Thursday, April 11, 2013

Pontypool

Zombies as a cultural trope jumped the shark and ate its innards several years ago, but every so often something refreshing lurches out of the night and grabs at you with its ragged, bloodied fingertips. Max Brooks's World War Z is a good example: a well thought out, impeccably crafted "oral history" of a zombie apocalypse, with enough awesome scenarios to put dozens of shitty zombie flicks, comics, and novels to shame.

On a smaller scale, the 2009 Canadian film Pontypool takes the familiar zombie movie cliches and plays with them - turns them over, tickles their belly, then vomits blood in their slavering faces. The action takes place almost entirely inside a radio studio in the eponymous rural town where Grant Mazzy, a big-time shock jock demoted to the minor leagues, his producer and her assistant are broadcasting their homely morning show when strange reports start to filter in. Rampaging mobs have been seen marauding local businesses; later it transpires that the crowds are babbling a kind of word salad, and may be cannibalising their victims. The French Canadian military is rumoured to have mobilised. (That it's the French Canadian military turns out to be significant, and points to the film's relatively subtle political subtext.) Meanwhile, the production assistant has started to stammer and repeat herself in a most disturbing manner...

The first hour of Pontypool is some of the finest suspense I've encountered in a long time. The witty script, minimal set - a converted church that feels simultaneously cavernous and claustrophobic - and a trio of committed performances deserve credit. But it is the intricate sound design that drives the mounting terror. Sound - specifically language - is the means of transmission of this particular plague, and director Bruce McDonald embeds the complexities of communication, verbal and non-verbal, in every level of the film.

The tension dissipates somewhat in the final half hour, as the threat becomes more palpable and the script forsakes wry banter for a semiotics lecture, but there's enough going on to keep it enjoyable. If, like me, you're bored with zombies, or you just want to see a good low-budget thriller, Pontypool is highly recommended.

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