Valentine’s Day is upon us, and as we’re doing our annual rewatches of My Bloody Valentine (both versions—don’t skimp) or 2001’s Valentine, it’s important to remember that we have another holiday-appropriate horror movie to add to the fun. And it’s a film that happens to be celebrating its 15th birthday this year. Happy birthday to Pontypool, a zombie film that doesn’t get nearly enough attention, despite the fact that it brings a truly unique vision to the table.
Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008, Pontypool is a zombie movie like no other. Like other recent favorites (Blood Quantum, Train to Busan), it puts its own stamp on the material and creates something memorable. It rethinks the idea of what makes a zombie, taking the things we know and love about the mythology and bending them into a different form to create something unique, while still paying tribute to the things that make this genre its own.
Directed by Bruce McDonald, the film is based on Tony Burgess’ novel Pontypool Changes Everything, with Burgess returning to pen the screenplay. The story takes place one dreary Valentine’s Day in the small town of Pontypool, Ontario, Canada. Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) is a shock jock radio personality who has recently started a job on the local radio station after having been fired from the big leagues. He does the morning show from the local church basement with the station manager, Sydney (Lisa Houle) and the technical assistant, Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly). Grant is 100 percent a big fish in a small pond. He wants to bring his A-game to his work and ruffle as many feathers as possible. But his take-no-prisoners attitude isn’t exactly what Sydney thinks the small town wants, and the pair periodically butt heads.
This seemingly ordinary day takes a dark turn when they begin to receive reports of violent outbreaks throughout Pontypool. First, they hear about a hostage situation across town. Several minutes later, they hear about an angry mob destroying a doctor’s office. A number of witnesses report the violent crowds chanting strange things. Death reports start to pour in. The sleepy radio station suddenly becomes the information hub for the entire area. Sydney and Laurel-Ann try desperately to confirm what they are hearing, and Grant is working to convey it all over the airwaves.
What they slowly begin to piece together is that Pontypool has become ground zero for some sort of virus. It’s a new virus—a strange one that is based in language and spreads through words. Once infected, a person will first begin to stumble with their speech, usually getting caught up on a word or two. Then they begin rambling incoherently, trying fiercely to express themselves but are unable to do so. Finally, they become violent, attacking others in their immediate vicinity, all the while unable to express their thoughts.
As the virus continues to spread, the radio station becomes surrounded by the mindless infected of Pontypool. Grant and Sydney struggle to stay calm and figure out how to keep themselves safe and transmit any help to the outside world. In a compelling final act, Grant’s take-no-prisoners style finds a perfect match with the events at hand, as he takes heroic measures to curb the spread of the virus.
The nature of this virus is what makes Pontypool interesting and different from other virus-based movies like 28 Days Later. It’s not simply a flu that makes everyone lose their minds. It’s something that attacks the language center of the brain and then continues to spread through spoken word and specifically the English language. It’s fascinating and strangely effective, especially when we see the virus begin to take hold. Hearing the characters suffering from getting tangled in their own words and slowly succumbing to the virus is just as chilling as seeing them turn due to a bite or a wound. We can hear their mind going as they can no longer string sentences together and eventually dissolve into nothing but violent instinct.
This angle lends itself well to the way the story is told. This is a film set in a single location—the radio station. As the terror and destruction escalate across town, we are hearing it, alongside Grant and Sydney, through calls that come in to report on the chaos. We don’t see anything. The only visuals we get as the events unfold are dolly shots around the station, focusing on the faces of our main characters, and the occasional shots of sound waves appearing on monitors as the station broadcasts the incoming calls. McDonald really harnesses the imagination of his audiences and allows us to fill in the blanks with the most horrifying visuals that we can think of. It works so well. It’s a truly minimal horror story about a large-scale event, but most of the action takes place offscreen.
I always have fun with horror movies that think outside the box, and I love how Pontypool tells a zombie story through a largely auditory format and focuses that story on language. Language itself almost becomes a character in this film, and the actors put so much emphasis on the vocal work in their performances, particularly Stephen McHattie, whose turn as Grant Mazzy is excellent. The film opens with a segment in which Grant does some clever turns of phrase that center on the word “Pontypool.” This scene touches heavily on the nature of words and language that will later be explored in the events of the story, but at this point in the proceedings, it serves more as an auditory and conceptual introduction to the events to come.
Because the story is so auditory in nature, it really has the feeling of a radio play. In fact, McDonald and Burgess produced a radio play (directed by Gregory J. Sinclair) in conjunction with the film and it can still be found on YouTube. I checked it out for the first time in preparation for this article and I have to say it was terrifying—a very different experience from the film, even though it is largely put together from the film’s audio.
Each iteration of Pontypool is independently fascinating because each iteration of Pontypool is completely different from the others. Burgess’ novel touches on these themes, but it is nothing like the film in terms of structure. He deconstructs the concept of a novel with his writing, so it loses the standard plot arcs and character developments in favor of something far less standardized. The radio play was produced alongside the filming of the movie. It follows the same plot structure, but it deviates wildly in the final few minutes. It’s one of those cases where experiencing any individual piece of media will create a completely different experience from the others.
Pontypool is a must-see for zombie fans, linguistics nerds, radio geeks, and fans of low-budget horror. It really has it all. If this is a film that you still haven’t checked out, add it to your Valentine’s Day viewing this year. It’s creative, scary, and it definitely deserves your attention.