Pontypool

You have to stop understanding what you are saying
★★★
☆
Released: 
2008
Director: 
Bruce MacDonald
Starring: 
Stephen McHattie, Georgina Reilly, Hrant Alianak, Lisa Houle
The Setup: 
People become zombies because of language.
Discussion: 

I had been aware of this movie for some time and familiar with its blood-spattered poster (a good deal more blood than is in the film), and knew that it enjoyed a lot of indie cachet. Then you have people on IMDb raving about what an ingenious concept it is and how unusual and different it is. So we go in with expectations.

On a separate note, there is the collection of movies ingeniously made so that their extremely low budgets become an asset rather than demerit (Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Open Water, The Reef), and, as gradually becomes clear, this definitely belongs on that list. So let's begin!

Or should we get coffee first? Let's get coffee.

Okay, so we open with a spoken discussion of the meaning of the word "Pontypool," much of which, frankly, I couldn't make out, despite riding my volume to the maximum. For the purposes of this story, it is the town that this movie takes place in. We open with our hero, Grant Mazzy, on his way to work in the early morning darkness of a snowstorm. This takes place in Canada, and is a Canadian film, which will give you an idea of its general quality [quite good! Just not THAT good]. He is a grizzled old rocker who wears a cowboy hat and leather jacket, and we get the idea that he has been on the radio for a while and has a devoted local following. While stopped at a light, a strange woman comes out of the blackness and bangs herself against his car. He's unnerved, but continues going to work, where he meets his producer, Sydney, and assistant Laurel Ann, who looks unnervingly like Anna Faris. He continues wandering off script to discuss gently lefty political issues, while Sydney keeps after him to stick to news and school closings.

One of their news associates calls in, saying there is a riot around a local doctor's office. He gives eyewitness report, but there is nothing about it in the news wire, so they're not sure if it's real. Then their traffic guy calls in and confirms the report. They are reporting on the riot, but still not sure it is happening, which the movie sustains for a good, eerie while. Then they receive a message in a foreign language. When translated, it says to avoid family members, avoid speaking English... and do not translate this message. Well, shouldn't have left that bit til the end, huh?. More harrowing reports from outside, more not being sure what to do... then Laurel Ann starts babbling and sustains a long, low guttural note.

SPOILERS > > >
They are joined in the studio by Dr. John Mendez, the doctor from the clinic where the riot started. He says that the virus is transmitted through language, and that it takes hold when people understand a certain word. Only what that word is, no one knows [It's "duodenem"]. By now Laurel Ann is turning violent, and bashing herself against the window of the control booth, trying to get in. Soon they realize that they have to fight off the zombies, who find their way into the building, by inventing new meanings for words, and that "you have to stop understanding what you are saying."
< < < SPOILERS END

But after a while, one realizes that we're never going to leave that radio station, and for me, the action of the film started to be overridden by the cleverness of creating a large-scale zombie film on zero budget by simply having it take place in one environment. And with that, engagement with the film itself ebbed, and after a while I was just waiting for it to end. I THINK I was supposed to be getting into the conceptual thing about language and meaning and blah-blah and all that, but not really. There are a number of sequences in which one feels the film is just spinning its wheels, extending to standard running time. Then it ends.

So, an extremely clever way to make a low-budget movie. An interesting and different concept... that one could argue is underexplored and doesn't deliver much past its initial intrigue. But too much meandering, too much filler, too much empty bantering, and ultimately one ends up feeling like they had 60 minutes of content they stretched to 90. To the extent that, much as there is to admire here, I'm not sure I can actually recommend that anyone watch it. Maybe it's better to simply know it's out there than actually sit through it.

Should you watch it: 

It's good enough, but if I had the chance again I would probably skip it.