Posted by Holly
Director: Bruce McDonald
I’ll be the first one to admit it: I’m getting a little tired of zombie stories. There was a point in time where I was following The Walking Dead, watching the new films that came out, and even writing in the genre a bit. Eventually, I reached maximum capacity on them and lost interest almost entirely. Unless something truly feels unique in a zombie story, they tend to leave me a bit cold (cue rim shot); rebranding themselves as “infection” films isn’t really enough, and there haven’t been all that many that have gained my attention in recent years.
Pontypool, a film based on a novel by Tony Burgess, did something I was not expecting: it managed to rejuvinate my interest in the genre, and expand my idea of what an infection story could strive to be.
Pontypool is the story of a small Ontario town and the local radio station that broadcasts from there. Grant Mazzy is a radio personality for the station, and seems disenchanted with the dull humdrum of small town life and clashes with the producer of his show, Sydney, due to her apparent dislike of his crass radio personality. On his way to work, he sees a woman out in the middle of a blizzard who seems disturbed and in distress; when he attempts to stop and help her, all she can do is repeat his words and flee, leaving Grant unnerved. However, when Grant reaches the studio, things start to take an even darker turn.
One of the things that struck me most while watching this is the interesting narrative format it takes. The film takes place entirely at the studio; in fact, most of the action takes place off screen for the first hour of the film, and the information is primarily relayed second hand. Mishandled, this could be a disastrous choice, leaving the audience with nothing but stale interactions with characters who rarely leave their seats, only allowing us to wonder about the action going on outside. Instead, this film manages to cultivate a huge amount of tension – rather than focusing on what we’re not seeing, we’re able to empathize with the fear of the main characters, who are cut off from any real information, other than calls coming in from their traffic correspondent. These calls are absolutely chilling, and do more to create a terrifying atmosphere than anything they might have put to film would have.
Conceptually, this is a story that takes something that is innate to most people and makes it a source of fear: language. For most of us, language is something that is crucial to nearly every aspect of our being; we think, communicate, and understand concepts on the basis of our known languages. There’s a reason people feel a sense of discomfort when they’re confronted with something they can’t put into words – words are important to us. So what happens when words become weaponized, carriers of an infection that we don’t understand, and prey on our way of understanding the world around us? How do you fight something when every word you speak is a risk of catching or spreading it further?
As an interesting side note, it is explicitly stated that it is the English language that is infected, and being a Canadian film, many of the characters are bilingual. I imagine there’s a lot of commentary to unpack here about language politics in countries that do have large bilingual populations, and perhaps some commentary on the evolutionary (and absorptive) nature of English in particular.
The characters are actually quite compelling for the most part. While Grant Mazzy has a cynical shock jock personality, he doesn’t brush aside the gravity of the situation he is in, even in the early stages of reporting on it. Language is his entire life, even how he makes his living, and that’s really a perfect point of view character for an examination on how oppressive silence can be, especially in conjunction with fear. With that in mind, it also makes sense that Grant would not accept fighting language with silence, but rather fighting with words. This makes the “kill means kiss” scene even more poignant, when you see him struggling to keep control over something that has given him so much power in the past.
Sydney is the other primary character, and while she is perhaps less developed than Grant, she is not necessarily less important to the narrative. Throughout the early stages of the outbreak, she takes a different attitude than Grant, wanting to divert audience attention away from the situation rather than focus on it. She maintains a strong sense of professionalism throughout, and finds reporting so urgently on the grisly happenings in poor taste, especially without any official information coming in. She helps set up this initial conflict of personality, and makes it an even more jarring shift when this facade starts to break down.
The film isn’t perfect – I think the nature of the virus is a bit confusing, and requires a lot of thought from a viewer to make sense of it. This is certainly something of a weakness, especially when you are being asked to accept this concept purely on the speculation of a handful of characters, as well as a proposed cure for the condition. A little clarity would have gone a long way to make the storytelling a bit cleaner overall, and let us focus on the action at hand.
All together, this film is an entertaining and sincerely thought-provoking tale that manages to be both a zombie story and a meta-examination on the nature of language itself. While the term “zombie” is never used in the film (and the director has stated he prefers to call them “conversationalists”), it’s fair to say that the intended idea is still there. After all, if this film tells us anything, it’s that language is something that can and will change, and takes on only the meaning we give to it.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Definitely worth a watch!
Violence level: Low at the beginning (though some of the phone calls from Ken are disturbing enough in their descriptions), but it does amp up a bit later once the infected people make their way inside.
Scariness level: Lots of tension, some truly chilling scenes, and almost none of it relies on gore or jump scares. The whole thing has a sense of surrealism about it, which has a very unnerving effect on the overall tone of the film.
Bechdel test: Maaaybe this gets a pass. Laurel Ann and Sydney are primary characters, and they certainly do interact, but the focus is almost always on Grant. I think there are a few passing conversations that are unrelated to him, but they’re all relatively minor.
Mako Mori test: This is also a tough call. This is a survival story at its core, and so Grant and Sydney’s stories are wrapped up in the same set of events. I do, however, think that Grant was given far more focus, and she was used occasionally as a way to allow Grant to have good ideas or play the hero. So I’m going to give this a fail.