Since its bow last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool—adapted from Canadian author Tony Burgess’s 1998 novel Pontypool Changes Everything and developed as a radio play before cameras were added to the equation—has been unfailingly described by supporters and doubters alike as a “semiotic zombie movie.” It’s a catchy descriptor—especially at a time when regular zombie movies both bad (28 Weeks Later) and worse (Diary of the Dead) are dutifully probed for semiotic heft—but it’s been applied so many times as to lose all meaning. This is appropriate given that it’s a pandemic of mindless repetition that brings about McDonald’s intimate vision of apocalypse.
Pontypool’s zombies (billed in the credits as the “Conversationalists”) are the residents of the small Southern Ontario town that gives the film its name and wintry backdrop. The premise is that Pontypool is the epicenter of a language-based psychosis that turns the afflicted (who turn out to be anybody within earshot of the infected) into dead-eyed shufflers whose mouths are stuck hopelessly on repeat—that is, when they’re not chowing down on fellow human beings. For most of the film, the Conversationalists remain off-screen, heard but not seen, their increasingly brutal activities limited to the panicked descriptions coming in over the phone lines at CSLY, Pontypool’s stalwart local radio station, the vantage point from which McDonald has smartly chosen to observe the crisis. (Burgess’s novel, the first in a trilogy, offered a more panoramic end-of-days portrait.)
Having stumbled badly with the Godardian hi-jinks of The Tracey Fragments—2007’s other Ellen-Page-plays-an-acerbic-teenager-movie—McDonald here evacuates any pretense of avant-garde visuals (which also, sadly, means no Patti Smith songs accompanied by images of actual horses). Instead of futzing with direct address and multiple frames, the director goes for terse, uncluttered naturalism, sketching the layout of the station in a few quick shots and then just plunking his camera down with the principals. Click here to read the rest of Adam Nayman’s review of Pontypool.