Imagine this: you’re a formerly hot radio shock jock who is forced to ply his trade on a lowly circulated AM morning drive talk show in Pontypool, Ontario. Desperate for any semblance of a following or ratings, you’re quick to jump on an apparent riot in this small town despite the objections from your producer. Suddenly, the riot turns bloody and it becomes clear that this is no longer a minor incident, but a catastrophe that may have global implications. What do you do? Stay on the air. Welcome to Pontypool.
Those seeking out contemporary zombie fodder usually find themselves subjected to substandard, recycled plots with hackneyed characters who get wasted as though it were their jobs and low-budget camp that seems only fit for the stuff one would ignore in their Netflix suggestions. Alas, Pontypool should not be included in this mass, because it actually has mindfulness amidst the madness and creative enough shocks to actually make an audience think about the horror rather than divorce themselves from it.
The filmmaker denies that those afflicted in Pontypool are zombies. Well, okay. Practically every filmmaker since Danny Boyle has been denying the undead moniker starting at Boyle’s insistence that the ‘infected’ in 28 Days Later were not zombies, but the point is decidedly moot; the antagonists are blood-thirsty, mindless ghouls who spread their apparent infection readily and attack the living in hordes. Sure sound like zombies to me.
Pontypool’s ace in the hole, however, is that the affliction is not viral, bacterial, fungal, or spiritual. The plague is contracted through words. You read that right; the English language has become a vector with certain words and phrases gumming up each person’s thought processes until the confusion over their ability to communicate drives them mad. To read the plot descriptions, it is understood that the zombies propagate via a flaw born from quantum mechanics. The author of the original novel, who also adapted the screenplay, suggests that a lifeform from a higher dimension gets temporarily stuck in ours, and phrases of affectation, once repeated, turn the speaker into a bloodthirsty cannibal. Heavy stuff.
Though the aspect of satire in Pontypool may not be as much of a slam dunk as Romero’s use of shopping mall zombies standing in for the commercialization of our culture in Dawn of the Dead, but there’s sufficient grounding to seek out the root of the parody. In our daily lives, we repeat meaningless phrases and terms of endearment without bothering to understand why we use them. Our choice to carry these bits of speech is mechanical, done almost entirely without thought. They feel safe, almost comfortable, so to imagine that repeated use of these mindless words would cause a systemic psychological breakdown is a terrifying enough on its own; you don’t have to get bitten or sick to lose your battle, you just have to speak.
Stephen McHattie, a stalwart character actor who never got the chance to carry a movie as fully as this, acquits himself with flying colors. He nails the Howard Stern bravado of his egotistical Grant Mazzy, playing up his apparent command of language that gives him an edge over the plague by remaining the voice of reason. Even as the screenplay occasionally delves into nonsense, he’s the rock around which the story coalesces, selling even the most mundane dramatic developments. Lisa Houle and Georgina Reilly, both of whom are unknowns to the average filmgoer, feed off of McHattie’s energy and keep the proceedings brisk and plausible with their repartee.
Fans of non-stop explicit shocks and grandiose set-pieces will find themselves hugely disappointed; Pontypool thrives on mood and atmosphere, believably trapping the protagonists in a broadcast studio as the apocalypse bays at the door. If Pontypool isn’t viscerally satisfying, it’s certainly intellectually stimulating, a trump card that gives it a head start on most of the horror dreck finding its way to theatres and home video these days. You may not come away with your bloodlust sated, but you may find yourself thinking about Pontypool days after you’ve seen it, and that’s a priceless asset not to be underestimated.
Those looking to own Pontypool fortunately won’t have to jump through hoops, but the film has a fairly uneven history of releases. The DVD is readily available in the United States, but the Blu-ray was only issued overseas. Only hardcore fans should chase the latter; Pontypool is competently directed and shot, but lacks the visual flair necessary to require a high-definition viewing experience.