Contains mild spoilers.
More a psychological horror thriller than zombie film, Pontypool is a tightly focused drama that focuses on disgraced local small town disc jockey Grant Mazzy played by Stephen McHattie and his small team as they follow and broadcast the Canadian town's average winter morning, of school bus delays and traffic congestion, descend into chaos. Adapted from Tony Burgess' novel Pontypool Changes Everything, Pontypool is a philosophically ambitious attempt at something genuinely new and terrifying and whilst requiring a certain suspension of disbelief pulls off an entertaining yarn that certainly raises a few metaphysical questions.
Even early in their shift it becomes clear to the new morning anchor Mazzy, his producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) and technical assistant Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly) that the morning's usual routine is going to be anything but mundane and normal. Supping on his morning whiskey Mazzy responds initially by making fun of what he perceives to be a small town drunken hostage situation but as more reports file in, his old hunger and tenacity start to surface with a desire to connect the dots and find out what's really happening.
The dynamic between tired and brow-beat maverick and controversial Mazzy, reduced to finishing off his days as a small time radio DJ, and a confident but fragile divorcee producer Briar constantly keeping him in check is tried and tested but works. The acting is confident and whilst the characters are well portrayed, a lack of urgency and panic especially during some of the more intense latter scenes did dismantle some of the credulity a touch.
The slow safe build up soon ups the ante with weather and traffic helicopter reporter Ken Loney first calling in to talk of rioting citizens laying siege to a nearby local doctor's surgery and later of herds of mumbling, chanting, naked wild animal like citizens roaming the streets searching out survivors to tear and apart and eat.
It certainly sounds like a zombie film at this point, having the word zombie quoted on the cover, but it's clear from the outset that the victims are infected and not dead and resurrected. Always a good debate I'm a bit of a purist and although they're incoherent mindless monsters with a desire for live flesh, the fact that there's no surviving death and no head shots as a final solution, zombies for me they are not. Also while I'm always happy to broaden the definition of zombie to describe creatures exhibiting zombie like behaviour it's not quite good enough for me to call this a zombie film and I'd put Pontypool in the same category as The Crazies. Even director Bruce McDonald stressed the victims of the virus aren't zombies and he called them conversationalists.
What stands Pontypool apart from other infected-people-going -a-bit-loopy films like The Crazies is the nature and transmission of the virus. There's no chemical spill, lab breakout, or even evil darkness. Burgess has put forward the unique notion that the infection is spread through language, more specifically, through conversation and the transference of an idea. At the point of understanding, of knowing an infected-trigger word or phrase, the infection/virus/parasite pops into existence in the host. Philosophically the idea is fascinating; outside consciousness and language the infection doesn't exist but somehow as the infected-idea encapsulated by a key word or phrase is passed from infected to victim, the reality of it is also shared. Without the structure and bounds of language, consciousness and understanding it couldn't exist yet as the parasite or the idea of the infection isn't transferred but comes into reality when the idea is realised it must already be ever-present. It's certainly a play with the philosophy of language, consciousness and reality and depending on how you take it could just as well as being seen as a clever metaphysical, yet inherently terrifying, paradoxical conundrum, or as a right load of old tosh...
The film carries across its origins as a radio play and feels like a drama set almost exclusively in the few rooms of the radio station. Just like the station crew, the viewer is never granted shots of the world outside to confirm what is taking place and this restriction to the same information allows the same feelings of confusion and doubt to transfer. Really demonstrating what can be accomplished with a limited budget McDonald puts to shame many horror films that either fail with too much ambition or too much low grade special effect. It's a clever authentic tight little narrative and, despite the single set and small cast, moves with good pace and never becomes tiring.
Initially disappointed I'd picked another nearly-but-not-quite zombie film, I enjoyed Pontypool because of and despite of all it's existential tomfoolery. With a well presented narrative, established three dimensional characters and tight professional production that looks glorious in high definition there's a lot to recommend, but in some respects the very things that make the film a success also hold it back. As well as a lack of real action, the single scene environment restrains the narrative and any feeling that the problems could be really be apocalyptic in scale. Also it's never really that scary and whilst the scenes with the infected are well presented and shocking they are infrequent and let down by the survivors' subdued reaction to them. A tight slow paced psychological mind-fuck. Think of a number, got it? 7/10.