by Steve Habrat
What would happen if you smashed together George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and the 1938 radiobroadcast of War of the Worlds? You would end up with Canadian director Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool, a voluble spin on the zombie horror film that uses semiotics as the virus that turns helpless citizens into mindless cannibals. Pontypool embraces simplicity in every frame, borrowing Romero’s creeping claustrophobic atmosphere and allowing it to play with a mysterious phenomenon that is mostly heard and rarely ever seen. Director McDonald and screenwriter Tony Burgess, who adapted the script from his own novel, are relentlessly fascinated with the power of words, ideas, and their lasting effect on those who hear them. Giving us only four characters to root for and cementing the action within the walls of a radio station, Pontypool keeps things spooky with distant bumps, thumps, and fuzzy reports from within the chaos, tricks that prod the imagination and send it into a tumult.
Pontypool follows a fussy shock jock radio host named Grant Mazzy (Played by Stephen McHattie), who on his snowy drive to work encounters a woman mumbling unintelligible gibberish. She wanders off into the snow, leaving Mazzy with just an unsettling story to share with his listeners. When he arrives to work, he begins his show Mazzy in the Morning like normal, complaining to his tense producer Sydney Briar (Played by Lisa Houle) about how bland the day’s news is. Caught in the middle of their bickering is Laurel-Ann (Played by Georgina Reilly) who attempts to keep the peace between them. What finally interrupts the battle are strange reports of rioting at the office of a Doctor Mendez (Played by Hrant Alianak). As more reports pour in, the stories begin to describe cannibalism and other bizarre behavior spreading from Mendez’s office. As the masses of mindless ghouls close in on the radio station, Grant, Sydney, and Laurel-Ann discover that the English language may be carrying a bug that turns those who speak certain words into zombies.
McDonald doesn’t hesitate to allow us to get to know these characters, much like the work of Romero, and then begins to pull the rug out from under us. The small number makes the invisible horror and looming danger even more unbearable when it comes crashing in. But McDonald doesn’t stop here, adding the idea that if the ghouls get in, there is nowhere for the people trapped inside to run to. This is what makes Pontypool a winner in my eyes. It was excruciating not truly knowing what was going on outside the walls of the radio station. Things get even more gut wrenching when the heard and not seen weather reporter Ken Loney (Played by Rick Roberts) phones in with what he is seeing and his experiences within the spreading terror. Keeping the viewer in the dark, we get hooked on answers and even when we get them, they are a bit ambiguous, spewing from the mouth of the on-the-run Doctor Mendez, who seeks refuge from the hordes in the radio station.
Pontypool is carried by the performance by McHattie as Grant Mazzy, the self-aware radio personality with quite a bit on his mind. When the truth hits that the reports coming are indeed reality, his hardened face melts into paranoia and apprehension. McHattie is an astonishing actor when it comes to deadpan facial expression. He is a whirlwind when his mouth is flapping but his quieter moments, when he has to piece together a way out, overshadow the moments when he is in front of a microphone. McHattie plays well with Houle as Sydney, who goes to great lengths to keep her wits about her. A phone call to her family will take your breath away and break your heart. McHattie and Houle have drawn out conversations that at times feel scripted, more the fault of Burgess, and you can tell they are straining the aggravation for each other. In the final stretch, they really pull through and click; the final twenty minutes their blaze of glory together. Reilly fairs well as Laurel-Ann, getting to execute some physical stuff halfway through the film and also getting the best gore sequence the film has to offer. Alianak as Doctor Mendenz ends up venturing a little too far into B-movie territory, a choice that ends up paling in comparison to the top-notch performances by the other three actors. I was also heavily impressed with the voice work from Rick Roberts as Ken Loney, who had to convey so much with only his voice. Many of the goosebumps I got while watching Pontypoll came from him. Bravo, sir!
Like almost all zombie movies, Pontypool has much more on its mind than simply chewing on flesh. Critical of the English language and the impact words can have on those who hear them, Pontypool seemed to be saying that we are an impressionable group of people. When the zombies hear new words or phrases, they begin frantically repeating what they hear. The message I took away from Pontypool is that we simply don’t think for ourselves, hanging on the words from shock jock radio commentators and the like, carrying their messages around like mindless prophets. And yet I feel like there is more to be found in Pontypool as the film is practically on its knees for a repeat viewing. It seemed to me that more pieces to this puzzle and the overall message would come together the more we expose ourselves to the film. I’m itching to revisit the film to pull back a few more of its layers.
If you are hoping for an explosion of gore and intestines at the end of Pontypool, you will be severely disappointed. There are only a few scenes that contain graphic sequences of gore. If you are crossing your fingers for lots of roaming cannibals, don’t get your hopes up, as only a handful of the ghouls are actually seen. In fact, many may find themselves bored to tears with the movie but I actually found it to be a nice change of pace. I loved the low budget approach and all the implied horror rather than the all out nasty stuff that many zombie movies indulge in. Pontypool turns out to be one of the creepier modern films that I have seen, one that scares us on a psychological level. It keeps us on pins and needles and the gloomy final stretch of the film would make Romero proud. If Pontypool sounds like your cup of apocalyptic doom, you need to hurry up and see it. Just don’t forget your thinking cap.
Pontypool is available on DVD.