When a Language Goes Viral: 'Pontypool'

February 17, 2010

POOR GRANT MAZZY (Stephen McHattie). He’s grizzled and whiskey-voiced, a DJ whose show has proved to be too hot for any radio station in Canada to handle. Only the tiny station in Pontypool, Ontario, which broadcasts from a church basement, will take on the cynical cowboy of the airwaves.

But his first day at his new job gets ugly fast in Bruce McDonald‘s eerie, funny and genuinely original horrorshow, “Pontypool.” Zombies are on the loose, and the station’s skeleton staff is ill-equipped to fend off the shambling threat. Mazzy’s only weapon is his voice, which can alert those outside to the dangers around town and keep citizens updated.

“Pontypool” would be a tense, rather claustrophobic variation on ye olde zombie genre if Tony Burgess‘ screenplay (based on his novel) didn’t have a nasty viral trick up its sleeve. It isn’t blood or consumerism or brains or conformity that causes the sickness to spread, but language itsesf — the English language. Turns out Mazzy’s weapon is pointed directly at his own head.

It doesn’t take a huge budget to make a movie about a (dwindling) handful of people in a radio station trying not to talk, and McDonald keeps the film’s look as makeshift and low-budget as its setting. The thrown-together air of the movie claims extra sympathy for the trapped, frustrated characters — they have so little, and they’re going to die horribly unless Mazzy can think of a solution. (In one very funny passage, they exchange information in halting eighth-grade French.)

Whether he does become an unlikely hero and avert Pontypool’s apocalypse is less interesting than the questions of semiology and transmission brought up by the movie’s premise. William S. Burroughs posited that language is a virus, but that idea has never been treated so literally and its tentacles been allowed to spread until Burgess picked it up again.

But no one here is taking the fun out of what is, in the end, a rip-roaring thriller. It’s only after the DVD (from MPI home video) ends and the popcorn bowl is empty that the full horror of “Pontypool’s” what-ifs begins to sink in.

Photo courtesy MPI home video

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Clinton Yates · February 17, 2010