This is a film that doesn’t get nearly enough love. I get it; it might not be for everyone. It’s a zombie movie with no undead, flesh-eating zombies. It’s a horror movie with little blood and the secret weapon against the apocalypse is poetry. It’s weird. It’s unique. Dare I say, it’s a thinking man’s zombie movie. And the threat isn’t a monster or a virus or a demon; it’s language, it’s a meme. I would say that Pontypool is way ahead of its time in demonstrating how dangerous the wrong meme can be. I actually feel a little bad about calling this a zombie movie, in that the producer has explicitly said that this is not a zombie movie, referring to the infected, instead, as conversationalists. That being said, the infected were once normal humans who have been turned into mindless creatures bent on violence and everyone else calls them zombies, too.
I don’t think many people have seen this movie, so I’ll give a brief description. It’s a bottle movie, almost the entire movie takes place at a small radio station in the town of Pontypool, Ontario, reminiscent of 10 Cloverfield Lane. We soon meet shock jock DJ, Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie of Watchmen and Come to Daddy), a grizzled renegade, abrasive and slightly arrogant due to being a big fish in a little pond. He comes into the station to do his show on a cold and snowy day, assisted by the station manager, Sydney (Lisa Houle of Cold Squad and Scene of the Crime). Given that it’s talk radio, his show involves taking calls from listeners, but the first call is from their “eye in the sky” traffic reporter. He describes an odd scene in which a group of people seem to be attacking another and then he gets cut off. That sets off a series of calls, each one more bizarre and frightening than the last, the story of a zombie apocalypse told in snippets. Finally, the infection and the infected arrive at the studio and death enters the bottle.
It feels like a radio show, almost more so than it does a movie. There’s a good reason for that, in that, not only was the production inspired by Orson Welles, War of the Worlds, but it was also made into a radio play at the same time it was filmed. Based on a book, Pontypool Changes Everything, written by Tony Burgess, who also adapted it for the movie, it is part of a trilogy. The first book in the trilogy is The Hellmouths of Brewdley, followed by Pontypool Changes Everything and finally, Caesarea. I say trilogy, because that’s what’s on the Wikipedia page. Reading the descriptions of the three books , however, I have no idea how they are related. In addition to writing the screenplay for Pontypool, Burgess has written 7 other screen plays, including Septic Man and Hellmouth. He has even been in a number of his own movies, including Pontypool (he played Tony Lawrence).
In order to be complete in my research, I started tracking down these other movies. Septic Man involves a sewerage worker who gets trapped in a septic tank and becomes mutated by toxic sewage. It addition to sounding too much like The Toxic Avenger, it just sounded incredibly disgusting. Ejecta got horrible reviews, scoring a 4.6 on IMDB and sounded like it might be tortuous to watch. So, Hellmouth it was. Much like Pontypool, it seemed as if were made on a show string budget. Filmed in black and white and making liberal use of cheap editing tricks, it has the feel of the movie, Sin City. It’s the story of Sydney, an old and dying cemetery caretaker. He receives a box that contains a key and a mysterious map. Hellmouth was …okay. Watchable, but not too compelling. Somewhat disappointing, really. I’m writing this post because I LOVED Pontypool. I though it was amazing enough that I’ve seen it three times and I would see it again in an instant, and I rarely see movies more than once.
At the start of this post, I mentioned the word meme. While I have never heard anyone else associate Pontypool with memes, the connection seems obvious. A meme is defined as an idea, behavior or style that spreads by means of imitation from person to person. Many of these are merely humorous, like Bad Luck Brian and Business Cat, but memes can be weaponized. In 2015, The journal, Defense Strategic Communications published an article by Jeff Giesea titled, It’s Time to Embrace Memetic Warfare, urging that, as countries prepare for cyber warfare, they should also be preparing for memetic warfare. One passage reads:
Cyber warfare is about taking control of data. Memetic warfare is about taking control of the dialogue, narrative, and psychological space. It’s about denigrating, disrupting, and subverting the enemy’s effort to do the same. Like cyber warfare, memetic warfare is asymmetrical in impact. It can be highly effective relative to cost. The attack surface can be large or small. Memetic warfare can be used in conjunction with troops, ships, aircraft, and missiles, or it can be employed without any kinetic military force at all. It operates in the communications battlespace.
Anyone who has been online in the last few years knows how pervasive a good meme can be, influencing large segments of society. I believe that Pontypool mimics this effect, though pushed to nightmarish conclusions.
This movie isn’t for everyone. The monsters in it are less monsterish than in most horror movies, and the deadly infection is somewhat conceptual in nature. Still, I feel that the actors are excellent and that the director does a fantastic job of slowly dialing up the tension until the viewer feels just as trapped and threatened as the people inside the tiny, small town, radio studio. The nature of the infection itself is so esoteric that I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks. The best horror movies are the ones that won’t let go. That hold onto one’s psyche. And, for me, Pontypool is exactly that. I may just have to watch it again.