So, there have been approximately a godzillion zombie movies made over the years, and a goodly number of those just in the last few years. And there have been quite a number of very creative ones (Shaun of the Dead, Fido, 28 Days Later, but no, NOT the remake of Dawn of the Dead). Likely about to disappear from a theatre near you is one of the most interesting variation of late: Pontypool.
Directed by Bruce McDonald (most recently of The Tracey Fragments), and scripted by Tony Burgess (adapting a section of his novel Pontypool Changes Everything), Pontypool takes place in the eponoymous town, somewhere in the snowy wastes of rural Ontario. Grant Mazzy (erstwhile Nite-Owl I Stephen McHattie) is a former shock jock, turfed from his big city job, and now stuck hosting the morning show out here in the middle of nowhere. After a disturbing encounter with a babbling woman on his pre-dawn drive to work, he settles in behind the microphone to start his shift. Little by little, he and the station’s crew of two (Lisa Houle and Georgina Reilly) discover that something really, really bad is happening in and around the town. What that bad thing is, of course, is your basic zombie apocalypse.
This might not sound terribly original, based on what I’ve written so far, but bear with me. In the first place, pretty much the entirety of the film takes place inside broadcasting studio — a single room with a sound booth. There are a few brief moments where we leave these confines, but otherwise, it would be easy to imagine a stage production of the story. Such a tactic can make viewers feel claustrophobic and constrained, which is exactly what happens here, but that is exactly how one should feel, much as the characters do. They become more and more frightened and frustrated as they sense enormous events going on just outside their walls, but they can’t leave, and they have no windows, and so the only way they can find out what is happening is through their medium: radio. In other words, language, not images, are their only resource.
And that brings us to the truly original conceit of the film: the means of contagion. The virus is not airborne; it is not transmitted through biting, or scratching, or through blood. It is the English language itself that is infected. Speak the wrong word, and one’s transformation begins.
Howzat for high concept? Very postmodern, very thought-provoking. Also very funny (check out the protagonists’ recourse to speaking broken French to avoid contamination, thus marking the film as distinctively Canadian). Also very scary â€“ accept the premise, and then realize just what an incredible level of vulnerability that implies.
Is the film a complete success? I hesitate on this point. I’m not sure that the rules of the concept were fully worked out, and so the climax becomes a bit confusing just as it should be most suspenseful. The resolution has some power to it, but exactly what happens in the moments leading up to the closing credits, I’m not sure I could say.
If this is a bit of a stumble, though, it is one brought about by the enormous virtue of originality, ambition and intelligence that powers the film, and so there is no shame in it. It doesn’t alter my determination to urge horror fans one and all to see the film, particularly at the expense of yet another remake.
And don’t worry: there is some very nicely staged gore here, too.