Imagine George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead crossed with Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio and written by French semiotician Roland Barthes and you might have an inkling of what acclaimed Canadian filmmaker Bruce (Hard Core Logo) McDonald’s Pontypool is up to. But only an inkling: Pontypool is a genre-busting maverick of a movie, guarenteed to infuriate and astonish in equal numbers.
Suffice it to say that if you like your zombies unencumbered by obscure linguistic theory, this may not be the movie for you. On the other hand, when the moaning, slavering hoards are at the door, who really cares what got them there? They’re dead (more or less), and they’re all messed up… what next?
Having worn out his welcome in most major radio markets and been busted down to CLSY, which serves a godforsaken chunk of semi-rural Ontario from the basement of a local church, shock jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) reports for early-morning work on a dreary, blizzardy day much like any other.
Mazzy spars listlessly with straight-laced producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle), flirts half-heartedly with pretty Afghan-war veteran Laurel Ann Burrows (Georgina Reilly), the station’s back-up engineer, and has a fine old time making light of the local news… let’s not even start on the in-studio appearance of an amateur theater group that’s doing a musical version of Lawrence of Arabia.
And then all hell busts loose: CLSY’s “eye in the sky,” Ken Loney (voice of Rick Roberts) — who actually reports from his Dodge Dart parked on a hill, with whirly-bird sound effects — checks in with his description of a riot at the office of local doctor. There’s nothing on the official wires, but unconfirmed reports of mass panic, grotesque violence and even cannibalism gradually leak in… is the greater Pontypool area ground zero of some kind of apocalypse, or just the butt of an elaborate, War of the Worlds-style joke?
Loosely adapted by novelist Tony Burgess from his own 1998 novel, Pontypool Changes Everything, Pontypool is simultaneously a white-knuckle zombie siege movie — the kind of thing that, frankly, that gives me nightmares — and a slippery inquiry into the nature of language.
Can workaday words become infected and spread homicidal rage the way humdrum cells mutate into cancer? In a world of 24/7 TV, streaming video, iPhone apps and radio that’s a freakishly esoteric and yet weirdly immediate thing about which to worry. If you want your shocks simple, Pontypool may not be your cup of blood tea. But if you like your shocks laced with brain-teasing creepiness, Pontypool is the way to go.
And remember: In order not to spread infection, avoid terms of endearment, baby talk and for Heaven’s sake, don’t translate this message!