Review: The zombies of Pontypool may not be real—but here's why it doesn't really matter

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Pontypool is not your typical zombie movie. In fact, a lot like The Blair Witch Project, what you don't see is more unnerving than what you do see.

Grizzly, grumpy and hung-over radio DJ Grant Mazzy (think Don Imus and Dr. House) is on his way to work on a snowy Valentine's Day in Canada. (Mazzy is played by Stephen McHattie, who played the older version of Nite Owl in the Watchmen movie.) He verbally spars and flirts with his producer, Sydney (played by Lisa Houle, who oddly enough was a foley artist on Necronomicon). While on the air doing routine news, school closures and obits, they get some odd reports of strange things happening around town. An off-site reporter is telling of people running through town naked, talking gibberish and missing body parts.

The weird reports from the outside world suddenly make the small staff inside the radio station feel rather claustrophobic. The office of a doctor in town is ransacked in a riot, the phone lines are down, and they've lost contact with the reporter on the scene. Then, in marches a church group that is going to perform a song on air to promote its upcoming musical.

This absurd setup is adeptly handled by director Bruce McDonald, who has never worked on an SF project before this but who seems to tap successfully into the influences of fellow Canadian director David Cronenberg's work. The story is from a novel by Tony Burgess (Pontypool Changes Everything), and it truly captures the growing weird panic that creeps into the radio studio.

The DJ pieces together that a deadly plague is sweeping this Southern Ontario community, and that it seems to create a walking dead. Stranger still, he becomes convinced that the virus may be spread not by what people breathe or who they come in contact with, but by what people say, and how they say it. Yes, this virus is spread by words.

Don't expect to see lots of gore in this. Yeah, there are a few moments of creepy-looking creatures climbing through walls and things like that, and lots of vomiting and retching in pain, but the scary stuff is mostly hinted at, and not shown, and that makes it a fascinating mind-bender. The movie shifts quickly in tone from comedy to drama to science fiction horror in unnerving ways.

The doctor (Hrant Alianak) finally reaches the radio station himself and tries to explain what is happening outside. That tease almost makes the staff want to check it out themselves. (Of course, keeping the action in just one room and one set inside a radio station keeps the budget small, too.)

If you've purposely avoided Canadian movies because, well, you've seen Canadian movies before, then don't let that discourage you from going to see this nicely acted scare flick.