With the second season of AMC's 'The Walking Dead' returning this week, I'd like to recommend a different kind of zombie movie. The 2008 film 'Pontypool' is more of a psychological thriller akin to Hitchcock's 'The Birds' than a pure zombie feature. And if you love zombies, talk radio or smart horror films, this one's for you.
THERE BE SPOILERS BELOW. . . and braaaaaains!
Based on the Tony Burgess novel 'Pontypool Changes Everything' and inspired by Orson Welles's radio broadcast of 'The War of the Worlds,' 'Pontypool' combines two modern crazes - talk radio and zombies. The film centers around Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), a shock jock who lost his job in the big city for pushing things a little too far.
Mazzy has a new job in the small town of Pontypool, Ontario, where he and his producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) clash over the best way to run his broadcasts. As they argue their way through his first broadcast, they start getting reports of a riot at a local doctor’s office. The nature of the riot is unclear as the rioters seem to be shouting gibberish about the disappearance of Honey the cat. Soon, the reports get more ominous until the radio broadcasters themselves come under attack.
'Pontypool' differs from other zombie movies because it disdains what has become the standard undead formula. Almost without exception, the films involve a small group of people trapped by zombies forced to shoot their way to safety. These films invariably turn into gross-out fests and shooting galleries almost from the opening scene. 'Pontypool' doesn’t. You don’t even see a zombie for a long time, and you never see a gun. Instead, you watch Mazzy and his staff of two (Sydney and Laurel Ann) struggle to make sense of what is going on based on the sketchy reports they are getting. And it is gripping!
In 'Pontypool,' the infection process itself becomes a mystery to be solved. Why are people acting so strangely? How is this infection spreading? Can it be stopped?
Zombie films rarely delve into this except in the most cursory of ways because they are really action films at heart. But 'Pontypool' isn’t action packed; it's a genuine psychological drama. The tension here doesn't come from close calls and narrow escapes but from the characters returning to their broadcast when you know they should be focusing on the real problems at hand like solving the mystery before the zombie mob gets them. That’s what makes this film tense and interesting.
Also, the interactions between the characters are smart and well within character. There are no stupid characters or Rambo-style heroes, and no one declares themselves king of the post-apocalyptic world. These are just ordinary humans responding to a crisis, and it feels real. Plus, the strong performance by McHattie as Mazzy (who plays the first believable talk radio host I’ve seen on film) keeps your eyes glued to the screen.
Moreover, 'Pontypool' has an interesting take on the origin of the zombies, a welcome twist to a genre that's grown stale. 'Night of the Living Dead' essentially started the modern zombie movement in 1968, after converting the ghoul into what we think of as the modern zombie - mindless corpses that roam the earth looking to eat braaaaains. In 2002, '28 Days Later' introduced fast-twitch zombies - infected humans rather than animated corpses who are faster than normal humans, because of mega doses of adrenaline, and who are intensely, mindlessly violent. But that’s been about it for zombie innovation. Sure, sometimes the zombie condition is caused by a meteor or a virus or spoiled milk, but in each case, the effect is identical: the person becomes infected, dies, and wakes up as a mindless killer hungry for the great taste of human.
This film is different. The zombies here are seemingly normal people who fixate on particular words once they become infected. This sends them into a sort of waking catatonic state where they become violent as they spout nonsense. I won’t say more because I don’t want to spoil everything, but the infection agent and mechanism are unlike anything you’ve seen before.
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Finally, a word on the film's political ideology. This film is Canadian, which doesn’t insulate it from politics, but I found the film to be refreshingly free of liberal messages. Sydney shows herself to be a liberal in one scene, but McHattie counters her with conservatism, though it’s never clear what his leanings are. There is some French Canadian v. English Canadian politics going on, but that likely won't resonate with American audiences. So ultimately, conservatives won’t feel like they’re being pounded with liberalism during this film.
'Pontypool' is unique within the genre. It’s extremely well-done with great performances and strong writing. There's limited violence, little gore, and the story doesn’t fall apart or become an excuse for a twenty minute bloodbath at the end. I highly recommend it.
Know any other cool little-known horror films?