Pontypool (Bruce McDonald, 2008)

SHUT UP OR DIE!

Shock jock Grant Mazzy has been kicked off the airwaves and now works the only job he can get as the host of CLSY’s early morning radio show broadcast from the basement of a church in the small Canadian town of Pontypool. What begins as another mundane day of school bus cancellations quickly turns deadly when bizarre reports start piling in of people developing strange speech patterns and committing brutal acts of violence. Before long, Mazzy and CLSY’s small staff find themselves trapped in the station and struggling with the reality of a deadly virus being spread through language. Does Mazzy stay on the air in hopes of informing the public and saving himself or is he providing the virus with its ultimate leap over the airwaves and into the world?

Based on Tony Burgess’ 1995 novel Pontypool Changes Everything and inspired by Orson Welles’s 1938 radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds, Pontypool blends George Romero and David Cronenberg with Noam Chomsky and Richard Dawkins and creates a zombie apocalypse unlike any other.

Special Edition Contents:

  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and Uncompressed Stereo PCM
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Feature-length audio commentary with director Bruce McDonald and writer Tony Burgess
  • Original radio drama with optional slideshow of on-set photos taken by Caitlin Cronenberg
  • A New Arrangement for Life, a new interview with McDonald and Burgess looking back on Pontypool
  • Johnny Deadeyes and Lisa the Killer, a new interview with actors Stephen McHattie and Lisa Houle
  • Infected Words, a new video appreciation by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro
  • Siege Mentality, horror film scholars Andrea Subissati and Alexandra West on the Canadianness of Pontypool
  • Watching Night of the Living Dead, Canadian artist Dave Dyment’s 2018 reproduction of George Romero’s 1968 horror classic using clips taken from film and television that include footage from Night of the Living Dead
  • Two short films by Britt Randle: Dada Dum (2007) and Eve (2001)
  • Original theatrical teaser and trailer
  • Reversible sleeve featuring two artwork choices

FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing by critic Tim Robey

A central theme to all zombie films is the notion of differentiation. Faced with masses of the indistinguishable undead, human survival rests on the ability to think differently and act ingeniously. As pop culture’s zombie renaissance closes in on its tired second decade, the same principle increasingly applies to the subgenre of the zombie film itself. The most memorable depictions of the undead apocalypse are those that innovate and find new monsters (fast zombies), new settings (high-speed passenger trains), new formats (found footage), and new media (weekly episodic television), and no zombie film is as singular or as inventive as Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool (2008). Observing the zombie movie as a critical tool for filmmakers to evaluate a wide variety of social and political issues, McDonald describes zombies as “metaphors about metaphors” and then reveals in Pontypool the erasure of expression at its most unsettling. Call the film the thinking person’s undead apocalypse, although there is still enough dread and scares to go around.

McDonald’s film takes its name from its location, a small village situated about an hour north of Toronto, and it places at its centre Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), a big city shock jock whose past controversies has left him hosting the morning show of a small town radio station broadcast from the basement of a church. Mazzy explicitly promotes a “full disclosure, whatever the consequences” approach that posits that a pissed-off listener is a frequent listener and he dresses himself appropriately like an outlaw – black cowboy hat, neckerchief, embroidered Western-style shirt. His ethic runs against that of his station manager Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) who suggests that his attitude conflicts with small town living and she prioritizes school bus closures over “take no prisoners.” Still, Grant’s antics charm his technical assistant Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly) who has recently returned home after a military tour in Afghanistan.

As Mazzy settles into a morning of scotch and hyperbole, strange reports begin to filter in. An account of a hostage situation is written off as an encounter with drunken ice fisherman until the station’s traffic reporter Ken Loney (in CLSY’s “Sunshine Chopper”) witnesses a mob attack on the offices of Dr. Mendez, convoys of military vehicles run through town, and scores of locals babble incoherently while engaging in violence and cannibalism. Pontypool never leaves its basement radio station setting however, providing only modest views of its infected and only a single encounter of actual violence. McDonald took inspiration from Orson Welles’s 1938 “The War of the Worlds” radio broadcast, recounting much of its horrors rather than showing it and relying on the radio station setting to provide an insular, claustrophobic context, one further buttressed by a dark, cold winter storm. The basement radio station, and later its booth, become the locus for defending Pontypool’s version of a zombie onslaught. The setting seems to literalize theorist Northrop Frye’s notion of the Canadian “garrison mentality” that partly defined the national identity with a fear of cultural erasure to its American neighbour and a responding attitude of protectionism. No accident then that Burgess and McDonald adapted the source novel to its radio setting, a dying but still essential medium replete with its own artistic, commercial, and cultural challenges.

While very much a zombie film by its syntax and semantics, Pontypool’s monsters are cited as “conversationalists,” a clever title as the film’s infection is not transmitted by blood or saliva but by infected words that cause their transformation once they are heard and understood. In an interview with Ryan Turek, McDonald described the virus as having three stages:

The first stage is you might begin to repeat a word. Something gets stuck. And usually it’s words that are terms of endearment like sweetheart or honey. The second stage is your language becomes scrambled and you can’t express yourself properly. The third stage you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.

A military announcement broadcast in French (and ironically locating its caution against translating it into English at the end of its warning) directs citizens to avoid communicating with close family members, using terms of endearment, engaging in baby talk, or using rhetorical discourse. Further, avoiding English is recommended for further safety, leading Grant and Sydney to engage in some comical exchanges in high school level français. Grant eventually arrives at a means to disinfect words, substituting meaning and saving Sydney from an infection by transforming “kill” into “kiss.” Canada is an ideal setting for Pontypool with its ready access to a linguistic alternative to English (radio and stage adaptations of Pontypool have substituted local alternatives, such as Gaelic, as needed), however McDonald’s film plays off tensions between Canada’s two solitudes, giving the film some added tension to domestic eyes and ears. More recent Canadian tensions over language only add to Pontypool’s ongoing relevance, with concerns regarding bilingualism and multiculturalism remaining relevant while controversies over Bill C-16, compelled speech, and the creation of gender-neutral lyrics to the national anthem offer fresh stresses.

Andrea Subissati and Alexandra West of The Faculty of Horror podcast observe that Laurel-Ann’s status as a recently returned war vet and her succumbing to the language virus raises the idea of Pontypool potentially being a film about post-traumatic stress disorder. Mazzy prominently quotes (or misquotes?) Roland Barthes as saying that trauma is “a news photo without a caption.” The comment is ironic as Pontypool’s radio setting is arguably more akin to a caption without a photo, however the quote describes Barthes’s assertion that trauma suspends language and blocks meaning. It’s telling then that Pontypool opens with Grant’s “Isn’t It Ironic?” episode, an aired musing that might have set off Pontypool’s conversationalist disaster and that Laurel-Ann tells Mazzy early on that she loved it.

Mazzy’s first encounter with a conversationalist, the woman who approaches his car and mockingly repeats his inquiries from the wintery darkness, occurs following the airing of his monologue and it may be that the “Isn’t It Ironic?” broadcast unleashes the linguistic madness the plagues Pontypool. In the monologue, Mazzy levels sound with meaning (Colette/culotte), takes liberties with translation (piscine and flaque both meaning pool, rather than swimming pool and puddle respectively), and collapses strained meanings into empty relationships (Pontypool/Panty Pool/Pont de Pool), making “superfluous things appear related to each other.” It’s no accident that when Mazzy describes “physical details” coming into focus after unlocking, the Pontypool title spells out “TYPO,” pointing to an error in meaning and understanding. One might also consider in the context of the film’s French/English wordplay that discussions of Honey the Cat would translate the animal as chat, and that meaningless chatter is precisely the problem of the film. Mazzy’s observations, read in his cool, gravelly timbre, broadcast the linguistic breakdown and, in doing so, transforms “The Beacon” radio station from a much needed warning into an asymptomatic carrier driving the monkey to the airport.

Grant remarks late in the film, “We were never making sense.” Mixed up meanings and inauthentic interactions abound in Pontypool. Valentine’s Day is a fitting day to set the film, what with its array of de rigeur sentimentality. Grant even laments not giving Laurel-Ann a card notwithstanding the obvious risks. He jokes about drunken policemen unaware that the officers in question are recovering alcoholics. A local production of Lawrence of Arabia, dubbed “Lawrence and the Arabians” by Grant, attend the station singing “The Nefud Desert” in costume and brown face. Sydney cries at Ken’s death but doesn’t truly mourn him as she reveals he was a pedophile. In fact, Sydney layers misdescription on inauthenticity by remarking, “I mean, not really a pedophile. We just never let our kids go anywhere near him.” The comment seems aware of the damaging baggage of her definition, then walks it back despite seeming quite appropriate in its reformulation. (The comment also weirdly anticipates the fate of famed Quebecois filmmaker Claude Jutra 8 years later.) Small towns are fertile ground for Pontypool’s particular affliction given all of their open secrets and unspoken understandings and Grant’s inadvertently insensitive jokes and Sydney’s unspoken judgments reveal the strain put on words and meanings.

Pontypool’s remarkable affect rests in its unconventional approach to sound. Audio is typically associated with having greater proximity to the truth, being immersive, more subjective, and less deceptive than visual representation. McDonald turns such presumptions on their ear, so to speak (puns intended – that’s a double wordplay score for those keeping count). The duplicity of sound is clear when it is revealed to Grant that Ken is not in “The Sunshine Chopper” but is actually on a hill in his car looking down on the town, his coverage having chopper noise added for effect. The sound and the idea brings comfort to the townsfolk, however Ken’s reports take on ghastly authority as they describe his true situation – perhaps even driving Grant a bit mad at one point. Sound as comfort and entertainment turns grimly terrible as the film proceeds, but it is at its worst when the conversationalist affliction takes hold and language becomes meaningless and coherence gives way to emptiness. These moments recall the true horror of seeing reporter Serene Branson suffer a complex migraine and babble through her Grammy coverage, of seeing a living, thinking person dissolve matter of factly into senselessness. It is here that Pontypool is at its most disturbing – when Ken is caught stumbling between “simple,” “sample,” and “symbol;” when Laurel-Ann switches uncontrollably between “missing” and “Mazzy;” and when Sydney fixates on the word “kill.” These moments verge on scenes of cosmic horror and of fears too awful, too overwhelming, to be understood or put into words.

MMC! loves Pontypool – Stephen McHattie’s weathered face, the film’s gallows humour, Dr. Mendez’s quirky exposition, the Wisconsin Death Trip-inspired obituary montage, and even the film’s bizarre epilogue (which was originally the prologue) which seems to represent the “new arrangement of life” created by the language virus. Naturally, MMC! would love to see Arrow Video give this Canadian cult classic its usually stellar treatment, however there is another reason for an AV edition of Pontypool and that is to put the film back in the public eye in hopes that it might assist Bruce McDonald and Tony Burgess in their efforts to produce the remainder of their Pontypool trilogy. Maybe one day we might get Pontypool Changes and Pontypool Changes Everything and McDonald’s promise of even wilder content might come to fruition. And, if not, then it’s not the end of the world; it is just the end of the day. (But I do still want that Arrow Video edition!)

Credits: This imagined Arrow Video edition ports over the commentary, the radio program and photos, and the short films offered on various previous releases of Pontypool. We’ve added more interviews as well as an appreciation of the film by Guillermo del Toro who has tweeted his recommendation of the film and who is a friend to the label. The extra feature examining Pontypool’s Canadianness with Andrea Subissati and Alexandra West is inspired by their discussion of the film on The Faculty of Horror podcast and Subisatti’s essay “Viral Culture: Canadian Cultural Protectionism and Pontypool” in Gina Freitag and André Loiselle’s The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul. Tim Robey was chosen to write a booklet essay given his positive review of the film for The Telegraph. We’ve also included David Dyment’s 2018 work, Watching Night of the Living Dead, as it is a fascinating take on the zombie film and on media and intellectual property, plus has the added benefit of being a Canadian product.

MMC! highly recommends discussions of Pontypool on The Evolution of Horror, Deadly Analysis, and The Projection Booth podcasts. The Projection Booth ‘cast is particularly notable for its interviews with McDonald and Burgess. This post also owes thanks to Evelyn Deshane and R. Travis Morton’s essay “The Words Change Everything: Haunting, Contagion and the Strenger in Tony Burgess’s Pontypool,” Solveig Ottmann’s essay “Broadcasting Death: Radio, Media History and Zombies in Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool,” Duncan Reyburn’s essay “Reconfiguring the contagion: A Girardian reading of the zombie apocalypse as a plea for a politics of weakness,” Brian Eggert’s review for Deep Focus Review, and Adam Nayman’s discussion for Reverse Shot.

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