Movies Reviews Bruce McDonald

Release Date: May 29

Director: Bruce McDonald

Writer: Tony Burgess

Cinematographer: Miroslaw Baszak

Starring: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly

Studio/Run Time: IFC Films, 95 mins.

Talk-radio zombies from Canada

In the wee hours, in the snow-covered Canadian village of Pontypool, DJ Grant Mazzy begins his nightly radio show. The children are asleep, the insomniacs and third-shifters are tuned in, and, if the bizarre reports coming into the station are to be believed, zombies are gradually taking over the town. Mazzy is a deep-voiced, veteran shock jock, a cowboy-hat-wearing troublemaker whose radio show—by his own admission—works best when it pisses people off. As Mazzy explains, a pissed-off listener doesn’t switch stations, plus he might even call his friends and get them mad, too, and when this simple talk-radio strategy of viral anger finds its eerie parallel in a zombie epidemic, Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool begins to throb with horror-tinged social commentary. This epidemic—or whatever it is—spreads not through neck bites or brain suck but through something far more common, something in the air between you and me.

Rarely straying from the interior of the radio station, Pontypool feeds its characters (and us) information through phoned-in reports. The floating camera is trained on Mazzy when the traffic reporter dials in from his chopper, and it watches the surprised exchanges between the DJ and his engineer when terrified citizens call with unbelievable stories. The station is in the eye of the storm; it’s both a receiver and a broadcaster, and—get this—it’s housed in the basement of a church.

As a story told in fragments, Pontypool works much better than McDonald’s previous film, The Tracey Fragments (unless Ellen Page was actually playing a zombie in that film instead of just another disaffected teen). He builds such perfectly modulated suspense that the film provokes not only curiosity about what’s going to happen but also ideas about what it all means. It’s horror of the imagination, much like Orson Welles’ classic radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds but in reverse; if the epidemic is a hoax, the broadcasters are among the victims. Should they look out their windows or rely on unknown third parties to bring them the news; are they primary source reporters or mere aggregators?

More provocative still is the potent idea that words are powerful and dangerous, that information corrupts, inspires, subverts, and engages us, and that it may even encourage us to eat our peers with fava beans and fine Chianti.

With unseen and barely heard threats Pontypool holds the tension, but when those elements eventually show up on the screen as blood and carnage, the movie begins to feel like the inside of a package that was better left wrapped. It’s the sort of disappointment that some people felt at the end of The Blair Witch Project, but Pontypool’s conclusion offers food for thought—so to speak—that may not be obvious until some time later. In its final third the film makes a very subtle but irreversible shift in perspective. Does it happen when Mazzy leaves the safe, warm confines of the booth to venture into well-traveled movie territory? Or when he listens to a recording from the BBC? Or when he conflates the words “kill” and “kiss?” Or when one character physically attacks an infected individual? I won’t say, but sensing and respecting that shift is the key to the film’s ending. It’s a thinking man’s zombie movie, a satisfyingly weird piece of filmmaking that feels like it could have been made 50 years ago, would have been particularly relevant ten years ago, and still hums in the age of blogs and YouTube.

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