Directed by Bruce McDonald, 2008. Starring Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly. 96 minutes.
Premise: A controversial talk-radio jockey, exiled to a low-power station in rural Ontario, finds himself in a sticky situation when riots break out in town—riots that gradually turn bizarre and terrifying. And it turns out he just might be part of the problem…
Oh look, more zombies. (Or at least creatures that are as close to zombies as they can get without actually being zombies. I’ve taken to calling such creatures “zombielikes.”) These mindless, uncontrollably violent assholes have taken over screen horror. Recently, I tried to count the number of zombie movies made since the turn of the century that I’ve actually seen—the Romero and 28 Days Later franchises; Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland; Dead and Breakfast and Dance of the Dead; [REC] and Dead Snow…I lost count at about 20. And there’s still a bunch I haven’t seen, such as Zombies of Mass Destruction, Flight of the Living Dead, and I Spit on Your Rave. With World War Z and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies being developed for the talking pictures, and The Walking Dead slated to start airing on AMC on Halloween, it doesn’t look like zombies are going away anytime soon. We’re stuck with them, in much the same way that horror readers are stuck with witches who can’t decide if they should kill their vampire nemeses or have sex with them instead.
So if you’re going to make a zombie movie, you should probably do something to make it memorable, because after I get to my thirtieth zombie movie they all start to run together, and I’m actually a diehard horror fan. I have a friend who’s merely a casual horror fan and she can never remember whether Day of the Dead takes place in a high-rise or ends on a boat. Hell, maybe it’s both. So the trend with recent zombie movies is to distinguish themselves by going high-concept with a genre-bending twist. (I explore this a bit more in my review of Survival of the Dead, which is essentially a John Ford Western with zombies.)
Pontypool goes in the opposite direction here. It goes back to the first principles of the zombie movie format and strips them down to basic functionality. The character ensemble is whittled down to a protagonist and two supporting characters who, despite having their own concerns and backstories, are essentially in orbit around him. The movie is dominated by Stephen McHattie’s performance as Grant Mazzy, the disgraced shock jock, and while I’ve always admired his work, this is undoubtedly the best performance I’ve ever seen him put in. The two major supporting performances—Lisa Houle and Georgina Reilly (both apparent newcomers) as Mazzy’s producer and sound engineer, respectively—are also highly effective.
The setting is also shrunk down: with the exception of a couple of exterior scenes, all the action is confined to an extended set (the church basement housing the radio’s studio)—and even then, at least fifty percent of the movie is set in a single room (Mazzy’s sound booth).
Wisely, screenwriter Tony Burgess (adapting his own novel, Pontypool Changes Everything) and director Bruce McDonald choose to keep the zombies and the outbreak offstage for most of the film. The characters—and, by extension, we the audience—don’t even see the zombies until roughly the halfway point. Everything Mazzy and his producer and engineer know is reported to them by call-ins from characters who are never seen, only heard…and these reports become increasingly less reliable.
Here is a movie that takes words like “paranoia,” “confusion,” “claustrophobia,” and “tension” and intensifies them until they take on entirely new meanings…which is appropriate, because the meanings of words, and how those meanings can be malleable, is what the outbreak is all about. Turns out that, somehow, the English language itself has become the vector of infection: say the wrong words and you’re spreading the plague. Mazzy sees himself as providing a valuable public service, but it’s also likely—maybe even highly probable—that he’s making things worse. You’re familiar with the word “meme,” right? The word was originally coined to describe ideas that mutate like organisms. Burroughs was right: language is, indeed, a virus.
It is, then, not too hard to make the conceptual leap between Mazzy and the modern political commentator, both turning listeners into mindless zombies with their demagoguery. Further proof that zombie movies tend to live and die on their sociopolitical allegory. It’s a shame I didn’t see Pontypool before Sarah Palin posted her now-famous Twitter update regarding Cordoba House. I would have wondered if the non-word “refudiate” turns people into zombies.
Living language. Gotta celebrate it.
Moment of Zen: Mazzy’s opening monologue. “Mrs. French’s cat is missing. The signs are posted all over town. ‘Have you seen Honey?’ We’ve all seen the posters, but nobody has seen Honey the cat…”