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Every once in a while, something special comes along to shake up a genre that’s just a little stale. Pontypool may not be a zombie movie in a traditional sense, but it’s those little differences that make it truly memorable.
A Different Kind of Zombie
Zombies in the 2000s have been done to death. So much so that if I never saw another movie of its kind, I think I’d breathe a sigh of relief. When I was tipped off about Pontypool I was hesitant. Zombiesssssss…., but WHY???? I whined. That gut feeling turned out to be wrong
If George Romero’s prototypical zombie was “the living dead,” Pontypool’s mobs of deadened people are not zombies at all. Still alive for one, it’s just their thoughts and movements that are gradually being taken over by the group think. They don’t die; that is until they kill each other. Slowly. Very, very slowly (and what’s more Romero than a slow walk and a long demise?).
Outbreak movies have been around since, well, Outbreak (and well before, but that’s the first that comes to mind). Watching hordes of citizens turn into disease-laden empty shells is mesmerizing – and presents a real possibility that’s scary enough to keep us worried. Sure, recent zombie films have taken great lengths to jazz up the concept – super fast zombies, focus on the source of the disease, etc. What Pontypool does differently is remove the flesh-eating disease element entirely.
What happens in Pontypool, Ontario on Valentine’s Day is viral. A virus transferred through words. And our protagonists are stuck in a radio station.
The Radio Play
The radio play itself has a history. War of the Worlds is the obvious point of comparison. The Orson Welles production was notorious for fooling listeners into believing the broadcast to be real – not a work of fiction.
Pontypool spends its first half characterizing radio morning host Grant Mazzy as an old, possibly washed up, definitely burnt out guy. So when reports of cannibalistic mobs outside a local doctor’s office start coming in, Mazzy is rightfully concerned about a hoax. It’s a small town. Nobody respects him the way they should.
In the age of the podcast, we’re all tuning back into the long form radio program – albeit on an on demand basis. Watching Pontypool may give you some Welcome to Nightvale vibes, but frankly, it’s a lot better than that.
Mazzy is delivering his show everyday at the same absurd hour of the morning. It’s not scripted, but it’s carefully crafted. The art of the morning show D.J. is maintaining that conversation, keeping listeners up to date, but also tuned in. His craft rests on his ability to speak with flair and personality. The stories he chooses to tell will affect his listener’s attitudes, moods, their entire day. It’s a powerful position, to lead the radio play.
What would happen if the words you say not only had the potential to create fear – but could infect the listener?
Pontypool, Pontypool, Pontypool
In Alice in Wonderland, it’s nonsense that drives the narrative and the plot down the rabbit hole:
“Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?” – Lewis Carroll
When you hear that quote out right, it sounds like it makes a lot of sense. A logic puzzle that you should sit down and figure out. But any amount of thinking on it reveals no logic at all. Such is the plague of nonsense. It takes over all of your thoughts, your energy, and your brain, trying to suss out an answer that isn’t really there.
The real glee of watching this film is not the bodies piling up, thrashing into sound proof windows, or bloody pulp spewing out of the infected’s mouths (but no worries, zombie lovers, your gore is ever-present). It’s the notion that words and their meaning have such a power that they can not only affect us, but infect us. And of course, the eerie sounds of Mazzy’s own words reflected back at him over the airwaves are a creepy pleasure. For an insecure man who talks for a living to be confronted with his own words – priceless.
But mostly, I’m tickled by the trick that might save Pontypool from its auditory infection: turn sense into nonsense, and bring the world back to life.
The Fun Stuff
Author Tony Burgess is pretty well-known Canadian novelist, and has written a trilogy of Pontypool books. He of course adapted this one for the screen.
Stephen McHattie (who plays Grant Mazzy) also appears on the FX show The Strain, another outbreak story, created by Guillermo Del Toro. It’s good stuff, but more vampire than zombie.
Pontypool is the kind of movie that just wouldn’t work without a great script and a great voice. McHattie has that, and it’s one of the few horror movies that will get you listening and thinking rather than just absorbing gore through your eye holes.
If You Like It, Watch:
Cabin Fever (2003) – Classic outbreak, Eli Roth style (including obnoxious cameo and gross, gross, gross gore things). It’s funny. It’s revolting. You’ll never go swimming again.
The Crazies (1973) – Romero interrupted his Night of the Living Dead films for this post-apocalyptic infection movie. I don’t recommend the recent remake, but I do highly recommend this action heavy, science fictiony, horror movie about biological weapons gone awry. Maybe extra relevant in the era of Trump-maybe-having-access-to-nuclear-codes.
And Listen to:
War of the Worlds – I really think this is required listening. It’s hard to believe that anyone could find it truthful (and honestly, that myth is perhaps overblown), but it’s easy to see the power of Orson Welles, storyteller. He’s got one hell of a convincing voice.
Slither (Click for trailer)