Judge Gordon Sullivan always runs into zombies at the doctor's office.
Shut up or die
Initially, I was very skeptical of Pontypool because the only quote emblazoned on the front of the DVD reads "One of the 25 best zombie movies of all time," which is some seriously weak praise. I took it as a challenge and tried to think of the top 24 zombie movies that I would put in a list. I didn't write it down, but I got stumped around the mid-teens because once you leave the top tier (Romero, Shaun of the Dead, 28 Days Later), the quality drops off pretty darn fast. This makes the 25 top zombie movie list a less than prestigious one towards the bottom. My suspicion, however, was unfounded: Pontypool might never replace Night of the Living Dead in viewers' hearts, but it's a solid effort that effectively mixes a tense atmosphere and just a hint of gore to create a fascinating little horror film.
Pontypool is the name of a backwoods town in Canada, and shock jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie, Watchmen) finds himself exiled there after his dismissal from the city. It appears to be a typical morning on local radio when strange reports start coming in about babbling mobs rioting outside a doctor's office. Grant isn't sure if there's a real emergency going on just outside the station, or if this is a prank the locals are pulling on the new guy in town. In either case this is going to be a night Grant won't forget.
To be honest, Pontypool is a film that really should not be reviewed in any meaningful way. The best way to experience the film is either grabbing it randomly from the video store shelf or by having a friend hand it to you without saying much, if anything, about it. In fact, putting "zombie movie" on the cover does the film a great disservice. In the same way that fans quibble that 28 Days Later isn't a zombie movie, Pontypool doesn't follow the contemporary zombie movie trends of fast-movers or lots of action. Instead, Pontypool kicks it old school by offering us a tight, atmospheric film that definitely harkens back to creepiness of Night of the Living Dead. I won't say it compares entirely favorably to that beloved classic, but both feature a small group of people trapped in a small structure where the tensions going on inside are just as great as the threat from outside.
The reason I love Pontypool (or the reason I can say without spoiling the film) is that, more than any other horror film I've seen recently, I honestly cared about the characters in the studio and wanted to know what was going to happen next. Part of the reason I cared is the characters. They're well written and acted. Stephen McHattie, for instance, plays Grant Mazzy as a cross between Lance Henriksen and Kinky Friedman. The other reasons I was interested was because the film genuinely kept me guessing in a satisfying way. Most horror films are either totally predictable or so illogical that no one can predict them, but Pontypool manages to be surprising while still making sense.
Pontypool has been given a solid release on DVD. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is generally excellent. The studio, where the vast majority of the film takes place, is often dark but there were no compression problems that I could see. Audio plays a major part in the film's success, and the 5.1 surround track offered here is great with both dialogue and atmospherics. The film's main extra is a commentary with director Bruce McDonald and Writer Tony Burgess (who adapted his own novel for the screenplay). This is easily one of the weirdest commentary tracks I've ever heard. The pair start off in typical fashion, discussing the origin of the film, some of the ideas about language that inform it, etc. Then, they decide to have a "story meeting" about the planned two sequels (Pontypool Changes and Pontypool Changes Everything). So, for most of the commentary they're not discussing the film in front of them, but what they plan on doing for the upcoming films. It's a really odd thing to listen to (and is obviously pretty spoiler-heavy). Towards the end they come back to this film and talk a little bit about production and casting. It's a nice extra, but I think that it should have been edited and included on the release of one of the sequels. Also included is a radio-play version of the film that makes a great adjunct to the performances on screen. I'm sure fans are going to argue which is more effective for years to come. The disc also has three short films that aren't really related to Pontypool, but their weird, experimental vibe suits the feature. Finally the disc includes the film's U.S. and international trailers.
I don't want to say too much because heavy expectations could easily crush a film as delicate as Pontypool. I highly recommend the film, but put it in the back of your mind and see it only when you can barely remember what I've said here, so you can experience the film with fresh eyes.
I'll shut up, so I don't die. Not guilty.
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