Director Bruce Macdonald is reanimating the zombie flick with his new chiller. Miles Fielder meets him
Just when you thought cinema had done zombies to death a film with a radical new approach comes along to reanimate the living dead. In the Canadian chiller Pontypool a mysterious infection turns the inhabitants of a small town into incoherently babbling flesh-eaters.
The mystery unfolds as a breaking news story reported by local shock jock Grant Mazzy (Watchmen’s Stephen McHattie) and the action is entirely confined to a single location, a radio station in the basement of a deconsecrated church. This not obviously cinematic setting proves to be wholly appropriate as Pontypoll reveals itself to be a film rooted in language.
‘A friend of mine was editing a book,’ says Ontario-born director Bruce Macdonald, ‘and she said, “You gotta meet the author. His book’s crazy and he’s even crazier.” I loved the book, Pontypool Changes Everything, which is more in keeping with William Burroughs than Stephen King, and I loved the writer. He’s quite a character, studied semiotics at university, loves old B-movies, kind of a musician, used to go by the name of Tony Blue [real name Burgess].
‘There’s a neighbourhood in Vancouver called the downtown eastside and it’s one of the most shocking districts, full of junkies shooting up. For a time, Tony became one of these fucked-up street people, and I think writing the book [and now the film] was a way for him to deal with his experience in a metaphorical way. So it comes from a strange, dark place in his life.’
It was Macdonald’s idea to have the action confined to a single location and the apparent plague of undead reported on rather than seen. He cites as his model for the movie Orson Welles’ radio play reworking of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds, which famously caused widespread panic when horrified listeners believed they were hearing the news. But Macdonald was also inspired by the 1968 horror classic that kicked off the craze for zombie films.
‘Seeing George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was one of the great cinematic experiences for me as a young man,’ he says. ‘It was black and white and looked badly made, but it also looked like something that really happened. It seemed like the news, and this was truly disturbing.’
Aside from aiming for veracity, Macdonald was also inspired by the social commentary that underlies Romero’s zombie films, which also include the still highly influential Dawn and Day of the Dead. ‘All Romero’s films were social commentary films,’ says Macdonald. ‘Night of the Living Dead comments on civil rights with its black hero, Dawn of the Dead on consumerism with its shopping mall setting. For me, the delight of doing a film about language is that you can riff on the political situation in Canada, where the French separatists want to protect their language and liberate themselves from the English overlords.
‘And then there’s the idea in the film of the plague spreading through language and certain words becoming infected. That reflects the media, which is so well versed in hijacking words, terrorist, for example. In Ontario, separatists are now called terrorists. So I think the film feels true because it’s dealing in a tangential way with something that’s going on just beyond your peripheral vision.’
Pontypool is on general release from Fri 16 Oct.