‘I’ve seen things today that are going to ruin the rest of my natural life …’
Yes, another zombie/virus/apocalypse movie, but this looks to David Cronenberg rather than George Romero for inspiration and uniquely features a Canadian plague spread by infected words in the English language. Early morning radio host Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), his producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) and techie Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly) learn about a crisis swamping the small Ontario town of Pontypool through on-the-spot reports, phone-in listeners and loopy guests, and resort to broken French to avoid traps littered throughout English vocabulary (terms of endearment are especially poisonous – and it’s Valentine’s Day!). It lets its background outbreak build slowly, from an unnerving early encounter with a woman as he drives in to work, Mazzy has to get information from a roving reporter who is supposedly in a chopper (his producer has to tell him the guy’s really in a van with sound effects), oddly useless official responses (including a message in French that he translates on air until the last sentence turns out to be ‘do not translate this’), a wildly wrong BBC hook-up that feeds misinfortmation about Quebec separatists into the mix, a drop-in bunch (in blackface and desert costume) plugging a musical version of Lawrence of Arabia (a comical bit with a creepy payoff as a stuttering girl shows symptoms of the verbal virus) and a doctor who mysteriously knows too much (Hrant Alianak).
The Ionesco-NoLD connection noted by critic Charles Derry and developed in the trashy Zombie Strippers is played out in a more considered fashion, with some truly mind-stretching business about the dangers of communication, understanding and specific word meanings. Victims of the plague get a random English word stuck in their minds (‘breathe’, ‘system’, etc) and recite it, or parrot other sounds (Laurel Ann disturbingly picks up on a whistling kettle) as they become herd-animals with cannibal tendencies. Unusually, this comes up with a convincing cure – as Mazzy gets Sydney through the bug by having her focus so much on her word (‘kill’) that it loses all meaning (‘kill is kiss’) and she breaks free. McHattie – the original Nite Owl in Watchmen – gets a rare showcase role and runs with it, incarnating the weary, on-the-slide shock jock determined to keep doing his job, and torn when it seems that if he keeps making sense he isn’t helping anyone; and the star is interestingly teamed with Houle, his real-life wife, in scenes which manage to convey a ton of backstory about how these people got into this church basement and this understaffed local radio station without needing to trot it all out in awkward exposition. Tony Burgess’s script, from his own novel, keeps topping itself with concepts and reversals – after Mazzy has been moved by the on-air death by verbal tic of the bogus chopper reporter (voiced by director Bruce McDonald), a tearful Sydney blurts out that ‘he was a paedophile … well, not a paedophile, we just wouldn’t let him near out kids’ before musing that this isn’t ‘much of an obituary’.
It keeps horrors offscreen almost completely, though Reilly is disturbing as she hurls herself against the plexiglass sound booth because she might retain an ability to read lips – but throws in a creepy, fantasy as Mazzy rattles off obituaries over footage of Canadian Gothic locals, detailing the course of the virus through blunt who-killed-who statements (the status of this in the film’s narrative is problematic, but it really works). Besides great suspense, wild ideas and a satisfying finish, it offers a snappy minimovie after the end credits in which McHattie and Houle unwind a little in a charming noir mode. After dozens of zombie hackworks, here’s proof the medium can still be cool.