★★ / ★★★★
It is Valentine’s Day and Grant Mazzy’s (Stephen McHattie) first day on the job at the local radio station in a small Canadian town. He used to be a big radio star but his abrasive personality has gotten him into trouble. While on the way to his job, he encounters a woman who speaks of strange things that do not make sense. He brushes it off, blaming the weather as the source of the occurrence. While updating the public on local news, the field reporter, Ken (Rick Roberts), claims that something really weird is happening in town. People are in the streets naked, mimicking sounds, and eating each other. Grant, Sydney (Lisa Houle), and Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly) are advised by officials to stay indoors.
“Pontypool,” directed by Bruce McDonald, has an interesting take on zombie movies, but it takes a while to take off and unspool its ideas. The first thirty minutes largely consists of Grant and Sydney, the producer, butting heads in terms of what the radio personality may or may not say while on the air. It turns old rather quickly because if I wanted to listen to acerbic opinion with something surprisingly meaningful to say about humanity’s state of decay, I would watch or listen to Oliver Stone’s “Talk Radio.”
The first third is frustrating because there is something big happening outside of the radio station’s walls; we want to know more about the mystery but the possibility of attaining information is often distracted by Grant’s bloated ego. While understandable that the point is for us to use our imagination first before seeing the horror, the pacing does not have to feel stagnant as it rinses and repeats the clashing personalities.
Fortunately, the film picks up when a family is invited to sing on air. One of them is infected by the mysterious virus. To reveal the actual nature of the infection will be unfair on my part considering how creative it truly is, but suffice to say that the symptoms are deeply unsettling. When a person about to “change,” usually within seconds, he or she starts to use words incorrectly. For instance, a sentence like “I would like to have lasagna for breakfast tomorrow” would turn into “I would like to have laser for breakfast marrow.” The host of the virus realizes, at first, that what he had said is incorrect. As he tries to correct himself, the person loses his train of thought and eventually keeps repeating the incorrect word. I have worked with people inflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease and they tend to do something similar. That is what makes it so creepy: the situation is tethered to what can happen in actuality.
There is a memorable scene when an infected tries to slam her body against a sound proof glass multiple times without showing any sign of exhaustion or pain. She does it until her face starts to fall off and blood, with small chunks of flesh, is smeared all over the formerly immaculate surface. We observe from the side she desperately wants to get into.
Based on a novel by Tony Burgess, “Pontypool” is a horror film that forces us to think and listen. Although it does not start strong, it becomes entertaining about halfway through. With so many zombie flicks in which the horror depends on how much flesh is bitten off a victim, this one is depends more on the insidious symptoms.