Zombies and Semiotics

If there is one thing I can say for sure about Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool (2008), it is that it is a horror film that will polarize its audience. It is confusing, and its premise is almost absurd if the audience is not willing to accept the new spin it puts on zombies, or if they do not develop an appreciation for the ideas that the film is referencing to.

Personally, however, I liked the movie. I found it to be intelligent and wonderfully unique. Moreover, as a Communication major that has had discussions about semiotics in the past, I appreciated that it had touched upon it. I thought that it was clever how the movie incorporated such a theory into the plot.

Pontypool introduces the idea that a deadly disease could be transmitted through language. The zombies in the film are infected not by being bitten by another zombie, but by repeating and understanding certain words in the English language. After that, the words seem to take over them and the zombies repeat the words until they find another victim. Here, we see language as a virus that could destroy humankind. The only way to fight the virus, as Grant and Sydney discovered, was to separate a word from its meaning. When Sydney is almost infected with the word “kill,” Grant manages to help her snap out of it by convincing her that “kill is kiss.”

The film points out certain things about the nature of language and communication that we may or may not take for granted in daily life. First, it deconstructs language and shows the audience how we communicate by assigning words with certain meanings – that language is a relationship between the signifier and the signified, between the form and the concept. (Saussure, 1983) The film also emphasizes the communicable nature of words and highlights how the media can be used as either a weapon or a cure, by having the characters use the radio booth in their attempts to either lead the mindless horde away so that they can escape, or cure the people by trying to make language strange again. By the end, the film seems to make a point about being cautious about what the media tells us, and to think twice about the information we are being fed, lest we be “mindless hordes” as well.

This reminds me of the real-life story of John Brinkley, a quack who took advantage of the advent of the radio, and used it to promote his goat-gland cure for impotence and other ailments. As his radio station got more popular, his goat-gland surgery scam kept spreading like a virus, and more people sought him out and paid him so that he could put goat testicles in their bodies and “cure” them. This resulted in many deaths, and it took a long time before Brinkley would be apprehended. (Gimlet Media, 2017) Truly, this is one example where the message of Pontypool can be applied in real life.

However, going back to discussing the experience of watching the film – is Pontypool a movie that can only be enjoyed by those who like thinking about deeper concepts or relating film to academic analysis? Perhaps not. Pontypool belongs to a category of film called paracinema. Paracinema combines different genres and bridges high and low cultures to come up with something that breaks boundaries and makes us rethink definitions and limitations we place on certain types of film. (Hawkins, 2002) With the many different elements present in paracinema, the film comes together and becomes something unique that makes for an interesting viewing experience and is worth looking into.

As high art, Pontypool makes use of metaphorical symbols that require intelligent discourse, such as its use of the concept of semiotics. It also makes use of indirect images – leaving to the viewer’s imagination the horrors that are happening outside of the radio station. It is confusing, requiring a high level of understanding from the audience for them to know what the film is trying to say. However, at the same time, Pontypool also shows characteristics of low art, remaining fun and not too much about ideas in some scenes. It also makes use of shock to garner violent reactions from the audience and shows the more common horror conventions like blood and violence, just like in the scene where a bloody Laurel-Ann slams herself against the sound booth’s window or when she vomits out blood and falls dead. Having a combination of both low and high culture, Pontypool is a movie that transcends the division between the two cultures and aspires towards something more.

I always have a great appreciation for when seemingly unrelated things come together and form something new. Who knew that you could put zombies and semiotics together and come up with an intelligent horror movie? Pontypool is definitely a rare watch that would leave an impression on the minds of many, and because it is so, I can say that it is one of the more memorable horror films that I’ve seen in my lifetime.

 

Sources:

Ferdinand de Saussure. Course in General Linguistics (trans. Roy Harris). (London: Duckworth, 1983)

Gimlet Media (2017) “Reply All: #86 Man of the People.” [Podcast]. Retrieved on April 23, 2017 from https://gimletmedia.com/episode/86-man-of-the-people/

Joan Hawkins, “Sleaze Mania, Euro-trash, and High Art: The Place of European Art Films in American Low Culture.” Horror, The Film Reader (Routledge, 2002)

 

 

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