Pontypool (2008)

OCTOBER 28, 2009


A while back, I transcribed an interview Mr. Disgusting conducted with the writer and director of Pontypool (which he never ran! Bastard!), and I was pretty baffled as I typed out what they were saying. A zombie virus that spreads by words? Kill is kiss? What the hell were they talking about? Now that I’ve seen it, it makes more sense, but I think the lesson to be learned is even more clear: never transcribe someone else’s interview.

Anyway, it’s a pretty terrific little thriller. The description (three people inside a radio station, merely talking about the zombie chaos occurring outside) might sound dull as dirt, but once you learn how people are being infected, it becomes pretty obvious that a radio station is the perfect setting for this particular story. See, as director Bruce Macdonald said, the “zombies” (he refers to them as “conversationists”) become that way not from a bite or some sort of airborne virus, but merely infected words that they hear and understand. Terms of endearment (“honey”, “sweetheart”, etc) seem to be the biggest culprits, so folks are advised to stay away from close family members and loved ones (what about truck stop waitresses?).

This, of course, presents the biggest problem for the characters - they are radio station personnel, trying to uphold their duty to tell their listeners what is going on, but yet are risking further infection simply by opening their mouths. The film’s biggest “oh shit” moment is when they receive a message in French and the radio DJ (Stephen McHattie, in a welcome non-villain, starring role) translates it live on the air, only to discover that the final part of the French message is “The English language is infected, do not translate this message.” D’oh!

The exact nature of the outbreak is a little fuzzy (I’m guessing the novel, which author Tony Burgess adapted himself, explains things a bit better), but it’s a fascinating concept all the same, and even with the limited setting, it still manages to pack in a number of good (if brief) zombie moments, particularly an out-of-nowhere fight between McHattie and a young child zombie. And the constant pounding at the door is just as terrifying (if not more so) than any typical zombie attack scene anyway, so in that department, it delivers.

It also delivers the rare zombie movie that has metaphorical ties to the real world, something wholly absent from many modern zombie flicks. In fact, I can draw many such parallels. Words being twisted into something evil is something religious fanatics more or less build their entire moronic foundation upon, and of course, in a FOX News world, the idea of people acting like animals simply because they heard someone shouting isn’t even remotely far-fetched. There is also a perverse sort of irony in the idea that this newscaster can best serve the people simply by shutting the fuck up. And Burgess is wise to not include any political, religious, or even social dialogue in the film itself; all conclusions are drawn and not forced down our throats like they would be if someone like Paul Haggis was directing this film.

Other than the slightly under-explained third act reveals, my only other issue with the film is the jarring and distracting dialogue about the radio team’s fourth member, the weather guy in the Skycopter. Apropos of nothing, we learn that he is not in a helicopter but in a Dodge Dart that he drives around near his hilltop home. And this is kind of OK because it’s just as good as any other reason for him to be on the ground (so that he can get infected easier), but later we also learn (again out of nowhere) that he’s a pedophile. What the hell does that have to do with anything? The guy is just a voice on the other end of a radio for the first half of the movie, and then he dies. Why the need for this little factoid?

I also disliked that Georgina Reilly’s screen-time was limited compared to McHattie and Lisa Houle (the Maura Tierney-esque station producer), because not only is she unbearably cute, but also she reminds me of Zoey from Left 4 Dead. I liked the idea of a character stepping out of the most frenetic zombie action “movie” of all time (each level of the game is designed like a movie, with its own poster and end credits and everything) into one of the most understated and stationary.

Sadly the current DVD (a “Blockbuster Exclusive!”) has no features beyond the trailer, but hopefully once it is released proper there will be a commentary track or a making of or whatever, as I would love to learn more about the story and also the film’s production (must have been a great day in the pitch room - “It’s a zombie movie without the zombies!”). I’d also love an explanation for the baffling, Sin City-esque post-credits scene that seems like McHattie and Houle playing a scene from a different movie entirely. In the meantime, you can bet your sweet bippy I’m gonna try to find Burgess’ novel.

What say you?

HorrorBlips: vote it up!


  1. What the hell? This is on DVD? I saw it at a theater that usually gets a lot of indie/foreign movies during a horror movie marathon earlier this month and decided that it was one of the luckiest things that's ever happened to me. Apparently not...

    I actually think it was kind of over-explained. Going in I didn't know anything about the cause of the zombies, and the first half was insanely freaky without an explanation. Once an explanation came, it contributed a lot to the metaphor but it dropped the tension.

  2. so it was a French conspiracy, huh? If they really wanted to help the English Speaking population, they should at least considering to put the "do not translate" warning AT THE BEGINNING OF THE MESSAGE, NOT AT THE END! Ever since I heard (no pun intended)of this movie I loved the concept, let´s hope it pays out.

  3. Not sure if it's actually Canadian or not, but it takes place in my Province, Ontario.

    This added greatly to the movie in my opinion.

  4. This sounds suspiciously like a Bill Moseley flick I heard of a while back called Dead Air... Odd, that.

  5. This sounds so intriguing! When I first read about it earlier this year I assumed the cause of the 'zombie' epidemic was through soundwaves. I had no idea it was connected to language itself. Very strange! Anyway, I hope to check this out soon - great review.

  6. I owe you a virtual cookie for mentioning that this DVD can be found at Blockbuster. I've been trying to track down a copy of this movie since I first heard about it in the spring and have had no luck. I overlooked Blockbuster due to obviousness.

    The BBC did a radio play version of it that was really good. An apt format for it to be presented in.

  7. OoooooooooOOOOOOOOOOOOOOooooooooooooh

  8. I completely agree with you about transcribing, it's the worst. Gotta check this movie out when it's no longer Blockbuster exclusive.

  9. A little history, if anyone's interested.

    The book came out in 98 or 99 and Bruce McDonald optioned it right away. He and Tony Burgess had been trying to get it off the ground for 8 or 9 years when CBC Radio (think Canadian version of NPR) approached McDonald to do a radio play. They came up with a script which took place in a radio station and decided, "Shit, let's shoot a movie from this script" and because it was so cheap relative to all the other drafts of the book that they had done, it was easy to get financing (btw, I saw McDonald speaking at last year's Festival of Fear and, though he didn't give an exact number, the ballpark range of the budget was between $1 and $1.5M) and they were shooting in a couple months (another BTW, this was shot in the basement of an old church that's being converted to condos, about 2 blocks from where I sit right now in Toronto...a fact that I learned about a week after it wrapped shooting. BOO!).

    The Canadian DVD has an audio commentary that I listened to part of, which is basically a story meeting between McDonald and Burgess going over the treatment for Pontypool 2. An aside, the movie is more "inspired by" the book than "based on". IIRC, none of the characters in the movie were in the book and the radio station isn't featured either. Pontypool is the first movie in a proposed trilogy, the second and third of which would be utilizing actual storylines from the book. The movies would be 'Pontypool', 'Pontypool Changes' and 'Pontypool Changes Everything' (which is the title of the book).

    The audio commentary is an interesting idea, but I would've preferred a more "normal" commentary, because a) Bruce is a terrific storyteller and b) this movie had a really interesting trip to the big screen which most people are probably completely unaware of. (I was fortunate enough to be at the Q&A he did at the FoF as well as seeing its world premiere at TIFF which he also did a Q&A after, so I've heard a shit ton of Pontypool stories that a lot of people would probably find very interesting.)

    The DVD also has the original radio play (which I'm assuming is the same play that Parker heard on the BBC), which I haven't sat down to listen to yet, but definitely want to.

  10. Doesn't the fact that the ending made no sense tell you exactly what it was there for? To cure any viewers that had been infected.

  11. SPOILER ALERT?? I have no idea what the post-credits, "Sin City" scene was about. Wish I did.
    I found it annoying. Some viewers believe it means they escaped the bombing of the studio. My impression was that they were in some sort of bizarre afterlife. I liked the way it looked, but I thought it was frustrating and stunk on toast. Just a cheat.

  12. Spoiler .
    I believe the way they escaped was through language. The Doctor sets it up earlier by saying the virus can bring itself through to reality through our understanding. So they may have died in the bombing, but by the way the credits end with the radio announcer repeating pontypool right before this scene might mean they created some sort of reality within the word.


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