Throwback Thursday: Pontypool (2009)

Back in 2009, I had lots more free time than I do today.  I would spend good chunks of my day aimlessly surfing the online zombie boards and forums, as the undead were quite huge back then and I was in the prime of my zombie-centric writing career.  Ah, those were the days… but as I rooted around online back then, I kept stumbling across the same word, a word that didn’t make any sense to me: Pontypool. It’s a funny-sounding word, and it’s also the title of a zombie movie that had generated a good amount of buzz from the people that had seen it.

Well, you know me: if there’s a new zombie movie/book/game/comic out there that has a chance to entertain me, I’m gonna do my darndest to go out and find it. After a quick little search, I was able to snag a copy from a media-swapping site of which I was a member (man, those really WERE the good old days!), and when the disc (so retro!) arrived I popped it in, eager to see what I had in store for me during my first viewing.  I enjoyed the movie so much, that I still have the DVD to this day, and watch it as regularly as I can.

‘Pontypool’ is a very different kind of zombie film, and I have to give its creators credit for giving the world a movie that feels so familiar yet so unique. Based on Tony Burgess’ novel Pontypool Changes Everything, Burgess himself helped adapt this tale of a small Canadian town, the titular Pontypool, that over the course of one day endures a maddening and frightening outbreak that turns its residents into violent killers.

Throwback Thursday: Pontypool (2009)

The one-sentence synopsis above really doesn’t do justice to this film’s intriguing plot. The “virus” in question is actually an audio virus, being passed from person to person via a certain phrase or string of words, apparently only spoken in English, that essentially makes the person who hears the phrase forget the meaning of that phrase but go insane trying to remember. According to director Bruce McDonald in a 2008 interview, “There are three stages to this virus. The first stage is you might begin to repeat a word. Something gets stuck. And usually, it is words that are terms of endearment, like ‘sweetheart’ or ‘honey.’ The second stage is your language becomes scrambled and you can’t express yourself properly. The third stage is you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation, you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.” Sound gruesome enough for you? Many would argue whether this movie truly falls under the definition of a “zombie movie,” since the infected folks (ridiculously termed as “conversationalists” by Burgess) aren’t actually dead.

The plot of the film centers around the four-person morning radio talk show team of producer Sydney Briar, assistant Laurel-Ann Drummond, “roving reporter” Ken Loney, and the on-air star of the show, Grant Mazzy. Mazzy, played brilliantly by great character actor Steven McHattie, is a former “shock jock” talk radio personality at what is implied to be a larger radio station in a different town, and he has been disgraced for some reason and apparently this is the only job he could find. Through the workings of the morning radio show, the audience is exposed to the onset of the virus: Ken Loney (in a funny recurring bit about giving traffic reports from his “Sunshine Chopper” which, in actuality, is just him driving around in his Dodge Dart) gives detailed audio descriptions of the various scenes, starting first as confusion about a possible riot and growing in intensity and violence as the film goes on.

It’s through this delivery of information that this movie may excite some viewers and turn off others because much of the violence and action happens off-screen and is told to the other characters (and in turn, the viewers) via a “third-person” perspective. We get the fairly unique viewpoint of seeing these other characters be just as confused as we are and watch as they try to work through what’s happening. At the same time, however, this way of telling a story, with most of the “exciting stuff” happening off-screen and just hearing about instead of getting to see it (I call it the ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Early Years’ effect), can be a turn-off to many viewers who may see this style of storytelling as nothing more than a cop-out on the part of the creators of the film in an attempt to save on budget and production costs. Ultimately, it’s up to you as the viewer to decide if this is a style of movie that you feel that you would enjoy.

Avid Throwback Thursday readers will no doubt know by now that I do enjoy a good zombie film in general, and I particularly like finding a gem that is “off the beaten path,” and I did enjoy ‘Pontypool’ very much. The DVD box for the movie proudly proclaims that a reviewer from Entertainment Weekly dubbed this film “one of the best 25 zombie movies of all time;” I have a little bit of trouble putting it quite that high, mostly due to the lack of on-screen gore, the ending that feels not only rushed but lacking any real explanation for the virus, and the “WTF?!” coda after the credits, but the performances from the cast are incredibly strong and the overall viewing experience is a very positive one.

I’m not sure, prior to seeing ‘Pontypool, that I had ever met a zombie movie where the virus was passed orally, so the movie definitely scores pretty high in the “originality” category. Being a DJ and Emcee myself for over two decades now, I love the primary setting of the movie being a radio station, and I think the way the movie conveys information about the outbreak via the radio waves is very original as well, even if everyone may not agree that it’s the most effective method of telling a story. I will detract just a few points here, however, for discovering that ‘Pontypool’ sounds litigiously similar to a 1986 episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ titled “Need to Know.” I won’t go into particulars here, since no kind of “creative plagiarism” has ever been legally proven, but feel free to visit the Wikipedia pages of either this movie or the ‘Twilight Zone’ episode if you wish to know more.

While the cast certainly does give realistic performances, it’s the situational plot points of the film that hurt the tale overall. Questions about the nature of the virus and exactly how it is spreading are left frustratingly vague, and it seems like some of these questions are left unanswered because the creators simply didn’t have an answer. In addition, the plague strikes two of the main characters; when it strikes the first, the other characters seem to almost be content to let this character go crazy and hurt herself and others, but when the second character succumbs, she is given immediate attention and the pressing urgency of “curing” her right away. Why the severe shift in tone of how these characters are treated? It’s most likely due to the convenience of the storytelling: the first character is struck down during the central, “full-on mayhem” part of the movie, and the second character is affected at the climax of the film, lending the latter scene more towards the “understanding the virus” part of the plot. It’s inconsistencies like these that detract from an otherwise very realistic and grounded viewing experience.

‘Pontypool’ moves along at a very brisk clip, and with a 95-minute total run time, I never felt bored. The film loses some points in the editing department, due to the extreme amount of violence (and the corresponding gore and effects) that happens off-screen, feeling like a missed opportunity. There is some carnage shown, however, and the visuals are serviceable. The scene after the credits, in my humble opinion, detracts from the overall feel of the movie, and I feel the editors should have left this one out – the director and writer don’t even attempt to explain the scene in the “Director’s Commentary” track of the DVD, electing instead to yammer on about something else entirely unrelated! Hello, frustration!

All in all, ‘Pontypool’ is a very unique entry into the horror genre, flitting on the boundary of what most would define as a “zombie movie.” The cast is strong and the story is intriguing, so if you can deal with a little confusion in your movies, this one is definitely worth checking out.