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Pontypool is the name of a small town in Ontario. Grant Mazzy (the underrated Stephen McHattie) has been consigned to a small news radio station there for his sins. His reputation as a “take no prisoners” on-air personality doesn’t mesh well with Canadian Mayberry politics, and his harried producer Sydney (Lisa Houle) is trying to ease this squarest of pegs into the station’s round hole.
This snowy Valentines Day morning, however, something is up. Their traffic reporter (who Sydney admits is not in a helicopter, just a guy on a hill with some binoculars) sights a crowd of people mobbing and destroying a doctor’s practice, then moving on, destroying and killing anything in their path. There is nothing on the news wire, and the station has to rely on phoned-in eyewitness reports. The possibility that this may be a hoax is ruled out when the mob actually reaches the station.
Pontypool started life as a novel, Pontypool Changes Everything, and then a radio play, a format in which the story likely soared. The ever-growing mob aren’t really zombies, though; they are in the grip of a virus that transmits itself through spoken language. That’s not a totally new or original concept, but it is a difficult one to get across in a visual medium. The doctor whose practice was destroyed (Hrant Alianak) manages to escape to the station, and gives voice to the exposition, if not an explanation for the phenomenon.
There may be something of an explanation slyly buried in the story: a warning message in French that breaks into the station’s frequency and cell phone calls. Reports that military forces are moving in to the area. The government seems very prepared for this particular emergency. And not, as a BBC reporter opines, because of the area’s “secessionist tendencies”.
Confining the story to a single radio station gives us the requisite claustrophobia for our zombie siege, but it also means the movie is going to depend heavily on the acting chops of the small cast, and they are uniformly more than up to this task (I haven’t mentioned Georgina Reilly as the doomed assistant producer, and I should). The story begins to flag somewhat in its final act, though there is some cleverness when our survivors figure out that English seems to be the only language that’s a carrier, and have to rely on their limited knowledge of French.
However, I really appreciate that the filmmakers found a way to continue the story under the final credits crawl.
Overall, Pontypool is a pleasant surprise, a very unusual zombie picture managing to be both thoughtful and frequently harrowing, exploiting the theater of the mind in a way that movies rarely ever attempt.