Shock jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) has been demoted to breakfast radio in the small Ontario town of Pontypool, where the most pressing piece of news is the weather. He arrives for what should be another uneventful broadcast, but news of a mysterious virus infecting the townsfolk starts to infiltrate the airwaves, and, before long, the radio station.

Words don’t come easy.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: The zombie genre has always been loaded with social commentary, but not even the classics of the flesh-eating oeuvre have served up such a richly complex conceit as Bruce McDonald’s Canadian shocker Pontypool.

McDonald, who scored big with the punk-rock mockumentary Hard Core Logo (1996) and the Ellen Page teen-oddity The Tracey Fragments (2007), takes his social commentary cues from the best in the zombie biz, George Romero. Romero is the man behind the "¦Dead series of films – epic tales of an America overrun by a mindless population of predatory consumers. His movies have skewered Vietnam-era social paranoia (Night Of The Living Dead, 1968), the rampant consumerism of the 70’s 'Me Generation’ (Dawn Of The Dead, 1978), the military posturing of Reagan’s 1980’s rule (Day Of The Dead, 1985) and the scourge of the 'reality media’ phenomenon of today (Diary Of The Dead, 2007).

Pontypool also explores the role of the media in the ongoing disintegration of our society, this time from the squeaky-chair, glass booth perspective of smalltown shock-jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie). Mazzy was once someone important, but now his words are wasted, his gravelly Laws-esque voice reduced to announcing school closures, time calls and fake 'eye-in-the-sky’ traffic reports. With his impatient producer Sydney (Lisa Houle) and his cute phone girl Laurel Ann (Georgina Riley), Mazzy helps fill the void of an Ontario winter with meaningless noise he calls his radio career.

But this early morning is different. Reports are filtering through to the radio bunker that a 'riot’ has taken place; that a crowd downtown is fighting, attacking individuals randomly, violently. Did that terrified report from traffic guy Ken Loney (the voice of Rick Roberts) indicate people were tearing each other apart? What is the chanting that Mazzy can hear down the phone line?

McDonald tightens the screws with classic zombie-movie devices – the group has no way out, one of them may have been infected (but by what?), the marauding cannibalistic hordes are getting nearer. As a straight-out horror-thriller, Pontypool works a treat.

But scriptwriter Tony Burgess knows that by entering the world of cinematic zombiedom, he has a responsibility to comment, to satirise – to not just tear open and chew on but also engage the mind of his characters and audience. He does this via a stunning reveal as to the nature of the 'plague’ that has corrupted the collective mind of society (a clue is in Mazzy’s role as a lowbrow social commentator).

In the hope of curing the population of its new-found fleshy hunger, Mazzy unleashes a last-gasp broadcast that is a wild, frenzied meld of brilliant scripting and tour-de-force acting. Spouting nonsensical gibberish at an electrifying pitch, Stephen McHattie throws himself into the film finale with wild abandon and it is a sight to behold.

Horror fans may gripe at the lack of blood-&-guts (though a couple of moments keep the 'that’s gross!" factor high). Fuelled by committed acting, tight direction and a wonderfully focused script, Pontypool proves a winning combination of shuddery suspense and intelligent observations.


1 hour 36 min
Wed, 06/30/2010 - 11