By 2008, zombie nostalgia was beginning to slowly seep into mainstream cinema and awaken from its decades-old necrotic slumber. It’s safe to say the resurgence in the genre began in 2002 with Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. As the years rolled on we were treated to such notable entries as After Sundown, Beyond Re-Animator, Dead & Breakfast and the aptly named horror-musical, Gory Gory Hallelujah. While some of these movies were down right terrible, there were a few notable gems such as Zack Snyder’s remake of the 1978 George A. Romero classic, Dawn of the Dead, and Romero himself returned to the director’s chair for Land of the Dead in 2005.
With the undead horse flogged, there was little that could be done to a genre that was quickly becoming an oversaturated parody of itself. Enter Bruce McDonald and his film adaptation of Tony Burgess’ novel, Pontypool Changes Everything.
Filmed on a modest budget and given a (very) limited release domestically, Pontypool takes the idea of a biological outbreak/zombie apocalypse and turns the mirror on itself. It tells the story of grizzled radio announcer Grant Mazzy, played impeccably by evergreen actor Stephen McHattie, who is tasked with going ahead with his show despite whiteout weather conditions coupled with a mysterious viral outbreak spreading throughout the small town of Pontypool, Ontario. The cast is rounded out by Mazzy’s on-air technical assistant Laurel-Ann Drummond (Murdoch Mysteries Georgina Reilly) and station manager Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle).
As the morning show progresses, we quickly learn that there is a riot outside of the office of Dr. Mendez, a local family practitioner who is somehow at the core of the mysterious outbreak. After a few minutes of well executed tension and chaos, we quickly learn that the citizens of Pontypool are becoming ‘infected’ by an unknown virus. Before questions can be answered, an emergency broadcast in French delivers instructions to stay indoors, avoid using terms of endearment, phrases that can upset others or the English language.
Credit where credit is due: Tony Burgess adapted his own novel for the screen and did a sterling job of it. Bruce McDonald took both the source material and the script and created a taught, carefully executed film that explores the themes of personal conflict, confinement and hopelessness in a way that never feels hurried or sloppy. As the walls of the radio station slowly begin to close in on the main characters, the idea that speaking to each other could potentially result in catastrophe creates a fantastic layer of tension and conflict.
What Pontypool does to the zombie genre is simple: it re-imagines it from inception to conclusion without questioning its methods or intentions. Strong direction and staging from McDonald are complimented by actors who skilfully riff off of each other and evoke the right emotions at the right times. Also, Stephen McHattie looks like a younger version of Motorhead’s Lemmy which is just badass.
If you’re looking for a zombie flick that’s smart, funny and challenges the usual tropes of the genre, look no further than Pontypool. You’ll be glad you did.