Is a zombie movie still a zombie movie where there are no zombies in the movie? Sorry for the tongue twister, but it's an interesting question posed by the movie Pontypool. Director Bruce McDonald (Roadkill, Hardcore Logo) has stated that the people in Pontypool are not zombies. I would disagree. You don't need flesh chomping and brain eating to have a zombie movie. The true question would be “Is this a good horror movie?” The answer is a resounding “Hell yeah!”
Pontypool is a 2009 horror/psychological thriller starring Stephen McHattie (Watchmen, 2012) as grizzled radio DJ Grant Mazzy. Grant is a former shock jock and has been reduced to doing the morning radio in the tiny town of Pontypool, Ontario, Canada. He makes his way to the station early in the morning during a blizzard when a woman comes out of nowhere, women taps on his window, strangely repeating the same word over and over, before disappearing into the darkness. Grant's shock jock persona tries to break through during his show, but he is is reprimanded by his producer Sydney (Lisa Houle). They receive a call from their weatherman, Ken Loney, that a mob has surrounded the office of Dr. Menendez. He describes the carnage which causes numerous deaths and the inclusion of the army when he is abruptly cut off. They frantically try to confirm reports, but can't get anything conclusive. Ken calls back, this time from inside a grain silo when attacked by the teenage son of a local woman. The call is interrupted by a French transmission, which station assistant Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly) translates, telling people to remain indoors, refrain from using terms of endearment and the English language, and to not translate the message. Grant tries to leave the station, but is attacked by a horde of infected people, crushing up against the building. Laurel-Ann begins to demonstrate erratic behavior, fixating and repeating words and phrases over and over before completely freezing in place. At the same time, Dr. Menendez, who survived the initial onslaught, has crawled his way into the radio station and goes on air trying to explain exactly what is going on. He theorizes that a virus has found it's way into the English language, infecting certain words and then infecting humans. Laural-Ann, now infected, continuously slams into the radio booth, trying to get at Grant, Sydney and Dr. Menendez inside. The horde finally breaks into the radio station, and Dr. Menendez starts to succumb to the virus. How will Grant and Sydney survive?
"The golden tones of my voice will stop them!"
I don't say this often, but this movie is powerful. It's built on strong writing and even stronger performances. Stephen McHattie is fantastic in his role as a Don Imus-like DJ at the end of his rope, just trying to hang on to his former glory. He has been beaten down, but is still strong during this time of crisis, being the voice of the story and regaining what he used to be. So much of his performance is based on his facial expressions and tone in his voice, appropriate for a movie based more on words than actions. He's joined by a strong supporting cast in Lisa Houle and Georgina Reilly. Even Hrant Alianak who played Dr. Menendez was great, frantically slipping in and out of the virus's effects. Bruce McDonald does a good job directing with good wide and closeup shots which convey both the gravity of the situation and the emotion of the characters.
As I said earlier, Pontypool is most certainly a zombie movie. True, it doesn't have any real biting or even that much visual violence, but that's not really what's at the heart of most good zombie movies. The emotion and social commentary throughout the movie fits right in with such zombie classics as Night of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later. We are thrown right into the psychological maelstrom along with the characters, learning information bit by bit. The phone calls from Ken in the field, giving first hand accounts, was a really nice touch. There is some action, but I could have used some more. That's just the zombie fan in me wanting to see some arms ripped off and some head shots. There are some hints as to what and why things are happening, but we are never really given anything concrete. I would have liked a little more explanation, just to satisfy my own curiosity, but it doesn't hinder the story.
It's a radical look, but it works for you
Pontypool succeeds because of the fantastic acting, great writing, and really solid directing. Stephen McHattie puts on a particularly good performance that makes the movie work. The audience is taken on a terrifying emotional roller coaster without ever really seeing much violence or leaving the radio station. While not your usual zombie film, it has all the elements that make a zombie movie what it should be. If you're looking for lots of blood, guts, and violence, this movie isn't for you. If you're looking for a smart, creative take on the zombie genre, Pontypool is a must-see. Maybe it's because I'm a radio DJ, but I loved this movie.