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The Old-Fashioned Horror and New-Fashioned Zombies of Pontypool

Posted November 19, 2015

Ken I don't get anything right now 170I probably shouldn’t fret too much about spoilers discussing Bruce McDonald’s 2008 film Pontypool. The movie’s tagline, “Shut up or die,” is arguably a spoiler. And the novel it was based on, Tony Burgess’ Pontypool Changes Everything, has been around for 20 years. My personal bias is that you can’t spoil a good story anyway, although Pontypool isn’t exactly a story. It’s more like a model, the kind geologists and generals use to figure out what happens next when something goes terribly, terribly wrong. But I went into the film blind, and I enjoyed the gradual thawing of the mystery behind a freakish zombie outbreak in a rural Canadian town, almost as much as I enjoy watching it again, knowing how the model is going to run, highlighting undercurrents and signifiers everywhere. I really can’t recommend the film enough, so you might consider watching it now, if you want to do so spoiler-free and have that thawing experience. From here on, we’ll have spoilers up to our elbows.

So, Pontypool is nominally a zombie movie, albeit a zombie movie without the zed word and actually not that many zombies or that much gore. It’s also a siege film, like quite a lot of zombie-based horror films tend to be: heroes holed up in a safehouse, in this case a radio station, while the exponents of a dangerous world shudder the walls with blows. In that, Pontypool  is impressively economical, and I suspect a small theater company could adapt it for the stage without significant alteration. It was, in fact, also produced as a CBC radio play. There are four principal characters; five, if you count Ken Loney’s remote, audio-only updates from the Sunshine Chopper. There are only two exterior scenes, and the movie could live a full, normal life without them. But none of that is to say Pontypool is a conventional zombie movie, or a conventional anything movie. It’s pregnant with ideas, ambiguities, and a provocative twist on a zombie plague that becomes increasingly relevant as we live our lives more in bandwidth than in body. And for a movie about a very modern plague, it inspires dread with an absolutely vintage approach.

The first thing that we see in the film is what we hear: radio morning guy Grant Mazzy’s big, warm voice flexing in a waveform as he playfully riffs on homophones for “Pontypool” in French, a lost cat, and Norman Mailer.

That’s Stephen McHattie as our charismatic, big city shock jock who’s become the voice of Pontypool only because he has no better offers. It’s tempting to dwell on how good McHattie’s work was in this, especially how amazing his voice is, and good thing, too. In this curiously intimate zombie movie, we depend on his reactions to cue many of our own. Author Tony Burgess also served as screenwriter, and he originally envisioned the entire film focusing just on Grant’s face, a zombie movie done in the style of Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” video. It’s probably good that they actioned it up a bit and expanded the focus to several other characters, but the core still resides with Grant, our reliable narrator in an suddenly unreliable world.

The burgeoning crisis is revealed to us in deliberate degrees. Against a background of Grant himself reading obituaries on the radio, Grant argues with his agent while driving through near-zero visibility and early morning darkness. It’s neat how the blizzard outside both acts as practical, physical unpleasantness to hem our protagonists in and also drapes the town in a kind of visual static, because communication and its corruption are big important themes here. Grant has pulled over for a moment and is picking up his ringing phone when a woman melts out of the darkness, well-dressed, but not for a blizzard. She smacks his passenger side window and pleads muffled words at him. When he rolls down the window, she retreats into the snow and darkness, leaving Grant gaping in disbelief. Probably you, too. It’s weird. This first is the most innocuous manifestation of Pontypool’s zombies.

There’s a brief break from the creepiness once we follow Grant into the interior world of the radio station. In this modest domain, he is king of the castle, even if he’s also a little bit of a stranger. First we meet Laurel-Ann, at first blush a pretty, slightly meek young woman, although she occupies the non-traditionally pretty or meek roles of the engineer on Grant’s show and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. Actress Georgina Reilly transmits Laurel-Ann’s quiet capability and a hint of a crush on Grant mostly from the periphery. The other half of the movie really belongs to Grant’s producer, Sydney Briar, played by Lisa Houle. I also want to note that Sydney is a perfect avatar of how women in authority are too often understood in movies and in life: no fun. But if you’ve ever actually managed people in any capacity, you’re going to immediately grok Sydney’s whole thing. She is responsible, dammit. Quit screwing around. Sydney is exasperated with Grant’s cavalier attitude toward her community and their listeners and comes into the studio braced to corral Grant into doing his job. In a different movie, Grant and Sydney would be ideally positioned for a workplace romance.

Grant begins the show gestalting about the weird encounter he had on the way to the studio, asking listeners, “When do you call 911?” But between Grant’s rhetorical flourishes and Ken Loney’s traffic report from the Sunshine Chopper, other weird stories start to trickle into Mazzy in the Morning. Grant wants to dwell on these strange, sensational incidents, but Sydney restrains him, insisting on good journalism before good storytelling. Besides being true to the characters, this works well for pacing, keeping information about the epidemic spreading through Pontypool tantalizingly sparse and out of focus. Like Grant, we know that this isn’t normal end-of-fishing-season hijinks going on, but Sydney is going to rationalize it. Like Grant, we want to dump the school closings list and talk about it, but Sydney is going to make us wait for confirmation.

When confirmation starts coming, it has pent-up momentum. Ken Loney – who we learn is not actually in the Sunshine Chopper, but sitting in his car on top of a hill, doing the traffic report along to canned sound effects to simulate being in a helicopter  – witnesses Dr. Mendez’s office being overrun by zombies and is confronted with military roadblocks. His remote reports will become increasingly unhinged and dreadful as he runs and hides for his life. Sydney learns they are under quarantine. Grant freaks out and storms out of the station, briefly, before a crowd of zombies force him back in. Dr. Mendez finds refuge at the station, bringing a valuable infusion of exposition with him; he has been up close and personal with the zombies and is the one who explains the syndrome is caused by a virus, a virus that lurks in language itself, unlocking once an innocuous word, seemingly any word – “honey,” “sample,” “u-boat,” “breathe,” “missing” — is understood, causing the victim to become possessed with compulsions that are at once suicidal and homicidal.

This brings me to one of my favorite things about the movie, if not my favorite thing. In Pontypool, we are an audience to an audience. I know that sounds less than compelling, but it works incredibly well here, and though I don’t believe this was intentional, it reminds me of how even being an audience member evolves with technology. The equivalent 2-screen experience here isn’t your TV and your smartphone; it’s Ken Loney’s sobbing voice and Grant’s staring eyes. Pontypool isn’t self-consciously meta like the opening movie theater scene in Scream 2, but it mines the same dynamic, a horror movie audience watching an audience to horror. After all, we see very little primary evidence of the virus throughout the film. We get mile markers for its progress secondhand, filtered principally by Grant. Even when zombies do eventually break into the radio station, you see more of our main characters’ fear and repulsion than close-up zombie pathology. There is a harrowing series of scenes after Laurel-Ann succumbs and repeatedly tries to break into the soundbooth, disfiguring herself in the process. “Oh, this will get vicious,” Dr. Mendez observes, as she squares herself to assault the glass. His grim dispassion comes with being a scientist experienced with this phenomenon, but it would be as appropriate if he were in the front row of, say, Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

I mentioned Pontypool qualifies as a siege movie, but just as it’s not a conventional zombie movie, it skips over the usual turning inward you’ll find in classic examples like Night of the Living Dead, From Dusk Till Dawn, Tremors, Aliens…OK, all of them. I mean the point in all of these movies where characters must confront the monsters beneath their own skin — old resentments, gender/racial prejudices, opportunism, and plain old cowardice. There is a brief bit of friction between Sydney and Grant, but it’s actually one of the film’s moments of comic relief, as they argue in French about which of them killed an infected girl and who should kill the apparently-infected Dr. Mendez.  It’s remarkable because this omission keeps the relationship between the audience and the radio station witnesses pure. The virus is always the only real threat, and frankly, it’s enough of one.

Grant what are we doing

I was so fascinated by the effective focus of the film through this referred audience lens, I wondered how Pontypool Changes Everything depicted so much witnessing. Short answer: it doesn’t. While the novel describes in broad strokes the same situation – the language-dwelling virus ravaging Canada, making people zombies – nothing in the film is taken directly from the book. The book’s focus is absolutely metastatic compared to the film. It spreads, it mutates, and it renews itself. Also different: while the etiology of the virus receives the lion’s share of attention and characters even get to a point of living with it, the novel never sets its characters on a path to a cure like we get in the film. So instead of taking a ride through to the natural last act of a zombie outbreak, we follow dead end after dead end of an unknowable network of victims into the virus’s uncertain future. The sole two shared characters, Grant Mazzy and Dr. Mendez, exist as mirror universe versions of themselves in an incompatible chronology with the film, their individual fates totally reshuffled for the movie.

I loved the novel no less though and was surprised at the gorgeous, challenging texture of the language throughout, which was as integral to the effectiveness of this version of the virus as tight reaction shots of Grant Mazzy had been in Pontypool. I read one reviewer dismiss it as pretentious, and it certainly doesn’t always meet you where you live, but I found it purposeful, not preening. After I finished, I found out Tony Burgess wrote it on the heels of completing a degree in semiotics, so there was as much critical theory as zombies shambling through all that clever text, too. But the many differences also demonstrate the extent to which Burgess rethought Pontypool for a different medium and arrived at a referred audience experience as the best way to achieve the same effects, even if that meant changing everything about Pontypool Changes Everything.

Sydney remorse

The language-based virus itself deserves a lot of metaphor scrying, but what I responded to in the film version was really this superior invocation of classic horror film technique – quite a lot of purely reaction shot-based horror before Technicolor ran red with Hammer blood – combined with the venerable tradition of just being told weird, grim tales. Careful pacing and just the right punctuation of blood spatter joins these elements in a very satisfying and endlessly rewatchable whole. If you’d like to see…or listen…or see Grant Mazzy listening for yourself,  Pontypool is available on all your favorite physical media, and you can also currently find it streaming on Netflix.


Please welcome our new Horror Editor, Angela Englert! Angela reviews horror and b-movies at The Lost Highway and co-hosts the Horrible Imaginings podcast, the official podcast of San Diego’s Horrible Imaginings Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @mechaangela. Angela has never experienced a zombie horde while on-air, but she has a Grant Mazzy-suitable fedora hanging in her studio should the need arise.

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