Zombies are a force not to be fucked with. Since the dawn of the undead, these ghastly grave-defying ghouls have been shuffling their way across the celluloid and feasting on the flesh of the living throughout thousands of entries in popular horror culture literature and film for well over three decades. Romero brought us the ‘traditional’ zombie; a sluggish, mindless product of some toxic—or possibly, other worldy force—easy enough for even the feeblest-minded to defeat. Fulci stayed true to the Romero tradition with Zombie (1979), only his zombies were a bit more savage. Danny Boyle ‘s 28 Days Later presented horror fans with a fresh new take on the sub-genre by creating a virus that infected victims with “rage”, ultimately transforming them into vicious, hypersonic zombies that could destroy anything in their path in the blink of a milky-white eye. Needless to say, zombies have always been the morbid manifestation of some biological warfare or medical science/government/military experiment gone berserk. So it goes without saying that the world in which the living dead walk can begin to lose its appeal after a few too many zombie flicks or survival guides by Max Brooks.
About a year ago, I watched a film by a favourite Canadian director of mine named Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo, The Tracey Fragments), titled after the quant Canadian town of Pontypool, Ontario. Now, from my previous viewings of Mcdonald’s work, I’ve learned that he has a real knack for bringing books to the big screen. In doing so, he basically creates an entirely new concept out of slivers of the original piece of literature that he is “adapting”. I kind of have to wonder why he isn’t constantly writing his own material as he’s damn talented when it comes to portraying a solid story of primitive poignance on screen. Be it a ‘mock’ Canadian punk rock band’s inevitable dive into the abyss of fatal rockstardom, a surreal-metaphorical trip through the day in the life of a troubled fifteen year old girl, or in this case—an unconventional contagium that plagues the residents of a small town. Shortly after the fading flames of my passion for the living dead had been rekindled by Mcdonald’s film, I set out to get myself infected with the virus via the original text; Tony Burgess’ book, Pontypool Changes Everything. Little did I know how blatantly far out the novel was going to be in comparison to the film–which is interesting when taking into consideration the fact that Burgess also penned the screenplay.
Where as the film focuses mainly on a group of people that work for a small-time radio station based out of the Pontypool church, and the events that transpire only at that particular location, the novel jumps around to various people—some whom we eventually learn are linked in some way—throughout the town as the contagium spreads. Now if you haven’t been so lucky as to have seen the movie, the premise centres on a virus that is transmitted through the understanding of the English language. This is by no means your conventional zombie epidemic, there are no traces of mysterious toxic sludge in the town water supply. The government isn’t conspiring for the purpose of concealing some military experiment turned monstrous, in fact no one in Pontypool seems to have any knowledge of the origin of the speech-spread pestilence. The grim fate of the town is reflected by the 1 – 200+ doctor-to-victims ratio. As cases of the dementia-like disease worsen, an eleven year-old boy seeks advice from a jaded radio jockey regarding his first beastial experience; linguistic drones linger around the urban outskirts of the town, a pre-pubescent girl and her younger brother share their first incestual kiss. This is only the beginning of a bizarre string of events that takes place in the quiet urban town of Pontypool, Ontario.
Plot points of the novel are so obscure that at times it’s a difficult book to follow, somewhat reminiscent of Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Emphasis is placed on specific characters and the unique hardships that they are forced to experience. I can understand that these characters had an important role in the bigger picture that would be partially unveiled by the turn of the last chapter. However, I found myself questioning the purpose of one or two other minor characters, simply because their existence in the story seemed irrelevant. Burgess’ novel in comparison to Bruce Mcdonald’s screen adaptation was successful at maintaining a sense of ominousness on a more confined level. Mcdonald’s film held together nicely by a spine-tingling claustrophobic ambience and a creepy cacophony of mumbling mad men and women repeating the same senseless phrases with the peeving persistence of a broken record. Burgess’ novel succeeded in a similar—yet, paradoxically—entirely different way. He opens the reader’s eyes by presenting the grandiose severity of such unfathomable peril, even in the confinement of a small town.
Tony Burgess’ novel was indeed a satisfyingly mind-fucking read. It’s always nice to stumble upon a genuinely spooky piece of literature that dares to explore the realms of horror that exist beyond the pseudo-Stephen Kings and Dean Koontz’ of this day and age. I guess it can be said that Pontypool really does change everything… at least in terms of horror literature anyway. I can’t say that it had the same gut-punch impact that director Bruce Mcdonald’s film adaptation had on me, but then again we’re talking books vs. movies here (and there is a reason why I write for this gonzo cinephile fansite). If you dig language arts and flesh-eating fiends as much as I do, you will most definitely want to contract the Pontypool infection.