Pontypool: A Zombie Film Gone Minimalist

Zombie films are such a drag. The bubble has now broken, but for the past few years zombie films and TV shows have ruled mainstream horror in a way that is frustrating in its ubiquity.

The problem with most zombie movies is that they fail to make themselves stand out from other end of the world stories. World War Z decided to portray its zombies are human waves that turned the film into something no indistinguishable from countless other summer disaster porn flicks. The Walking Dead traded its premise for schmaltzy drama and bland post-apocalyptic archetypes.

During the zombie wave, the Canadian film Pontypool slipped right underneath the radar. A low-budget independent flick, Pontypool is not perfect, but takes advantage of its low-budget to create a minimalist, claustrophobic story more thrilling than nearly every other zombie film on the market.

Pontypool tells the story of radio shock jockey Mazzy (played Stephen McHattie, who you might recognize as Senator “IT’S A FAKE” Vreenak in a seminal episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) who operates a radio station in the middle of nowhere, Canada. With his two producers, Mazzy begins to get reports of strange occurrences at the nearby town of Pontypool, which soon blossom into a full-blown zombie apocalypse.

The movie only takes place in the small radio studio and the first half of the movie is nothing more than the crew of the radio station trying to figure out what is going on. As the plot unfolds they get phone calls from their reporters, weird transmissions in French and garbled radio announcements. What makes this so interesting is that we never actually see the zombies until the last 30 minutes of the film. Instead, we get to watch as the situation gradually unfolds somewhere else and our main characters try to piece the information together.

Pontypool is a perfect example of a movie that benefited from a limited budget. There was no money to make massive CGI hordes of zombies or show complex (yet ultimately bland) scenes of urban destruction. Instead they had to rely on story-telling and mystery to drive the plot and create tension.

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Because of this, the movie succeeds where many other movies do not. In the horror genre, a general rule is that you do not want the audience to see the monster until it is necessary for the plot to move forward. Just seeing monsters (in this case zombies) is not frightening. The unknown is frightening. Knowing that there are terrible things happening outside the scope of the shots creates tension and anxiety that drives the plot. So in Pontypool when we are only getting an idea of the zombie attack through second-hand sources, the movie stands out and becomes much more engaging. Now, we are in the same boat as the audience. When Mazzy is trying to figure out what his reporters are describing, we have to do that as well, letting our brains run wild trying to imagine the images of cannibalistic zombies and exploding buildings.

This type of movie only works good with excellent actors, and that is one place where Pontypool does struggle. McHattie is fun to watch, if far too over the top in many scenes. However, if anybody is familiar with his noteworthy appearance in Star Trek, that should come as no surprise. Just imagine Senator Vreenak’s crazy reactions to Sisko’s fake data rod, and you have a pretty good idea of what McHattie’s character is like. Unfortunately the other two main actresses are bland at best and incredibly annoying at worse. But hey, they did not have a big budget to hire A-listers, so I can not get too angry.

The only thing that stops Pontypool from being a great movie is the last 30 minutes, where it dives into the type of boiler-plate plot points that we expect from zombie movies. A doctor shows up in the radio station and explains how the zombie outbreak happened along with the rules for not getting infected. It’s an unnecessary scene and ruins the mystique that the film had built up that point.

I have no clue why horror movies lately feel the need to explain exactly what is going on for the audience. Take a look at the recent movie It Follows. By the end of It Follows we still have no clue what the mysterious being that was chasing the main characters was. Nobody ever explained where it came from. Even when the characters tried to figure out rules to avoid it, they were blatantly wrong. It is much cooler to have a monster without origin than one with a lame hackneyed one.

Unfortunately Pontypool’s explanation behind the zombies is laughably stupid which bogs down the last 30 minutes of the movie. But the hour of excellent and unique storytelling all but makes up for it.

So if you are looking for an interesting twist on the zombie genre or are a fan of minimalist horror films, check out Pontypool, which is currently streaming on Netflix.

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