Seen one, you’ve seen them all. That may be how you feel about zombie movies, but not me. I’ve been a happy, all-but-credulous consumer of the genre going as far back as the Val Lewton-Jacques Tournier gothic romance “I Walked With a Zombie” through George A. Romero’s epic “Living Dead” cycle of gory, apocalyptic satires of consumer culture. Matters not to me if the socio-political context is obtrusively embedded into its storyline (as in Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”) or if you have to bring whatever metaphorical baggage you can find to the party (“28 Days Later”). There are those who prefer vampires, psycho slashers, business executives or other marauding specters of our cinematic subconscious — I’m of the zombie species of horror freak.
I will admit, however, to some advance trepidation about “Pontypool” when I heard that Bruce McDonald’s zombies-in-the-Great-White-North movie unapologetically wears its social commentary on its stormy freakazoid sleeve. Its thematic premise seems to have spawned from William S. Burroughs’ notion of language as a malignancy, a “virus from outer space.” Knowing this makes you wish for even a little of Burroughs’ antic energy to dispel “Pontypool’s” dank, portent-laden staginess. But the movie sustains its momentum briskly enough to keep your head in the game, even when it decides to big-foot its ideas at the expense of real jolts.
So if we can’t have Burroughs’ whack-job clinician Doctor Benway, we’ll gladly settle for Stephen McHattie, decked out in seedy cowboy regalia, as Grant Mazzy, an Imus-esque shock jock who’s been exiled from the big city markets to the movie’s eponymous Ontario backwater. Condemned to a morning drive-time routine of small-town ephemera, Mazzy keeps trying to juice things up with veiled innuendo against the local cops and the occasional quote from Norman Mailer or Roland Barthes. His engineer, a winsome Army veteran named Laurel Ann (Georgina Riley) digs the older man’s shticks while his world-weary producer Sydney (Lisa Houle) wishes he’d stick to what the locals need as opposed to what will titillate them.
In the midst of this argument (the kind I remember from the back end of my newspaper days), details of an honest-to-God catastrophe ooze into the church-basement studio. There are hordes of desperately violent citizens cannibalizing each other and whoever happens to be unfortunate enough to drive into Pontypool. Explicit details are elusive to both the radio crew and the movie’s audience, but it becomes apparent that the source of infection isn’t anything toxic, radioactive or alien. It’s a tic in the English language that sticks words in its victims’ mouths to the point where they have to bite someone else really hard.
Paraphrasing George Carlin, anyone who has likewise been frustrated with the real-life debasement of public discourse, especially via the airwaves, doesn’t have to be Fellini or, for that matter, Cronenberg to figure out “Pontypool”‘s agenda. That the afflicted are to vapid baby talk or meaningless techno-babble literally hammers the message home to those with all-too-vivid memories of the last decade. Still, McDonald’s movie isn’t so caught up in its anti-bullshit fulminations that it misplaces its wit – as with Sydney’s off-the-cuff benediction towards a plague victim that discloses his unsavory character flaw. “Pontypool” is no “Dawn of the Dead” much less “Shaun of the Dead” (loved that one, too). But it’s a gnarly, affecting little goof that barely manages to keep its impulses toward gratuitous profundity at bay. Gratuitous violence? Sorry, you’ll have to check out Sam Raimi’s non-zombie “Drag Me to Hell” for the joy-buzzer shocks for which we zombie-connoisseurs shall forever pine.