Big Awful Friday: 'Pontypool' a fresh take on rotten genre

By Ed Robertson, December 2, 2011 

Canadians can be sneaky. Contrary to stereotype, you can't spot one just by listening for telltale "ehs" or strange insults about water-sprayers.

They could easily pass for the 51st state -- or cue Twilight Zone theme please -- we could be the 11th province.

So I'm surprised and very not surprised to learn I have been enjoying a lot of Canadian indie movies lately. The Wild Hunt. Last Night. Hobo with a Shotgun. And with 2008's Pontypool, they've infiltrated one of the most American genres of them all.

Big-city morning DJ Stephen McHattie has just relocated to the small town of Pontypool, Ontario. Within minutes of arriving at the studio, he and his producer get reports of violent riots downtown. Within hours, the whole town appears to be consumed by madness -- but in a basement studio, McHattie begins to think it all may be a hoax.

I would like to leave that question unanswered. Almost all of Pontypool takes place in that isolated basement, a pretty unusual tack for a horror film. Make that an unusual tack for any film, which typically features at least one more set than a three-act play. But since I am not the back of a DVD sleeve, it turns out I am obligated to say more than "Rent it to find out!"

So forgive the mild spoiler when I say Pontypool is a zombie movie -- of sorts. Director Bruce McDonald doesn't consider the infected people to be zombies, but considering there are lots of fans who will readily watch zombie movies and considerably less who will check out movies about vaguely crazy bitey-guys, McDonald can't get too worked up when someone uses the Z-word to describe his film.

Thing is, almost all of this not-zombie action takes place offscreen. McHattie and his two-woman production crew rely on the garbled accounts of call-in witnesses. Trapped with limited information, we're as confused as they are, grounding Pontypool's horror in paranoia and the unseen unknown rather than the giblety, intestine-chewing shock of most zombie movies.

That's a cool, expectations-defying departure, aided by strong acting and a nice glimpse at the nuts and bolts of professional radio. That all keeps Pontypool propped up despite direction that is workmanlike (critic-speak for "well, it didn't suck") and rules for infection that are more tangled than a soccer game played by spiders. These days, zombies might be ancient hat, but talented people are still finding fresh looks at the rotting dead.

* Contact Ed Robertson at

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