So you want to make a zombie film. Not just any zombie film: an intelligent zombie film, sophisticated and restrained. You've got no money, in any event. You can't afford to pay an expensive CG studio to generate the special effects inherent in most movies of the undead ouvre, nor can your budget accommodate enough prosthetic heads packed full of pig intestines to do the trick. What do you do?
You do exactly what Pontypool does: construct a narrative which by design excludes the very things you cannot afford. You make a film set during the zombie apocalypse without actually showing said apocalypse - nor, for the most part, said zombies. Pontypool does a whole lot without very much at all. It's tense, clever and occasionally quite scary. And please, let me open the floor: when was the last time a zombie film actually scared you? It can be difficult to separate an actual fright from the combined shock of a surprise cut and an overbearing score, or the toe-curling unease of an extreme close-up on some disturbing body horror. Pontypool makes that distinction clear for all to see. It's a hell of a film, all things considered.
Stephen McHattie's Grant Mazzy is a controversial talk-radio DJ, gruff-voiced and wonderfully hungry despite having fallen from grace. He makes ends meet in these, his twilight years, by hosting "Mazzy in the Morning" for a modest audience more interested in local gossip than Grant's trademark anti-establishment diatribes. One morning, however, the usual routine grinds to a halt when reports begin to come in of a violent mob overrunning the town. Before his connection cuts off, the station's eye in the sky reporter describes the outbreak firsthand: locals are massing in what Ken Loney (actually just a man in a car on a hill) calls "a herd." They seem to be repeating the same words and phrases over and over, like automatons. It is not entirely out of the question that these people may also have a hankering for brains.
Together, then, with a spunky young audio engineer (Georgina Reilly) and Lisa Houle as a producer who's begun to regret hiring Grant in the first place, Mazzy and company hole up in the radio station HQ, promising to broadcast until the very last. That's Pontypool. Well, that and the particular species of undead it latterly hinges on: zombies infected by language itself, by a virus that lurks in certain words, in the metaphysical chasm between reference and perception. Tony Burgess' script is really very clever - it melted a bit of my brain, though your mileage may of course vary - yet disarmingly intuitive for all that. It demands so little in terms of cast and location, quantitatively speaking, that it could easily be a one-act play.
Such simplistic concepts rarely play in cinema, however. Cinema is a ruthlessly visual medium, increasingly dependent on poking its audience in the eye with a pointy stick every five seconds, and there's simply very little in Pontypool to smash-cut to. A few guys and girls chatting into microphones in a soundproof room just isn't the sort of narrative that plays well on screen - even if the world is ending around them all the while. Car chases, explosions and sex scenes, on the other hand, perhaps even amid the aforementioned apocalypse... now that's more like it!
Well, no. No it bloody well is not. Pontypool is the most definitive rebuttal of modern cinema's overreliance on in-your-face effects, vast casts and globe-trotting "storytelling" that I've had the pleasure of seeing in years. It is refreshingly free of the cheap (though tremendously expensive) tricks with which cinema so often seduces us. At least, it is until director Bruce McDonald buckles under the weight of our expectations in the final act. In ten misguided minutes, there's a clinch, a twist and a slathering of unnecessary nastiness. Come the climax, Pontypool is a little bit too... Outer Limits, say, for its last gasp to sit well with all the low-key horror preceding it. Oh well.
Still. All things considered, remember? For a movie a few dudes made for pocket change, it's a hell of a film. Pontypool is briefly a bit ridiculous, but by and large, it works wonders with precious little. A tense and affecting drama wrapped in the inference rather than the fact of a zombie film's trimmings, Pontypool is a lesson to all indie filmmakers with a speculative tale to tell; a low-budget masterpiece in microcosm. What Primer was to science-fiction, Pontypool is for the genre George A. Romero has single-handedly driven six feet into the cold, clammy earth.