The zombie genre has arguably been done to death. While there exists a coffinload of classics, including “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” “Night of the Living Dead,” and “28 Days Later,” often newer releases aren’t quite as fresh as the zombies’ meals. Whether quality has diminished, or simply the sheer volume of undead flicks has created a natural eye-roll reaction upon the announcement of the umpteenth zombie movie isn’t clear. Occasionally it seems that true to zombie lore, films about the living dead have begun chomping on film scripts in Hollywood and amassing a like absent-minded army. 2008’s quirky “Pontypool,” however, seasoned the monotonous horde of zombie productions, offering a unique spin on a tired field.
“Pontypool,” appropriately named for the town of Pontypool, Ontario, opens with a transmission from radio personality Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie). The once shock jock announcer is having difficulty adjusting to his new role, which reflects the blizzard conditions surrounding his morning drive: drab and quiet. Discontent with his watered down radio position, Mazzy’s usually boring drive to work is interrupted by a mysterious woman who emerges suddenly out of the snow mouthing inaudible words.
From here, Mazzy’s day becomes steadily more bizarre. Arriving at work, Mazzy is greeted by his manager Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle), and the technical assistant Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly). Wishing to spice up broadcasts, Mazzy infuses ordinary reports with his controversial commentary, much to the chagrin of Sydney. Laurel-Ann, however, tends to appreciate Mazzy’s brazen style. As rumors of riots around the office of Dr. Mendez (Hrant Alianak) come in from field reporter Ken Loney (Rick Roberts), Mazzy is afforded an enthralling news scoop.
The unbelievable narrative continues gaining momentum as incoming calls provide increasingly stranger accounts of Pontypool’s odd behavior. All the while Mazzy, Sydney, and Laurel-Ann attempt to gain a stronger understanding of what is really happening. It is precisely this H.G. Wells “War of the Worlds” style that lends “Pontypool” a riveting quality. Traditional zombie flick staples such as shotguns, buckets of blood, and gruesome dismemberments are conspicuously absent. Rather, the film delivers a slow simmer that fosters tension and suggests the notion that at any moment a mob of the undead will burst through the nearest wall.
Almost entirely dialogue driven for the first half of the film, acting from the small cast truly shows that a star-studded ensemble isn’t needed to craft a terrific narrative. Most notably, Stephen McHattie’s gruff-voiced storytelling propels the plot, to the point that the visuals could be removed entirely. However, while McHattie mesmerizes vocally, the radio team’s degradation into hysteria is fantastically portrayed visually. McHattie’s enthusiastic commentary clashes with his visibly distraught demeanor. Georgina Reilly contributes wonderfully as Laural-Ann. Reilly’s mere facial expressions convey a sense of unease, and further bolster the anxious atmosphere. This sense of confusion encourages an ambiguously sinister feel.
“Pontypool” remains fresh in execution, relying primarily on dialogue and acting, and the low-budget special effects actually appear more realistic than CGI showcases. Even genres are crossed, as the film incites genuine laughter, a rarity in horror movies. The darkly comedic “Pontypool” is based off Tony Burgess’ novel Pontypool Changes Everything, which explains the conversational dependence. Even the transmission of the epidemic is distinct, and rather amusing. “Pontypool” is one of the sparse zombie flicks where the manifestation of symptoms is intentionally comical. Wholly enjoyable and bloody brilliant, “Pontypool” proves that the zombie genre isn’t completely brain dead.