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What Zombies? Bruce McDonald’s “Pontypool”

What Zombies? Bruce McDonald's "Pontypool"

EDITOR’S NOTE: This review was originally published as part of indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2009 SXSW Film Festival.

I’m in the minority thinking that Bruce McDonald’s “The Tracey Fragments” made for one of the niftiest avant-garde movie experiences of 2008, but McDonald doesn’t try to please a large crowd, anyway. For years, the director has worked with complete autonomy, thriving off his community in Canada while still managing to attract stars to his projects. He does what he wants for whoever cares to pay attention. At the same time, there’s generally something familiar about the genres McDonald chooses to play around with; he just tends to rejiggle the pieces, and boldly leave a few of them out of the picture. “Tracey Fragments” was a visually jagged thriller minus the payoff. “Pontypool,” which has its U.S. premiere in the midnight section of the SXSW Film Festival tonight, offers a zombie movie without actual zombies.

Or, rather, we are the zombies: The story centers on a moody but talented radio DJ whose quiet day on the air suddenly becomes shockingly distinct when reports begin coming in about people in the area going crazy, moving in crowds with a furious mob mentality and leaving death in their wake. A minimalist horror movie, “Pontypool” relies more on the vague suggestions of a mass, unexplainable catastrophe just beyond our realm of awareness – not unlike M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs,” but much, much better.

Tony Burgess provides a screenplay based on his novel that uses verbal clues as plot devices. He cleverly embeds a key word in certain conversations that unlocks the nature of the outbreak. It’s a truly cinematic device, one that rarely gets enough screen time: Alfred Hitchock’s first talkie, “Blackmail,” made strategic use of the word “knife.” Following in that same tradition, the solution to the mystery in “Pontypool” lies with the magic word responsible for the outbreak, and it has a similarly frightening connotations when spoken. McDonald’s minimalist horror movie might be a linguist’s worst nightmare, but it’s also smart enough not to worry about genre conventions: The surreal nonsense of the closing monologue, an attempt to subvert the disease, would please Allen Ginsberg more than George Romero — although he should appreciate the fresh approach.

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