to keep clear- it's how the people become "sick." Your typical horror/zombie flick blames a virus or some infection with making people flesh-hungry maniacs. That would have been enough to keep "Pontypool" a very entertaining movie. But what the filmmakers have done here is something completely new for the genre- something cerebral and worth discussion. People lose their minds as a result of the words they hear and speak. It's an uncertain combination of trigger words, but generally terms of endearment and words in English are the ones that set off the madness. The human brain gets caught in its own quicksand of understanding words' meanings. Madness soon develops and cannibalism ensues.
Yeah, there's a message beneath all of that- what I interpret it to mean is that words can control us, and we become capable of doing things that may betray our values. Throughout history, terrible acts have been committed as a result of the right combination of words being used. The only way we can protect ourselves from losing control is to define what words mean to us as individuals. Basically, think for yourself, do not blindly submit to another person's definition of the world. It's a good message, one that fits perfectly within the zombie-movie genre. Find "Pontypool" and redefine your world for a little while.