Radio DJ Grant Mazzy has had to start his career over in the town of Pontypool, a town that’s about to get a few surprises in the form of a virus that’s turning people into ravenous, zombie like creatures with an obsession for words.
In the event of a zombie uprising, the radio might just be a zombie’s worst enemy or their best friend. Really depends on how a zombie takes advantage of it. You have to figure that a lot of the living are going to be paying attention to radio for information about where to go and what to do. In this respect the radio is going to be helping the living deal with the undead yearning to tear them apart, therefore making them better able to deal with the zombie hordes traversing the country. However, should a zombie listen to those same broadcasts, they’d be able to know exactly what the living were up to themselves, helping said zombie to better prep himself for a fun and eventful evening of chowing down on the living. I’ve actually taken extra steps to make sure I’m in the best position possible when the inevitable zombie apocalypse goes down, by enlisting my brother Chris to help me out when the time comes. My brother happens to be a damn good radio DJ whose skills have allowed him to make a few contacts in the radio world, and while he isn’t a zombie himself, he’s promised to make sure his zombified older brother doesn’t end up on the wrong end of a crowbar or nail studded baseball bat. I’d love to say which station the guy works for, him being very talented, talented enough that he’d be able to have you enjoying whatever music he’s playing, but I don’t feel like getting him in trouble by letting on that he’s okay using those talents against his living comrades. By keeping me in the know, giving me information that will keep me one step ahead of the living, information I’ll have before the living, I’ll be able to not only feast as I desire, but avoid any messy injuries that would result in my end. Now before you get upset at him, thinking him a traitor to his kind, remember the old adage, “Blood is thicker than water.” That happens to hold true even if said blood is coagulated and very, very thick. Besides, he knows I’d never hurt him when the zombie apocalypse occurs, mom would kick my ass. Thanks for your help Chris, your brother loves you.
Our film begins with radio DJ Grant Mazzy on his way to work at his new station. After a very angry phone conversation about his recent termination from a former station, he pulls to a stop at a red light where a woman appears out of nowhere and pounds her hands against his car window, repeating the same word over and over again before disappearing into the snow. Though confused by the strange occurrence, he proceeds to the station where show producer Sydney and radio technician Laurel-Ann are waiting for him to get started. They begin the show and during a news piece by their “Sunshine Chopper,” the station’s supposed weather helicopter that is actually a guy driving around in his Dodge Dart, reports come in about a protest situated around a doctor’s office, a protest that turns deadly right before the military shows up for unknown reasons. Contact is suddenly lost with their “Sunshine Chopper” correspondent Ken, and while they attempt to reestablish that contact, the show must go on, so Mazzy does his best to go on with the program. Part of that program includes a performance by “Lawrence and the Arabians,” a slightly, maybe more than slightly, racist group of performance singers who dress up as terrorists, poorly painted brownface included. One member of their group, a little girl, suddenly can’t remember the words she’s supposed to sing and begins repeating a single word instead. Reports suddenly comes in of this very same thing happening to multiple people around town, each one only able to repeat one single word, only now they are growing violent as well. People are calling in one after the other about the chaos and insanity engulfing the town of Pontypool, and amid this chaos contact is finally reestablished with Ken who seems to be in a state of total panic. He reports on seeing cannibalistic people that act little better than vicious dogs, pulling people out of vehicles and tearing at flesh with their teeth, almost as if they’re trying to chew their way inside of them. Amidst the chaos a French message interrupts Ken’s reporting, and once translated, warns people to avoid family and friends, rhetorical arguments, and any terms of endearment. Ken comes back on air afterward with a message himself, one he was able to record from someone who was near death from whatever sickness has affected the people of Pontypool. What he recorded came from a grown man, yet sounded like the digitized voice of a young baby. This creepy message is too much for Mazzy who decides he has had enough and is leaving the station, despite a warning that he, Laurel-Ann, and Sydney have all been quarantined. Luckily they are able to drag him back inside before a group of seemingly insane individuals attack, bashing against the doors and windows and repeating the same words Sydney had said only moments before dragging Mazzy out of the snow. The three now realize that they have nowhere to go, and, worse yet, will have to go it alone against the masses gathering outside.
I had no idea Pontypool was a book before I decided to give it a watch, but it was such an interesting flick that I’m now going to have to go find a copy and give it a read to see how close the film was to its source material. I’m going to assume it’s pretty damn close though considering the author of the book, Tony Burgess, is the one who adapted it for the screen. The inspiration behind the adaption appears to be Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds where, legend has it, Americans all over the country freaked out and thought that the planet was actually being invaded by aliens from outer space, 1930’s America apparently being full of a bunch of completely gullible morons who would believe anything as long as it came out of the magical talking box called a radio. Today we’re much, much smarter, we don’t take anything we hear on the radio to be truth, it has to be in a Facebook meme first before we know it’s true because if it’s on the internets it has to be. Still, at least none of them ever heard a radio show about aliens overrunning the country and started jumping out of windows to avoid the coming extraterrestrial horror of ray gun induced death. Maybe a couple of them hid in their basements when NASA photos showing Bigfoot on Mars popped up in their feed, but they didn’t go completely nuts. Well, neither did most of the small group that heard Welles’ rendition of War of the Worlds either. The reaction to his play was mostly hyped up by newspapers that were too afraid of losing their readership to radio which was becoming more popular by the day. They figured that if they could hype up a radio play as being so irresponsibly broadcast that it caused mass panic, chaos, and death, then maybe people wouldn’t want to listen so much and everyone would come crawling back to newspapers. It didn’t work out so well as people would continue to love getting their info from the radio, then the television, and now the internet, but overtime that old myth became legend before becoming truth much like people supposedly jumping out of windows after the 1929 stock market crash, George Washington having wooden teeth, or Taco Bell being actual food.
While the now infamous Orson Welles on air reading of The War of the Worlds has gotten more credit than it should have, Pontypool works perfectly for today’s world with its oversaturation of news that relies heavily on shocking the viewer with mostly over exaggerated “facts” to get people to tune into their shows. I’m not saying this is anything new, just look at what happened with the War of the Worlds broadcast, it’s just more prevalent now than it’s ever been. Take a look at any of the dozens upon dozens of news channels and you’ll see each trying to one up the others my being more shocking, more provocative, and more terrifying than the last. It’s often more about doing whatever it takes to get people to tune in than it is about reporting the truth, and even when it is the truth, you can forget about it being reported responsibly. It’s all about being as sensational as possible, even if it could cause potential harm to those exposed to it. This is where Pontypool fits in perfectly with DJ Grant Mazzy’s handling of the viral outbreak that is affecting the town he’s supposed to be reporting the news for, a town that he’s less interested in helping deal with a crisis and more interested in driving into a frenzy so he’ll have more listeners. For most of the film, as the town is sinking deeper and deeper into panic, Mazzy isn’t reporting facts he knows, he’s only going off of hearsay and rumor, using them to his advantage in order to whip his listeners into a frenzy. His irresponsibility continually makes things worse around the town, and the man could care less because he’s getting exactly what he wants, more people tuning into to hear him, the cost of his irresponsibility meaning little to him. You have to understand that it’s not until he storms outside that Mazzy even starts to believe what he’s putting on the air. Up until the point where the French broadcast comes through and his “Sunshine Chopper” correspondent Ken reports in with the recorded voice of someone that was infected that he starts to believe that something might be going on in Pontypool. They make an emphasis to show how shocked he suddenly is when he finally starts to understand that something terrifying is really occurring. That’s why he has to try and leave the building, almost getting himself killed, because he has to see it for himself, everything before that just being him hyping up a situation for his own amusement and gain. It was a perfect commentary on today’s state of affairs when it comes to the new media.
That’s not where Pontypool’s commentary ends though. They also delved deeply into the power of words and how strong they can become. The zombie virus in Pontypool is a language based virus that is transmitted via certain words that have to be understood by the person hearing them. Not even hearing them necessarily as even understating the word through lip reading will infect a person, causing them to repeat whatever the infected word happens to be before fully succumbing to the effects, finding a need to pass the word to someone else and continue the virus’ transmission, or in the words of Bruce McDonald:
“There are three stages to the virus. The first stage is you might begin to repeat a word. Something gets stuck. And usually it’s words that are terms of endearment like sweetheart or honey. The second stage is your language becomes scrambled and you can’t express yourself properly. The third stage you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.”
That sounds almost worse than any zombie virus I’ve ever heard of. These people aren’t eating others because they crave their flesh, but because they have become so distressed that the only way they see to get out of their situation is to eat their way into another person, thereby passing the infected word on to someone else much as certain words can gain a power all their own and when used irresponsibly cause harm as they’re passed on from one person to another. The only way to stop the infection is by robbing the word of its power. The reason a person begins to repeat the word over and over again before the sickness fully takes hold is because the body and brain are trying to fight it off by making the word meaningless. By saying it over and over again the word can be rendered powerless, and expelled completely if switched up to take on a different meaning. This is something we see every day in the world with words that have a much stronger meaning but are stripped by their overuse until they become something completely different. NAZI and Hitler are great examples. Hitler was one of the worst human beings of the twentieth century, and the NAZIs committed a whole host of terrible atrocities that will forever mark them down as some of the sickest people to exist, yet when you hear so many people referred to as a NAZI the word loses its power, becoming little more than a buzzword someone uses when they feel another person is against them, it coming to mean little more than “You’re an asshole.” Same with Hitler, once you’ve heard every leader around the globe referred to as Hitler, it suddenly doesn’t seem as strong of a name anymore. It was an ingenious commentary on the power of words that showed a deep appreciation of language. As much as we might find them harmless, words, and indeed language, can be used to cause great harm to people, sometimes dumbing people down, sometimes stirring up hatred in them, and sometimes spurring on tragedy like we’ve seen multiple times throughout history. Sticking with the Hitler example, look what the man was able to do with only speeches. Sometimes though those same words that should be kept as a reminder of the power they once had are stripped away by misuse until they mean very little.
Rounding out the aspects that made Pontypool so great are the three main actors that had to carry most of the film on their shoulders. Actor Stephen McHattie does a phenomenal job as shock jock Grant Mazzy, channeling his best Don Imus as he whips the town into a frenzy. He’s not much of a likable character towards the beginning, but it was great the way he was able to turn his character around when he realizes that what’s happening is something serious enough to endanger not only himself, but the rest of the town as well. He begins to not only want to survive the infection, but to actually help out the town, and the change was something you could visibly see in the man. His talent should come as no surprise considering McHattie has played just about every type of role out there, from a bumbling military leader in LEXX to grizzled old leader of a werewolf pack in Wolves. The man even played James Dean years back. Opposite him as producer Sydney is McHattie’s real life wife Lisa Houle. It was a good choice to use her for the role because the chemistry was a palpable thing between them and it translated well on screen. Lastly was Georgina Reilly as technician Laurel Ann, a woman who seems to adore Mazzy at first but grows weary of his selfish ways rather quickly. All three worked extremely well with each other and together helped to make the movie so great, perfectly facilitating the film’s overall message.
Pontypool was an extremely original zombie movie that had a great message to it. While these might not be your traditional undead fiends, they were definitely zombies in more ways than one. I’ve often heard it said that the media is turning people into zombies, something shown rather well with this flick. I highly recommend giving it a watch, just be careful of the terms of affection.
The Undead Review
Directed By: Bruce McDonald (Hellions, The Husband)
Starring: Stephen McHattie (Watchmen, A Little Bit Zombie), Lisa Houle (Ejecta, Emily of the New Moon), and Georgina Reilly (Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal, Better People)
Written By: Tony Burgess (Writer of the Book Pontypool Changes Everything as well as the films Septic Man, Hellmouth, and Ejecta)
Released By: Ponty Up Pictures, Shadow Shows, and IFC Films
Release Year: 2008
Release Type: Theatrical Release
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Rotten Heads: Four and a Half Heads Out of Five