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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Until next time,