Post Millennial Trauma: Pontypool (2009)

This sounds like a strange thing to be writing, but I do believe that this is the first of these Post-2000 horror films that I’ve done that features that mainstay of horror: The Zombie. Zombies are one of the most abused monsters out there- hacks like Snyder and Anderson fundamentally don’t understand what makes zombies effective, and so insist on having them run, climb buildings etc, while arguably the father of the genre, George Romero, also has them doing astonishingly stupid things (using tools) in the name of “social commentary” that’s about as subtle as a brick. Basically, zombies are scary for two reasons: they’re relentless, brainless killing machines solely driven by the need to feed, and that there’s usually a horde of them. One zombie by himself isn’t frightening particularly given that they shamble, are hugely clumsy, and any old mug can get away from them. Even the kind of mug that appears in a Romero film. Nevertheless, the 21st century has produced a couple of first-rate zombie films- just not America. Britain turned out horror comedy Shaun of the Dead, France popped up with The Horde, and Spain produced the magnificent Rec films. However, easily able to stand and be counted with those heavyweights is Canada’s 2009 effort: the unfairly overlooked Pontypool.

I can’t believe I didn’t see this at the time, as I’m usually a mug for zombie films (except I’m finally over my battered wife syndrome with Romero and will never watch another one after Diary of the Dead). Nevertheless, I’m really pleased that I finally managed to pull my finger out and catch up with this film. Financed on a shoestring, this is a taut, good-looking film that makes a virtue of economy in the sets and effects and as a result substitutes in tension where splatter normally suffices. I’m astonished, actually, that I waited this long to see it.

Mazzy in the morning.

Stephen McHattie plays Grant Mazzy. Grant is an ex-big shot DJ kicked out of his major posting due to an inability to shut his yap and toe the company line. He’s stuck in Pontypool, Ontario, which can be fairly described as the arse-end of nowhere, in a small local radio station doing a job he clearly despises. His only companions are producer Sydney (Lisa Houle), technician and recent Afghan veteran Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly). His show isn’t going particularly well, due to him annoying listeners, the pathetic budget and his utter boredom with his subject matter. However, things start to look up when he begins to get reports of rioting in town- and he thinks this could be his ticket back to the big leagues. Eventually events start to spiral out of control, and Grant and his team are trapped in the station in a battle for survival.

Doors are well known for their ability to hold zombies out indefinitely.

First up, this is an incredibly limited cast- there’s only (outside of zombies) 4 main characters seen on screen, supplemented by the “eye in the sky” on the phone and an interview with a BBC reporter on the terrorist outbreak. There are weird cameos, such as the Bin Laden tribute group. As such, a lot of weight stands on the shoulders of the main characters, particularly on McHattie. It’s just as well that he’s up to the job, and he puts in a sterling performance from him as the embittered and grizzled DJ. Always sympathetic, his turn as Mazzy is frequently hilarious, sometimes filled with pathos and desperation and is actually a reason in itself to watch the film. Houle is superb in support- sympathetic and much more than a standard screaming damsel in distress. This is a supremely well acted film.

Mazzy discovers that Proctological examinations are mandatory for all Radio Pontypool employees

It’s also a brilliantly directed one. Bruce McDonald is primarily a TV director, but he clearly deserves more work. Pontypool rattles along at a fair old clip, and McDonald keeps the tension turned up to the max. I’m trying to write this without spoilers, but the scene with them in the booth protected behind glass while a zombie attempts to batter its way in is absolutely riveting. This a seriously exciting film. Moreover, Pontypool is also a funny film: McDonald knows when to let the humour come out (such as the aforementioned Bin Laden impersonator, or that the eye in the sky is actually a doofus in a terrible car parked on a hill), and these comic touches allow him moments of levity in an otherwise unremittingly bleak film. It, actually, is damned funny on occasion and although the comedy is midnight black, it’s not mean spirited. There’s nothing wrong with some gallows humour in a horror film, and Pontypool handles this with aplomb.

Poor old Laurel-Ann's day went from bad to worse

I’m trying to think of influences for Pontypool, and the obvious one is Croneneberg. There’s a real feeling to it of early Cronenberg- Shivers and Rabid in particular, and radio broadcast over the final credits is straight from Shivers. In fact, the subject matter of Pontypool, particularly the means the infection is transmitted, feels very much in the vein of Cronenberg’s work. Well, there’s nothing wrong with being influenced by the best.

The queue outside Waterstone's for the new Twilight book got completely out of hand

Overall, Pontypool is a first-rate film, an amusing and clever look at a horror mainstay. There’s so much to like here, that i really do have to recommend it whole-heartedly. My only complaint, and it is a minor one is that on occasion the script can be a bit clunky, but nevertheless, in a genre as overdone as Zombie films, it stands out from a pretty mediocre field. Dig it up, and give it a whirl, but I warn you now, don’t expect a gorefest. Pontypool is a simple, exciting little film, and one that deserves recognition and far more acclaim than it has so far received. Overall, I give it 3 funky zombies out of 4.

I’ll finish off, by saying that I enjoyed this one so much, that I’m almost tempted to give Romero’s idiotic zombie on a horse western claptrap Survival of the Dead (fucking idiotic title) a shot.

Almost.

Until next time,

Jarv

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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

16 responses to “Post Millennial Trauma: Pontypool (2009)”

  1. Xiphos0311 says :

    I’m glad you finally got around to seeing this fine little gem of a movie, it is truly outstanding considering the drek that makes up most zombie flicks.

    Dude don’t watch Survival of the Dead, If you do I am going to laugh at you repeatedly and often when you start whinging about it, which I guarantee you will, since it’s fucking awful. It is probably the worst one of the bunch.

  2. Continentalop says :

    I’m going to thank Stuntcock Mike for turning me onto this film. While it didn’t completely blow me away (3 out of 4 for me too), I did thoroughly enjoy it and found it very smart, entertaining, and above all, entertaining.

    My only complaint? When a certain cute girl bites it (but that is also what makes it a good movie: making you feel for the victims).

  3. Col. Tigh-Fighter says :

    avoid Survival like the plague. I reviewed it Bale a while ago.

    Survival Of The Dead (2010) – Dir. George Romero
    2 Fists out of 5

    Ok, will the real George Romero please stand up. Because this watered down, lame, and embarrassing paint-by-number George Romero Zombie Film ™ will just not cut the mustard. How can you be moving backwards George?

    How can you go from the magnificence of Dawn and Day, and the really rather good Land, to the small and frankly un-original Diary and now Survival? The only good thing I can say about Survival is that it is not Diary. Leaving the seminal Night aside, how can a film maker from grand scale film making of Dawn, which is set in a huge shopping mall, with 100’s of Zombies, a genuine feeling of dread and total loss of the world, to this small, silly cowboy story?

    Survival takes place on an episode of Raw Hide, or Bonanza, with two warring clichés battling it out while the Man With No Name finds himself in the middle. Sorry Survival takes place on an island where the O’flynns, fresh from Ireland it seems, and the Muldoons (also from Ireland with that name, but not the accent) having been warring for generations. When the zombie apocoaypse happens, lead O’Flynne cliché wants to kill the Zombies, while lead Muldoon cliché wants to keep them as they might be cured. O’Flynn and some of his followers are exiled from Plum Island, off Delaware to the mainland where he rejoins the 21st century and makes a Youtube video telling survivors to come to Plum Island as they will be safe.

    The Man With No Name, sorry a band rogue soldiers (previously seen robbing the Diary kids) see the video, and in their stolen money truck,(because money will be so useful come the end of the world) set off to find this Island where they can live safe. O’Flynn and his followers have been living at the local docks where they have been robbing survivors of all their money and valuables before sending them off to Plum. There is a confrontation between the soldiers and the O’Flynns where the O’Flynns forget everything they must have learnt about Zombies in the past few weeks and most killed very stupidly, and the remaining survivors head off to Plum.

    On Plum they find the Muldoons have been enslaving zombies while they try to teach them to eat something other than food, as well as cook, deliver post, and plough the fields. One zombie even rides a horse all day long!! And it of course ends in a stupid stand off between the O’Flynn’s and the Muldoons. The Zombies get released. Everyone gets stupid and run into places where theyve left loads of Zombies. The obligatory man-gets-pulled-apart happens, and a stupid, stupid, stupid Old Coot-off occurs between lead O’Flynn and lead Muldoon where they of course kill each other.

    The depleted number of remaining soldiers leave to the mainland. The end. Oh yeah, Zombies now eat horses. Muldoon was right all along!!! Oooooooo!

    WTF? And this from the man who so vividly pained the ultimate collapse of civilisation in Dawn Of The Dead. It got me thinking about what made Dawn so good. And it is a genuine feeling that YOUR world could end like this. I could not relate to this silly episode of Bonanza at all. Crappy acting, clichéd characters, and frankly sub standard zombie make-up. Come back Sex Machine! All is forgiven! The blue zombies from Dawn, with their too red blood were FAR more scary than these grey zombies with bits stuck on. It seems George was just going through the motions. And god knows what Message ™ he was conveying with this one? Man will always fight other men? Men are stupid? Buggered if I know?

    Dawn just plain terrified me. The film opens with the lead actress in a TV studio booth looking sick with fear, while the TV pundits debate incredulously the ongoing end of the world. They end up in a shopping centre which they make safe, before a real depiction of how bad Man can be finally brought their paradise to an end. All recognisable, and genuinely believable, and the true pinacle of the Zombie apocalypse. How George got from here to Survival just amazes me. Its like he was going backwards. There were some nice bits. The ferry ride, and the soldiers stuff (on the whole) saved this from 1 fist. It got half an extra fist for 1 genuinely good death involving a fire extinguisher. But thats it. George Romero has left the building and some second rate pod person has replaced him and continue to make zombie films in his name.

  4. DocPazuzu says :

    Haven’t seen this yet, but I’ve always liked McHattie ever since I saw him as Jake Pasquinel in Centennial when I was but a wee lad. I’ll have to check out Pontypool as well.

  5. Jarv says :

    This brings me on to 2010. Fuck. Any good suggestions? Or do I go with Burning Bright?

  6. Droid says :

    Will check it out if I come across it.

    2010 you could go for The Crazies or Daybreakers. Burning Bright is a valid choice as well.

    • Jarv says :

      A good film- this one. Not what I was expecting at all. Very clever use of limited budget.

      Lovefilm has Burning Bright on free to air so I may just do that one again.

  7. ThereWolf says :

    Rented this from Lovefilm a few months ago and gave it a mention in the Rec Room. Fantastic film. McHattie is top.

    Coincidentally, the ‘Pontypool’ blu-ray dropped through my letterbox this morning courtesy of play.com.

    So impressed I had to own it.

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