Pontypool (2009)

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*. Zombies weren’t originally born of a virus. That idea came in slowly, almost as a corollary to Romero’s flesh-eating undead (Romero’s films eschew any final explanation for why the dead are coming back to life, and indeed the notion of a contagion isn’t always available).
*. As time went on, however, the notion of a virus became part of zombie mythology. In the remake of Dawn of the Dead, for example, only those dead who die of the infection will rise as zombies. And in films like 28 Days Later and World War Z a virus is quite explicitly at fault.
*. Viruses were a great horror vector. They seem to have first entered the genre’s bloodstream with David Cronenberg’s “venereal horror,” and in a movie like Rabid you get something very close to a zombie virus taking over a city. A sort of venereal horror was also behind slasher films as well, where sex=death.
*. Flash forward to the Internet age and it’s a different kind of virus that we live in fear of. This is the anxiety that Pontypool taps into: of people being turned into so many bits of information or signals and then corrupted. It’s no accident that a copy of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, an SF novel about a cybervirus that shuts down users’ brains, appears in one shot. This is the new face of our vulnerability, and hence terror.
*. The concept of a language virus also taps into another anxiety: that of cultural exhaustion. It’s noteworthy, I think, that only the English language is affected. It has become bread on the water, worn out from overuse. It just doesn’t work any more, which leads to communication breakdown. It is a zombie language, with people saying things to each other (in particular, words of endearment) that no longer carry any meaning. Somehow the creative classes have to make language new.
*. For what it’s worth, director Bruce McDonald didn’t consider the infected here as zombies but preferred to call them “conversationalists.” I think he was being silly when he said this. It’s true these aren’t the living dead, but they are analogs.
*. The script was Tony Burgess’s own adaptation of his novel Pontypool Changes Everything. It is quite a radical abridgement, and he apparently banged it out in 48 hours.
*. An aside: Why are screenwriters always so proud of working at high speed? It’s as though they think there’s something heroic about it. I mean, I’m a big fan of Burgess’s work but personally I’d rather go see a movie that I know the screenwriter put some time into.
*. There seems to have been an idea to include more of the original story in subsequent films, as this was originally planned as the first film in a Pontypool trilogy. Burgess and McDonald talk about this a lot on the DVD commentary, even reading extensively from a treatment. But the sequels never happened. At least I’ve never heard any mention of them.

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*. It’s a very Canadian movie. Why?
*. In the first place there’s that sense of isolation through weather and geography. In the words of the literary critic Northrop Frye, Canadians have what’s known as a “garrison mentality.” That’s certainly in evidence here as the radio crew are trapped in what is in effect a bunker, a snow storm raging outside, in a small town that’s over a hundred miles from “the city” (presumably Toronto). Strangers appear out of the void and then are sucked back into it. Neighbours have to tunnel to your window through a snowbank. That is, if you have any neighbours that are still human.
*. There’s also something essentially Canadian in the way the very beautiful and very blank-faced Georgina Reilly is destroyed while Stephen McHattie and Lisa Houle, with their more lined and lived-in faces, become the heroes. The same principle is at work in the way we pick our politicians in this country, with easily caricatured figures like Rene Levesque and Jean Chretien enjoying a popularity above that of the air-brushed, slicked-down, and blow-dried Harper and Mulroney.
*. God, Stephen McHattie is good in this. That combination of voice and face sells the part perfectly. Though I was a little less convinced by his relationship with Lisa Houle (which is a bit odd given that the two are married in real life). The script doesn’t present them to us as a couple, and I found it a little odd how they paired off at the end.
*. Speaking of the end, the very end, I’ve mentioned it before but . . . here we go again. Post-credit sequences are a stupid stunt. Stop it. Just stop.
*. What is with that Lawrence and the Arabians piece? It’s a cameo for Burgess, but cooler heads should have prevailed before they ever shot it. It doesn’t fit with the rest of the film at all.
*. This is a good movie, though I think it goes downhill toward the end. It’s gives a really original twist to the zombie genre and features a great lead performance. The production design is excellent, though I wish McDonald had been able to squeeze more out of his limited resources with some more flair in the camera movement. There are only hints of this in the way some shots semi-circle about Mazzy in his booth. Apparently McDonald originally had the idea of doing the whole thing in a single take (or presenting the illusion of a single take, as in films like Irreversible), which in theory would have been quite doable given the War of the Worlds-style screenplay that unfolds pretty much in real time.
*. I think that might have worked here, and given the film an extra bit of visual energy to counterbalance the grim setting. Still, this is one of the most interesting zombie films of its period, and one of the few I enjoy coming back to.

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