Monday, May 7, 2012

Zombie Awareness Month Zombiethon 3: Pontypool

A few years ago now, I had the idea to create a webcomic centered on a radio station struggling to stay on the air during a zombie apocalypse. Somebody connected with the project at one point -- an artist I'd spoken with, perhaps -- asked if I'd ever seen Pontypool. I hadn't. And I didn't, until today.

I was gratified on two counts: First, though Pontypool is also set in a radio station, and during some sort of apocalyptic viral outbreak, it really is very different than what I had envisioned for my comic (and who knows: maybe it'll find its way out someday). Second, it was both completely unexpected and frighteningly compelling.

Based on the Tony Burgess novel Pontypool Changes Everything (which is now on my must-read list), this is by no means a traditional zombie film. It has, however, been added for reasons that will soon become obvious. In short, this film reminds greatly of the best in Stephen King, and is a phenomenal adaptation, to boot.

The film stars Stephen McHattie (Syfy's "Haven") as Grant Mazzy, a former shock jock, banished to obscurity in a basement radio station in sleepy Pontypool, ON. On his way to work, he's shaken by a strange incident: a woman, very underdressed for the weather, bangs on his car window. He rolls down the window to hear what she wants, and she disappears into the night, repeating his last words to her: "who are you?"

After he gets to the station, he pulls out some of old schtick to test out on his new audience, angering his station manager, Sydney Briar. In the meantime, events are unfolding in the outside world. Soon, a call from their man on the street informs Mazzy and Sydney, along with show producer Laurel-Ann, that strange things are happenig in the outside world. People are, in short, going a bit insane. At first, it looks like a protest, then a riot. Then, as the situation worsens, people begin eating one another.

At least, that's how it sounds. Mazzy isn't certain he's not being screwed with, until he ventures outside and attracts some very unwelcome attention. Turns out, it's exactly as bad as it sounds, and possibly worse.

Pontypool is brilliant in many ways. On a visceral level, it is a study in isolation and helplessness. The claustrophobia becomes a tangible thing as you cannot help but feel the fear and frustration of Mazzy and company as they listen to the events unfolding, aware only of the information trickling in through the phonelines and unable to actually do anything about any of it. On the one hand, it is reminiscent of the infamous "War of the Worlds" radio play, except that here, you are in the room with McHattie's DJ, uncertain with him as to whether he's going insane, or if he might just find a way out of all this.

The tension is about as tight as can be throughout. Stuck inside this dark basement, you have no idea of what could happen to anybody at any given time. Because of events throughout, you become aware of the precariousness of their situation which only heightens the suspense.

There are, to be sure, other levels here. Deeper meanings. As the movie progresses, these deeper meanings are brought out of the shadows and highlighted as part of the plot. So I'm not going to go into them here. Got to leave you with something to figure out on your own, right?

Scary, entertaining, and cerebral, Pontypool easily makes it to my list of all-time greats.

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