Pontypool Dir. Bruce McDonald

[IFC Films; 2008]

How many incarnations of the zombie movie can there be? George Romero's original "Dead" films remain, but do they really need to be remade? Then there are the endless parodies, knockoffs, spinoffs and sketches that have made their way into popular culture over the last few years, many of them inspired by the monotonous drone of contemporary life (although Dawn of the Dead, with its primitive shopping mall setting, already had that covered as early as the '70s). So I suppose it's refreshing to encounter a zombie movie that covers completely new ground... even if the entirety of that ground is comprised of the church basement that broadcasts a local Canadian radio station.

Stephen McHattie plays Grant Mazzy, a formerly well-known shock jock whose antics have exiled him to Pontypool, a town rural Ontario. He's one of those "radio cowboys," a Don Imus type who channels his gruff persona and rebellious streak through the airwaves. When a wave of grisly violence rocks Pontypool, Mazzy's detached, cynical approach to the everyday minutiae of small-town life is put to the test

It's a familiar setup, but the milieu is funny, fresh, and just "off" enough to warrant the eventual chaos. Pontypool truly takes a turn for the weird when we find out that the hazardous virus that has been causing the bloodshed is being spread through words. From there on out, the film is transformed from standard zombie flick to a treatise on the instability and hollowness of modern language. Director Bruce McDonald takes us on a headier ride than we may originally anticipate. Fortunately, Pontypool's deadpan tone is never subsumed by the movie's lofty pretensions.

McDonald strives to cover an awful lot of ground, given the limitations of the genre and the film's rather brief running time. In addition to the wordplay, there's a strong political dimension, and it sometimes feels like the rules of the game are being reconstructed with every scene. By act three, Pontypool's novelty begins to wear off, and the climax is tiresome rather than suspenseful. Nonetheless, there's lots of great stuff in the details: The way in which McDonald uses semiotics and intertextuality to shape a low-budget horror movie is not merely unprecedented but frequently ingenious.

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