Forget the thinly veiled misogyny of 50 Shades of Grey, this Valentine’s there’s only one film you need sink your teeth into. So rather than the usual sugary sweet gunk that clogs up our screens this time of year, cuddle up with your loved ones – although not too close – and cower in silence to the ignored genius of Bruce McDonald and Tony Burgess’ Pontypool.
In the middle of the week, I wrote on the Norwich Radical on the political implication of zombies. However, that article is only half the story. Zombies, most of the time, represent the masses potential for mass uprising – the possibility of standing up to a minority of oppressors and tearing apart their exploitative system; however, they also reflect the duality of our shared potential. As with the rioting consumers of Dawn of the Dead and the angry tabloid mob of Pontypool, the dead can also represent what happens when the forces of reaction win the battle for our souls. There is a dark fork in the road ahead in the future of humanity – the choice, as Rosa Luxemburg put it, between “socialism and barbarism”.
In the case of both films, we see the horde mindlessly following ideological impulses. In Dawn of the Dead, we witness scenes not dissimilar to the London riots, where the poor taught from cradle to grave to admire a consumerist lifestyle, without the means to live it, rise up to slavishly sate that hunger. In the case of Pontypool though, we see even deeper into the madness of everyday ‘normality’; and how learned messages embed ideological assumptions in language itself, with horrific consequences.
In the depths of a “dungeon” (actually the basement of a church) washed up DJ Grant Mazzey begins receiving reports of a mob surging about the snowy Canadian town of Pontypool, bleating supposedly nonsensical chants. The crowd becomes violent, as you might predict, leading to descriptions of disembowelings etc flooding the airwaves. However, it soon becomes apparent that the “God bug” does not transmit via bites or scratches. The madness ensues in each victim when they hear a word, and understands it within it’s learned ideological ‘meaning’.
As I pointed out in our zombie-documentary Dawn of the Red (2013), “certain loaded words combined in any situation can reduce people to blood-thirsty savages. The only way to overcome this virus is to forcibly de-construct your trigger word, and see beyond the ‘natural’ meaning you’ve been raised to see in it. It’s impossible not to feel a hideous sense of unease in the fact that any combination of syllables from ‘Ant-eater’ to ‘Single teenage Muslim lesbian mothers’ could trigger a murderous response from the mass of ordinary people. Especially since its essentially what the British press do every day.”
In Pontypool, looping sound effects and nonsense advertising messages echo this unseen hegemony, playing on repeat in the background, churning away in our subconscious, as they undoubtedly do the hundreds of listeners out in the snow. These anonymous messages are received, and they inform the behaviour of those listening, whether they pay attention or not. It’s an experience anyone who’s ever heard the infamous “MatressMan” adverts will be unnervingly aware of. As a sinister reminder of the potential of language to effect behaviour, by the end of the film, one particularly creepy featuring the discordant chanting of children will be lodged firmly within your skull, on constant repeat.
The film prompts us to examine the loaded terms in our lives that we treat as second nature, and prods us into asking “what does that really mean, what is it telling me to do?” And that’s an excellent message to spread on Valentine’s day (though without language I have literally no idea how you would… interpretive dance perhaps?). What the hell is Valentine’s day, really, but a colossal marketing exercise disguised in the language of love? And what is “love” (baby don’t hurt me) here, but a coded threat of losing that special guy or girl unless you buy them plastic, heart-shaped crap, to prove that you care?
Without taking the time to see the ideological demand at its heart, this in itself can be incredibly dangerous, not only because the ‘product’ of this consumerist love relies heavily on sweat-shop-produced teddy bears, but because it features extremely problematic ideas regarding gender and sex at its core. Exemplary of this is 50 Shades – which heavily promotes an abusive relationship, which features a man routinely ignore the laws of consent to beat and bully a woman into ‘loving’ him. And if you don’t take your partner(s) to see this, and if you don’t marvel at his untamed manliness, you have somehow ‘failed’. Valentine’s is a massive, hetero-normative festival of mindless consumption – and this year, it is being used to hawk a film glorifying abusive relationships to boot. But that’s just a hollow, undead, ideological caricature of ‘love’. You can do better – save yourselves form the plastic-wrapped, moisture protected seating of the 50 Shades cinematic experience.
Instead, settle in for the evening, and watch yourself a film that cuts through that crap. Don’t feast mindlessly on the oppression of others and don’t buy into a rhetoric that feasts on the life force of the exploited in order to sustain a false sense of ‘romance’. Love each other without this bullshit consumerism – and your relationship might just live to see tomorrow, all the stronger for it.