“Genre”—in the moviehead hierarchy it’s not unlike your Ketamine-snorting upstate cousin coming to visit unannounced at 3 AM, promising you nothing but lowdown fun you’ll regret as soon as you regain consciousness and look at the calendar. We all succumb to genre films, often with half a heart, and routinely excuse our mainlining as “just being entertained” or “escapism” or “leaving your brain outside in the rain,” because you hate your brain, after all, right? I particularly hate mine when I sit in front of some necrotized ordeal featuring superheroes and dream of the several pints of good craft beer I could’ve bought with those twelve bucks. But even if we’re having fun at some disreputable, childish, screaming-mimi genre flick, the very nature of the dynamic can produce lurking feelings of shame and rationalization, as if we were caught by a nun in the prep school lavatory studying a copy of Forum. When someone asks about our moviegoing experience afterwards, our response commonly involves a shrug and quick change in the conversation’s course. Ideally, genre films should be watched late at night alone, enjoyed like a fetish that should never see the light of day.
After 20 years of regularly, voluminously reviewing movies and teaching film, I’ve learned a great many things, including the secret of what in the hell is exactly wrong with Agnes Moorehead’s frontier mom in Citizen Kane (we’ll talk about it some other time), and also what genre films actually are: they’re codes, semiologies, systems of mythology, layer cakes of subtext that can exude metaphors in bumber-crop runs. In order to watch them and not feel like a grade-school imbecile afterwards, you have to search for and find what the sucker means. And all good genre films, from the best noirs (arguably cinema’s most resonant genre, and yet for the filmmakers at the time one entirely devoid of pretense to “meaning”) to the beautifully uncomfortable Thing with Two Heads (1972), mean something. The visceral, momentary experience of a horror movie or thriller or clunking blockbuster is by definition fleeting and empty—is that all you paid for, with dollars and hours of your life? If you don’t have something in your head when it’s over, you may as well have watched a fish tank.
Take zombies, please. After you get past George A. Romero’s first two Living Dead films, which resonate like tuning forks, zombie movies are, as far as I can tell, seriocomic exercises in ethics-free slaughter—cut the zombies up with kitchen appliances or whatever, it’s okay, nobody’s tasting real violence because they’re all dead already. The subgenre is like a video game in this regard, allowing us to kill but liberating us from responsibility, and as such I have very little time to expend upon it. But consider Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool (2008), a zombie flick with a difference, in which you never see the zombies (not well, anyway), and yet they mean something. The set-up, adapted from a novel (not a play as you might think), is ingenious in its simplicity, a la The Lost Patrol (1934) or Rio Bravo (1959): a tiny radio station stuck in a miniscule Ontario burg church cellar, and occupied only by a pragmatic producer (Lisa Houle), a fresh-faced intern (Georgina Reilly) and a blast furnace of an on-air personality, one Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie). A booze-sodden shock jock in his autumn years, Mazzy is bitter about where his career trajectory has landed him—the provincial boonies where his grandiloquent ramblings are unwelcome and where weather and traffic are the primary topics of conversation. He’s new to the job, but this morning reports begin to trickle in of crowds forming in the town, riots beginning and people being chased and torn apart…
The film is dazzling and fantastically creepy by virtue of what we don’t see, how trapped the restrictive scenario makes us feel, and how the truth of what’s going on is so distant and unattainable despite all of this direct technological communication. But there’s something else buried in the film, an existentialist metaphor. The MacGuffins for zombie films (space probes, viruses, etc.) are rarely worth more than a line of narration, but in Pontypool it’s the detail that bedevils. Eventually Mazzy and his cohort figure out that, somehow, certain words or even language itself is the “virus,” and before you know it, in this bell jar of a horror film, Lacanian poststructuralism is on the table. “Stop understanding what you are saying!” Mazzy bellows deep into the chaos, conjuring a postmodern moment of crisis with roots in Dada and vines reaching out to hermeneutists from Heidegger onward.
Roland “death of the author” Barthes is, after all, quoted explicitly, and the name of Absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco is dropped. Did we hear that right, and is that a small plastic rhinoceros on the soundboard? Then you realize you’re witnessing an inside-out remake of Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” (filmed straight for the American Film Theatre series in 1973, starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder), a famous Absurdist farce in which the inhabitants of a small village begin to inexplicably transform into rhinos. Written in the years following the Second World War, it was an outrageous allegory on how political conformity had led to fascism, but MacDonald’s hidden agenda is even more ambitious. Rhetoric is one of totalitarianism’s primary weapons, and in Pontypool rhetoric itself emerges as the plague, attaching definitive/authoritarian meaning to words so as to control them, and the mouths that say them and the minds that think them. (Strangely, another semi-serious zombie movie from 2008, Zombie Strippers, also loosely adapted “Rhinoceros,” but to far less savory effect.) Eventually, Pontypool exhilaratingly shrugs off its zombie-thriller plot requirements altogether, embracing its own its postmod-nihilist ideas and virtually saying that, in a world of twisted public discourse and official misinformation and media spin, ersatz-Surrealist poetry and its hedonistic liberty from logic and social order may be the only path to redemption. (How Tzara and Apollonaire would’ve loved this film.) Liberating language from ordained “meaning” is the first breath of a revolution. Otherwise, we’re mindless consumers, pillaging only each other—the perfect denotation of a zombie.
Michael Atkinson writes regularly for The Village Voice, Sight & Sound, In These Times, Time Out Chicago, Fandor, Turner Classic Movies and LA Weekly. His latest books include FLICKIPEDIA and the novel HEMINGWAY CUTTHROAT.