Remember the opening of George Romero’s original “Dawn of the Dead,” when the broadcasters started freaking out in their control booths? Imagine a zombie film where the story stayed with them, and you have Bruce McDonald’s “Pontypool,” a 2008 horror indie that, for once, lives up to its hype.
Ignore the silly name; this is serious stuff. Stephen McHattie is Grant Mazzy, once a well-known shock jock who got himself fired via his big mouth. Now he’s having to settle for doing the early-morning shift at a two-bit town in Canada, at a radio station so small, the traffic reporter doesn’t even have a helicopter.
Calls begin to filter in that something is happening outside, something that involves citizens felled by a virus that turns them into some sort of crazed zombie. We can’t see outside the station’s walls; we hear only what Grant and fellow quarantined employees Sydney (Lisa Houle, McHattie’s real-life wife) and Laurel-Ann (Georgina) hear, and that stylistic choice is not only effective, but genuinely unsettling. Not being privy to visual depictions of the public onslaught, our minds run wild.
The cause for the sickness makes “Pontypool” unique, but I’m not about to spoil it (although the DVD cover has no such qualms). Suffice to say, you’ve not seen it used before, and it may require a leap of faith on your part to buy in. Do so. By film’s end, its palpable paranoia, strong performances and uncertain ending may strike you as brilliant.
IFC Films’ release comes with one hell of a bonus in the original “Pontypool” one-hour radio play; comparisons to Orson Welles are not unfounded. For more shivers, there are three short films although the reason for their inclusion escapes me. They’re not directed by McDonald, although McHattie stars as smack-addicted jazz legend Chet Baker in one of them. The other two play out like David Lynch’s nightmares. —Rod Lott