If you enjoy zombie films and you haven’t seen Pontypool, move it to the top of your queue. The film tells the story of a strange outbreak of violence in the eponymous town in northern Ontario. All the action takes place inside the radio station that serves the town, relying on the old Shakespearean trick of having the best events occur off-stage(screen) and be relayed to us. It’s incredible to have such an intense movie where much of the screen time is filled with people in headphones looking confused, frightened, or both.
A few thoughts:
- The innovation in Pontypool is to make the zombie virus linguistic — it spreads through speech. So to listen is to endanger yourself, to talk is to endanger others. It’s really a frightening idea that plays with some of the very basic things we think about how we communicate. The use of violence in the movie is also excellent, putting minimal imagery to maximum effect. In that way, this is much like an old-school horror movie, with lots of buildup and suspense.
- I couldn’t help but think of the passages in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash about the linguistic divide of literate versus pre-literate people in which it’s suggested that the Tower of Babel myth refers to an actual event that finally broke the herd communication of humans and allowed for the individual ego to emerge. The violent people in Pontypool seem to travel in herds.
- It’s also very much like a radio play. One of my students was inspired by this film (he’d seen it before we watched it in class) to make a War of the Worlds-style broadcast depicting the beginning of a zombie outbreak in downtown Chicago.
- The best part of the movie is the wizened, crackly face of Stephen McHattie as the deejay Grant Mazzy, who reminds me a lot of Fred Ward. McHattie embodies the outsider perspective (being new to the community) and has enough life and verve to carry all those scenes of him staring into a microphone while he listens to the reports coming in over phone and wire.
- Finally, Pontypool engages with the question of how the media covers disasters. Early in the film, Mazzy and his cohorts report on an incident without being able to confirm any of the events or really knowing what’s going on. Throughout the movie, there’s a constant tension between the need for reporters to “let people know what’s going on” and the risk of doing so without adequate information about the events they’re covering. It wouldn’t be hard to connect the notion of the zombie outbreak to the kinds of mass hysteria that emerge during chaotic times.
If you watch it, be sure to watch through to the end of the credits.