Pontypool Review

Directed by: Bruce McDonald
Written by: Tony Burgess
Starring: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly

Although there is no shortage of filmmaking talent in Canada, it’s almost expected that any successful Canadian actors and directors will eventually fly south in pursuit of Hollywood aspirations. Director Bruce McDonald, however, is an anomale. Despite receiving critical acclaim for some of his early films like Dance Me Outside and Hard Core Logo, he has maintained a base of operations in Toronto for a good twenty years, preferring to remain a permanent fixture of Canada’s cultural landscape rather than chasing down fame and fortune.

Perhaps part of the reason why he has remained north of the border is the fact that his sensibilities are much more attuned to the art house than the mainstream. Big studio movies don’t really suit McDonald, and probably don’t interest him much either. Most recently he directed rising star Ellen Page in an experimental drama called The Tracey Fragments, but with Pontypool, McDonald turns his attention for the first time to the horror genre (well, second time, if you count his high school Super-8 film Our Glorious Dead). Although some of the marketing might have you believe this is a straightforward zombie flick, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Based on the book Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, the story takes place in the small Southern Ontario town of Pontypool (near Peterborough) where DJ Grant Mazzy is about to start his day, getting up early in the morning and driving through the snow to reach the little radio station where he works. Little does he know, he is about to come face to face with a deadly plague that is taking over the town — what’s more, he might actually be the one spreading it. After witnessing some examples of strange behaviour and erratic speech, he starts to receive calls from people around town who are in the midst of violent hordes of zombies. Eventually the horde descends on the radio station, leaving Mazzy and his small on-air crew trapped inside and fighting for their lives.

The movie works on a lot of different levels, and operates as both a horror movie and an interesting mindbender of a sci-fi flick with some heady stuff to say about social interactions and human communication. In typical Bruce McDonald fashion, there are plenty of surreal moments where you are questioning the reliability of what you are seeing as a viewer, but there are also genuine moments of terror. The movie takes a bit of time to get going, and during the early stages of the infection while reports are coming in from outside the radio station the movie almost takes on the quality of a radio drama. It is here that the impressive sound design work of Steve Munro really shines, creating a chilling atmosphere that hints at something gone awry without necessarily hitting you over the head. In some ways it is almost disappointing to see the movie eventually go for a more visceral approach, but gore hounds will be pleased to note that there is more to Pontypool than merely a “boogeyman of the mind”, if you will.

The acting is solid (which sadly, cannot always be said of Canadian productions), and both Stephen McHattie (who, incidentally, also plays the older Nite Owl in Watchmen) and Lisa Houle carrying the majority of the movie through tricky waters. This is especially important in these earlier stages of the game where their reactions are used to play off the sounds to create even more suspense. This is also crucial to handling some of the film’s odd tonal shifts, which must be maneuvered with care. Partway through the film, a doctor (Hrant Alianak) seeks refuge in the radio station, and starts trying to explain what he knows about the virus in rather puzzling terms. It is at this point that the movie becomes quite funny and almost self-aware, although it also becomes a bit frustrating and painfully obscure. By the time the characters discover that blundering through conversations in rudimentary French might help save them, the movie will have either won you over or completely lost you.

If the movie has one major weakness it is that it is limited in both budget and scope. Although McDonald and the cast manage to turn this into a strength in a lot of ways (by relying on a single claustrophobic environment, for example), there are so many interesting ideas at work that the movie almost demands to be taken further and deeper. Word on the street is that McDonald and Burgess hope to turn Pontypool into a trilogy, so hopefully this will help rectify the issue.

Ultimately, Pontypool is a cerebral horror movie that defies expectations and will likely leave some viewers confused and unsatisfied. If you’re just looking for the next torture porn flick, or some good ol’ zombie carnage, you might want to give it a pass. On the other hand, if you’re a fan of the earlier works of fellow Canadian David Cronenberg, you just might be in the right frame of mind to receive these transmissions. If this is the case, Pontypool is one virus that you’ll be more than happy to infect yourself with. — Sean

SCORE: 3.5 stars

Recommended If You Like: 28 Days Later, Videodrome, Cube, The Ring

  • Ian

    Bruce was always my favorite Kid in the Hall.

  • Liz

    Oh god, I love love loved this movie when I saw it at TIFF last year. Totally in my Top Ten for the year, easily, and I’m not someone who normally likes zombie flicks (which is probably exactly why I enjoyed this one). At the Q&A after my screening, McDonald said that it was exactly thirteen weeks earlier that they had received their funding for the film and it just killed me that they were able to complete the thing on such a limited budget and limited time frame. Didn’t get a chance to see it this weekend but will definitely have to give it a second go when I can find some time.

  • I’ve always been amused by the intellectual analysis of horror films. For example, the films of David Cronenberg seem like your typical lurid and sometimes prurient output of an adolescent mind. But Cronenberg’s professorial demeanour somehow elevates his work to an art form. On the other hand, George Romero’s work gets the same treatment, but he appears more like a recovering drug-addict.

    Anyway, Sean, I hope you’re not giving Pontypool an extra star because it’s Canadian. :-)

  • Oh, Reed. You’re going to hate my posts, aren’t you?

  • Pontypool rocks! And I’d love the trilogy to be made, because it will keep shifting perspectives. I always say, develop the universe, and abandon the characters with each entry to these type of franchise situations.

    My only fear with Pontypool is that it is too smart for the genre crowd, too Zombie for the arthouse crowd and too mainstream looking for the cult crowd.

    Best Canadian straight out ‘smart’ genre flick since Ginger Snaps.

  • Wow, comparisons to Cronenberg and Ginger Snaps? Is this a limited release? I see it already has a Netflix entry (release date: unknown) but the local indie house doesn’t have it on their upcoming. We are, however, getting Timecrimes sometime this month.

    Still, sign me up for Pontypool.

  • Wintle, I didn’t know you ran The Horror Blog. I’m going to chew the gristle out of your posts.

  • Dave – IFC is giving it a release (and my guess is that it will couple it with a day and date Video ON Demand release) at the end of May for you Americans. Currently there is a handful of prints making their way across The Great White North (aka Canada) over the next few weeks.

  • Watch out, Reed. My posts are all gristle.

  • Kurt – cool, it will be a nice refresher from all the schlock that goes with the summer schedule.

    Orlando is getting Timecrimes on the 20th. Expect it to be a Rotcast subject.

  • Hmm, Ian?

    Bruce McDonald wasn’t in Kids in the Hall. At least, not that I remember of…

    You’re thinking of Bruce McCulloch and Kevin McDonald…

    Also: the movie looks amazing.

  • D Nelmes

    I was looking at youtube for vids on Pontypool Rugby (Wales), as I’m from Pontypool in Wales! Then I came across this film.

    Trailers look good, does anyone know if this film is available in Wales (UK)?

    Many thanks,

  • matt

    Anyone who said this was a great movie is a liar. They most likely worked for or on the set and are happy people waste their $5.99 renting this on cable. The plot was really stupid at the ending 20 minutes with the words that cause people to be sick. Horrible stay away.

  • Lazlo Toth

    Matt, you’re bitching this movie out, but you’re not making a very intelligent critique of it. You’re just making an ad hominem attack — basically just a big temper tantrum — so it’s really not very convincing.

    Personally, I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of cutting-edge horror about words and other media signals that kill or harm. Stephen King just wrote a novel about it called Cell, that was fairly decent (though not as good as Pontypool IMHO). There’s a whole wikipedia article on it, “Motif of Harmful Sensation.”

    And now I’m starting to think there’s a signal in Pontypool that makes guys whose names start with the letter M turn really, really dumb. *evil grin*

  • shawn

    I need to see this movie because i’m from pontypool ont. canada lived there for 13 years.

  • Jodi

    this movie was one of the worst movies i have ever seen in my life! …wow..and its listed as a horror flick? lol it should has its own category.. SHIT

  • Rocco

    What a boring, empty and stupid movie.
    The filmmaker: “Hey, I wanna make a zombie movie but I haven’t got any budget. But doesn’t matter. My ubercool story idea doesn’t need any money.”
    Sooooooo stupid. But sweet what you put into this c-film…

  • we just watched this movie and would like to say stuff about it. i was not grabbed at all by the beginning and had no clue what was going on. this was in fact a NON-horror film. it tried to be, but it failed miserably. not bashing others opinions. we just think it was terrible. the zombies were not very scary, and the idea of words causing harm was not the most exciting thing as it was portrayed. COULD be cool. but it wasnt in this movie. dancing leprechauns would have been a nice touch. (reece LOL’d). i would not recommend this movie unless u needed to slumber dearly and quickly. HOWEVER, the sweet throw up part was muy fantastico <3. and when the same girl was bleeding and her face was slightly demolished on the left (her right) side. pretty much the girl who became the zombie was the coolest and pretty much the whole. last 20 minutes is the part we waited for though. couldnt turn it off cuz we thought "surely this has to get better". your time would be better spent reading all of this rather than the movie. in fact, if uve read all this, congrats. i applaud u. i never would would have had the attention span to do such a thing. u guys r great. have a great day man. but not if u watch the movie. then ull be a squid. like from rocket power. love u.<3333333333

  • matt

    I watched the movie earlier and really enjoyed it. It reminded me of something Alan Watts said about not getting the map confused with the territory. It’s unfortunate that some people seemed to miss the commentary on how language in essence has come to control our lives, and we’ve in a sense confused the map of reality (language) with the actual territory. The zombies in the film are caught in a sort of psychotic break, lost in a loop of abstraction in their minds, which was implied to have been triggered by language. I loved the surreal atmosphere created about an hour in when Grant begins to lose it and Sydney starts talking about Honey the cat. All in all I thought it was a great work about the fragility of the human psyche and the nefarious aspect of language.

  • Jo

    Great film! Pontypool is currently the movie of the month on Projector.tv and you can watch it there for only 99p.


    Pretty good deal for everyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet or who wants to re-watch it!

  • Fred

    A potentially great film, completely ruined by a stupid premise…that English words create raving zombie-like creatures out of otherwise placid, normal human beings. Wow, what a let down. It was so amazing right up until that last 30 minutes or so. Complete let down.

  • Paul

    I just watched this film and it’s great; I also love what ‘Lazlo Toth’ said about critique – of course we intelligent people already ‘get’ that and STILL ‘rocco’ had to try and get his worthless 2 cents in.

    Sure, the premise demands that artistic license be given if we are to appreciate it as anything more than just a plain record of events. But that’s what sets this apart from other stories like Mr King’s ‘Cell’ – Cell didn’t really have anything to say beyond the immediate ‘more talk=mindless chatter’ idea whereas Pontypool has huge amounts to say (possibly too much) but chooses not to spoon feed it to us… and thereby making it more alluring to pretentious snobs like myself because the f**kwits just mindlessly complain that it’s a bad zombie movie.

    While I’m on my soapbox: George Romero’s zombie films (and ‘The Crazies’) really are on the same intellectual level as ‘Cell’ – Romero doesn’t really have anything true to say, he puts his films within a certain context and he or others claim the film is his critique of (consumerism, societal decay, Vietnam…). That’s like saying washing powder is a critique of Environmentalism :)

  • I tend to agree with you. This is a zombie film that isn’t for everyone. It brings a unique, and needed, concept to the horror genre, but doesn’t bring the expected carnage. But I think that’s ok. I like it when a horror movie comes along that feels real with characters that have depth. I’ve had enough of early 80’s stereotypical characters in grind-house horror flicks.
    I also got the chance to review this film on my new blog. I’m just getting started and would love some feedback from a critic. Check it out if you can.