Review by Katherine Follett
Posted on 15 May 2009
Source IFC Films 35mm print
Categories The 2009 Independent Film Festival of Boston
Zombies are a relatively new form of monster, at least compared to things like vampires and werewolves, which have had centuries, or at least many more decades, to build a mythology. Zombies are also more thoroughly modern, often finding themselves within larger parables about race or consumerism or militarism. Perhaps this is why zombies, unlike other creatures, are still working out their origin myths. It seems like almost every new zombie movie feels the need to flesh out all over again exactly how, where, and why zombies became zombies, and to provide a new “twist” on just what is going on. In the weaker entries into the zombie genre, this is all the film has to offer. But the better zombie movies get past the “newspaper article” facts of who, what, where, and when, and stretch the genre into more inventive forms. Resourceful and minimalist, Pontypool is for the most part a solid new take on the zombie idea.
Like several other incarnations of Zombie 2.0, the zombies in Pontypool aren’t really dead, but living people infected by some sort of virus. But much of this movie depends not on the details, but rather on the slow and suspenseful revealing those details. Its structure is a sort of reversal of the notorious “War of the Worlds” broadcast: three radio personnel are trapped in a windowless basement studio broadcasting the morning traffic and weather to tiny Pontypool, Ontario, as word trickles in that something mysterious and violent is transpiring outside. Shot almost entirely inside the basement sound studio, Pontypool is nothing if not resourceful. Burr-voiced Stephen McHattie is pitch-perfect as Grant Mazzy, the grizzled, Don-Imus style radio personality trapped in the boonies. Lisa Houle is competent, if less memorable, as the producer trying to make him behave. A cute intern rounds out the normally sleepy staff. But as reports from their “sunshine chopper” (really a dude in a pickup on a hill) describe an odd, disturbing “mob,” each character begins to come unhinged in his or her own way. Grant gets even more sneering and starts his rabble-rousing rhetoric. The producer tries to keep a handle on things while slowly resorting to panic. And the intern, trying to be helpful, nonetheless inexplicably succumbs to the zombieism, despite having no physical contact with any infected others. Director Bruce McDonald builds the tension admirably as the situation gets more and more serious and the characters have to begin to rely on each other in almost total isolation.
About three-quarters of Pontypool is unique and accomplished in this way, but as the film works to its climax, things hold together less well. Though McHattie has undeniable charisma, I just didn’t feel the chemistry between him and Houle, at least not enough that their 11th-hour romance seemed believable. And the “origin” twist was also a bit weak, especially given the mastery with which we build to its reveal: the zombie “virus” is transmitted through language. This idea seems brilliant. If you aren’t familiar, a “meme” is a bit of information, like a song, an idea, or a catchphrase, that moves through the culture propagating itself the way a gene propagates itself within a population of organisms. And it’s a great idea for how to spread zombie-ness. Imagine if all I had to do was say “old-school Romero zombies!” and suddenly you could do nothing to stop your insatiable hunger for manflesh. If only. By the time this idea is revealed, Pontypool has eased itself away from its lovely Hitchcockian minimalist suspense and fully into zombie mode, with the characters barricading themselves against a ravenous mob, and the “twist” becomes the fulcrum of the film. The writers don’t seem to be familiar with memes, or have not fully thought out what’s going on. What should be an amazing idea becomes only confusing and inconsistent. If the “zombie meme” is transmitted by certain words, how come the speaker doesn’t get infected along with the listener? How come the word or phrase that turns one person into a zombie is totally ineffective on another person? And how is it, when the first symptom of this zombie-ism is a compulsive repetition of the last sounds heard, that that repetition doesn’t then infect those around the new zombie? If “understanding” the idea is what triggers the zombieism, how could it ever be reversed by mere words, as if you could ever un-understand a nursery rhyme or e=mc2? Technical quibbles, perhaps. But once the film starts to put so much importance on this “origin,” it needs to have its bullet-points straight.
Though not without its flaws, Pontypool is nonetheless successful for creating something truly surprising and unique within the over-exposed zombie genre. It is in fact only when the film becomes more familiar that it begins to struggle. Like some of the best zombie films – or for that matter, the best horror films – its strength lies in its resourceful and skilled management of tension and suspense, rather than high-concept backstories or overwhelming gore. And this skill helps it transcend the rather cultish world of zombie films, making it, for the most part, a treat for anyone.
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