Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Pontypool (2008)

This is K-ZMB, all zombie radio.
More brains, less talk.

I never thought I'd reach a point where I'd be completely sick of zombies and yet here we are. Thanks, internet. Still, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed Zombieland and Dead Snow, so I guess I'm still open to a zombie movie or two. As long as it's good. I'd heard a lot of good things about this particular low-budget Canadian horror film, although it wasn't available in Australia until very recently, (what's up with that Canada? I thought we were bros, Commonwealth 4 life) which is why I am reviewing it now instead of back when people actually gave a shit about it.

The film takes place in a small town outside of Ontario called, funnily enough, Pontypool. Actually, to be more specific it takes place inside a radio broadcasting station in Pontypool, and to be even more specific it takes place in an announcer's booth inside the broadcasting station. The booth is populated by a radio shock-jock called Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), who is busy doing his thing when some strange reports start coming in. Stuff about violent riots and roaming mobs who are babbling mindlessly while they tear people to pieces. He does not immediately scream "Zombies!" and run away, which is what I'd do, and instead the film focuses entirely on Mazzy, his producer Sydney (Lisa Houle) and technician Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly) as they try to figure out what the fuck is going on.

I really liked this first half of the film, where Mazzy and his crew are trying to piece things together from scattered police reports and panicked phone calls from their traffic reporter (who only pretends to fly around in a helicopter and is also a pedophile for some reason). There's a great moment where a BBC correspondant calls them up live on-air, trying to get some information out of them, but they know even less than he does. They are also visited by a GP, Dr Mendez (Hrant Alianak), who was present at the initial outbreak of the infection and gives them his crazy theory about the zombie virus. When the zombies show up I got a little less interested, but it turns out there's not much blood, violence or cheap jump scares. For most of the film they are huddled somewhere communicating by hand-written notes, sign language and broken French.

This brings me to the interesting twist they put in the formula, which I wasn't going to spoil but I guess I have to because otherwise I've got fuck-all to talk about. It turns out that the zombie infection is not spread by any traditional means; it's spread by spoken language. Certain words in the English language are "infected", and once the victim hears one they start talking nonsense and repeat the same phrases over and over, like they are having a stroke. It's genuinely creepy. I'm not sure they thought the idea through completely because the last act seems a little scattered and confusing, and everyone ends up going out Return of the Living Dead style. Apparently it's based on a book by Anthony Burgess and I don't know if things are explained a little better there.

Naturally there's a lot of subtext to the idea of a shock-jock radio announcer dealing with angry mobs incited into violence by the spoken word. They also deal with the idea that the characters are torn between a duty to inform the public and the possibility that the best thing for them to do is shut the fuck up. When the military put out a warning over the radio in French (only English is infected which is pretty interesting in itself) they translate it only to discover that it ends with "Do not translate this message." There are some interesting ideas here but they don't beat you over the head with it like Romero.

I don't have a lot to say about the other crap. Acting is great and it's cool to see McHattie carry a film after so many minor roles. Camera work is surprisingly engaging for such a confined space, without ever falling victim to the zombie virus that has been rampaging through the film industry for the last ten years aka Michael Bay disease. Symptoms include shaky camera-work, over-editing and a tendency to punctuate every tense scene with lots of flashy effects and loud noises. Once confined to a small niche of thriller/horror films, cheap digital editing software has seen this virus spread to other genres and take on more virulent forms. Now everyone is shaking the camera around like they're erasing an Etch-a-Sketch, only instead of erasing a line-drawing of a penis it's erasing the audience's ability to comprehend what the fuck is going on. I think there's a movie in that, but until someone realises my amazing vision I think you should check out Pontypool.


NateJK said...

I just saw this movie on HBO and honestly i understand the whole infected words thing but seriouly what the fuck is going on, at the end of the movie it is really dumb they some how cure themselves by rambling incoherently and mixing up words. and then at the end do they die or what it just ends. and then the credit scene at the end doesn't help, that made it seem like they were infecting people on purpose, overall i'd give it a 5/10 and thats only cause i love sci-fi movies and i love movies that make you think, but really. if it wasn't for the mysterious plot line i'd give it a 2/10.

Dave said...

I hear ya, it does kind of fall apart there at the end.