Dave and Dennis Review: PONTYPOOL – A Downright Intellectual Zombie Flick!

Posted: August 16, 2013 in Uncategorized

My frequent collaborator C. Dennis Moore and I are doing weekly … or at least something approaching that… reviews of whatever one challenges the other to review that week. I’m the author of the novels Gray Lake and Death Sight, the first novel in my Will Castleton series. Dennis is the author of the novels Revelations and the Amazon #1 horror bestseller The Third Floor. His new novelThe Ghosts of Mertland just came out this week. Dennis has written more than 1,000 reviews, many of which are available in a series of books . I used to write reviews for the entertainment section of a newspaper. Together Dennis and I have co-written a short novel called Band of Gypsies and the priced-to-sell $.99 full-length story collection Terror Is Our Trade. Right now we’re working on a new Will Castleton novel called Return to Angel Hill. Each week (or whatever) Dennis and I will post both our own and each other’s reviews of the subject at hand to our respective blogs – you can find Mr. Moore’s blog over here. This week, I picked Pontypool.

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PONTYPOOL. PONTY. PONT. PONT. PONTPONT…

by David Bain

Five out of five stars.

I’m going to start my review of Pontypool, a 2008 Canadian zombie movie that’s more about language than it is about zombies, by telling readers about my short story “Under an Invisible Shadow” – stick with me, there’s a method behind my hucksterism.

I wrote the story – all of about 2,500 words – circa 2002. It’s about what happens when, after a dozen-year reign, the zombies start dying off. It was first published in DEAD BUT DREAMING, an anthology of Lovecraftian fiction – yes, a zombie story in a book of Lovecraft homages. A few years later it was reprinted in THE UNDEAD: FLESH FEAST, an actual zombie anthology. I really want to turn this short story into a big, sprawling novel someday, if I can knock quite a number of other projects out of the way first. In the meantime, if you want to read the story, you can dig it up in print in the two aforementioned collections (both great) or in my own print chapbook FOUR STORIES. It won’t be available in ebook format until a little later this year, when my collection DARKER CORRIDORS comes out.

While I can’t ever resist a chance to pimp my own work, there’s another reason I brought up “Under an Invisible Shadow”. People seem to love or hate the thing. I mean, two different editors wanted it in their books, and my fellow reviewer C. Dennis Moore, who probably actually reviewed Pontypool and didn’t use his review to tell you about a story he wrote ten years ago, insists it’s one of my best tales. It got a Year’s Best Horror honorable mention. Other reviewers, however, both professional and amateur, have blasted it, angered that it’s a zombie story without blood or gore, that it’s a Lovecraft story where the big boogieman remains undefined and mostly offscreen. One detractor railed at me for “leaving out the best parts,” namely the cascading guts and the big oogity-boogity.

But that was my intention with the story, really. Horror doesn’t have to be in your face. It can be about ideas. It doesn’t have to be about the immediate, strictly visceral thrill.

The best horror can leave you thinking – actually thinking – for days or weeks after.

Which is why Pontypool is a beautiful little zombie movie. I watched it several days ago and I’ll be thinking about the closing monologue and several of its ideas for quite some time.

And, like my little horror story, horror fans will either love it or hate it. There’s some blood – it’s projectile, even – but the film nonetheless leaves out most of what that one reviewer would have considered best in a zombie movie. The tale mostly happens in a claustrophobic basement radio station with the zombie attack being literally phoned in – we mostly get only audio of the atrocities until the final reel.

For me, this only heightened the sense of paranoia. For one thing, as a fan of old time radio horror shows, I’m well aware that what our brains can imagine from a story we only hear or read can be much worse than what a film can show us. But more importantly when it comes to Pontypool, we are utterly restricted in point-of-view, confined with characters who are not sure what is real, what isn’t. They don’t know the parameters of this thing and, for various reasons, the truth is not readily forthcoming from any of their limited sources.

Another reason I enjoyed Pontypool is that I love language and the power of language. Stephen McHattie is brilliant as disgraced shock jock Grant Mazzy, who has a deft control of and love for both expressing the truth as he sees it and the spoken word itself. He and his producer, Sydney Briar (played by McHattie’s real life wife Lisa Houle), soon begin to understand that the virus affecting the citizens of the small Canadian town of Pontypool has something to do with language – might even be caused by language – those afflicted begin repeating words or sounds, stuttering, losing the ability to think clearly, quickly degenerating into a zombie-like state. Their grapplings with and solutions to the problem are both brave and brilliant, making for a number of tense and surreal scenes.

I’m giving the movie five stars despite several flaws – partially because I suspect the screenwriter, novelist Tony Burgess, a semiotics and linguistics expert adapting his own novel, might have intentionally included several of them. For instance, there’s A Doctor With An Accent Who Figures Stuff Out – while the plot does indeed need him to have an accent, he (quite literally) slips into and out of the plot a little too effortlessly, too conveniently. There’s also an obituary reading which, though poetic in its own twisted way, couldn’t realistically happen in quite exactly the way it does. Plus a television in the studio or Skype on someone’s cell phone might have changed things significantly, etc.

But these are minor quibbles, and, like I said, given the eventual theme of the film – that language and expectations can be used to make zombies of us all – Burgess and director Bruce McDonald’s not sticking to a strictly linear cinematic logic might have been a completely conscious decision.

Note: Dennis emailed me to watch while wearing headphones and to stick with it all the way through the credits. I’m glad I did both.

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Pontypool

by C. Dennis Moore

4/5 stars

It’s no secret how I feel about zombies, so I won’t rehash it here.  I will, however, reiterate: they’re friggin lame.

You think about 95% of the zombies books or movies you’ve encountered and you can break them down into 1 story.  A bunch of people holed up somewhere waiting out the inevitable while the zombie hordes wreak havoc on the world.  Sometimes there’s a relative they have to brave the outside to find, but in the end it all boils down to the same damn story.  Yawn.

2008’s PONTYPOOL, starring Stephen McHattie as DJ Grant Mazzy in the small town of Pontypool in Ontario on Valentine’s Day, however, is a different breed of zombie movie.  How?  First of all, it’s good.  Second, the zombies in here are much closer to the actual definition of a zombie than anything Romero, Keene, Brooks, or any of the other “popular” zombie “creators” have come up with–that’s because those versions of the zombie you know and love so well are actually closer to ghouls, but, whatever, that’ll be our secret.  Now, granted, I have only read maybe half a dozen zombie novels in my time (cuz they’re lame), and I admit to never having read Keene or Brooks, but if you rise from the grave and you eat human flesh, you’re a ghoul.  Look it up.  The antagonists in Pontypool, however, are, to quote from wikipedia, closer to “a hypnotized person bereft of consciousness and self-awareness, yet ambulant and able to respond to surrounding stimuli”.

This is where the genius of this story, originally from the novel PONTYPOOL CHANGES EVERYTHING by the movie’s writer Tony Burgess, comes in.

The story starts simply enough.  It’s 6:30 on a COLD winter’s morning and Grant is starting his day at work.  His producer Sydney is there (played by McHattie’s own wife, Lisa Houle), along with assistant Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly), recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan.  The suspense begins when their “eye in the sky”, Ken Loney, reports a mob outside a local doctor’s office.  The crowd grows and soon the building erupts with a tide of people spilling out into the street. Helicopters show up and Ken beats a quick exit, leaving Grant and the ladies wondering what’s going on (Ken’s later account of hiding out in a grain silo are downright chilling).

They continue their day, but more and more reports continue to filter in until soon there’s mass hysteria about town and Dr. Mendez–the doctor whose office was attacked earlier–sneaks in and takes refuge in the radio station, which is housed in the basement of an old church.  It’s a virus, he tries to explain, but it’s not transmitted by blood or bites or anything else.  It’s the English language, he says.  Our words are infected.  Something happens to the brain when it snags on a word and, as Dr. Mendez says, UNDERSTANDS that word.  The word becomes infected and the person, referred to by author Burgess not as zombies but as “conversationalists”, then have to transfer that infection to someone else.  They begin to hunt for victims, eventually “suiciding” when they find one.

Grant has a duty to relay what’s happening to his listeners.  After all, people have to be warned.  But it’s not a specific word that’s infected, so to speak at all is to risk the madness that comes with it.

As a writer, as someone who works every single day with words, I love this story.  I love the concept.  And believe me, it’s a million times more ominous to think something like this could happen, and my suspension of disbelief works a whole lot more with this idea than it does to think my grandmother might one day return from the dead and fight her way out of the grave to seek living brains to feast on.  For one, my grandmother’s in a mausoleum, and she’s about 30 years dead.  But you get my point.  As someone who has OFTEN found himself with a word stuck in his head, repeating it over and over until it loses all meaning and then I start to wonder if that’s even the word I was thinking of because by this point it sure as hell doesn’t sound like anything I know, it’s just a weird sound I keep making with my mouth…yeah, I’d put more stock in this story taking place than the living dead.

Director Bruce McDonald uses Grant’s job as a DJ to relay the important information to the viewer without a hurried and obvious info dump scene that takes you out of the movie, and he uses the single location of the radio station to build suspense and create a sense of claustrophobia that few other movies of this genre can match, especially when Grant, Sydney and Dr. Mendez are on the floor in the sound booth while the conversationalist hordes are beating on the glass.

But it’s Stephen McHattie who makes this movie really work.  He’s taken Burgess’s words and given them a cadence and a tone that brings the character of Grant Mazzy to life.  I see McHattie and I know he played in 300, I know he was Hollis Mason in WATCHMEN.  I can see him in both of those roles clear as day, but it’s like they were played by an entirely different person because this guy on screen, that’s not an actor playing Grant Mazzy, that’s Grant Mazzy.  This guy has a history, he’s got a moral code that has caused him to be tossed around on occasion and a set of rules he lives by that help him get through each day.  This isn’t a part, Grant Mazzy is a person, and McHattie sells him so well.

It’s not all sunshine and roses, though.  For me, the last act of the movie begins to fall apart at the precise moment Sydney gets caught up on the word “kill”.  Mazzy hits upon a way to counteract the virus, and I guess on paper it makes perfect sense, but something about the execution here left me scratching my head and thinking “Really?  That?”  I really hate great movies with crappy endings.  And I won’t even get into the post-credits scene that, to me, makes no sense at all.

Still, I have to say, McHattie’s delivery and Burgess’s script, man, they keep me engaged from the first frame.  I’ve seen this movie three times now–twice in the last week–and I would have no problem seeing it again tomorrow.  For 2/3 of it’s 94-minute running time, PONTYPOOL is a brilliant movie.  Not only brilliant, but it’s the kind of movie I very rarely see: it’s a horror movie for writers.  Now THAT I can dig.

Buy Pontypool on Amazon

Watch Pontypool on Netflix

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