‘Pontypool’ – Viral horror on Netflix and Hulu

Stephen McHattie in Bruce McDonald's 'Pontypool'

Laurie Anderson would be proud: language is a virus in Pontypool (2008), a zombie(-esque) thriller set almost entirely within the walls of a basement radio station.

Stephen McHattie is brilliant as a frustrated former shock-jock now picking up a paycheck as the morning DJ in a rural radio station on the Ontario plain, where the morning news gets a jolt of unsettling reports of swelling mobs and inexplicable attacks. McHattie holds the film whenever he speaks and the glint in his eye and puckish expression and perfectly pitched body language are magnificent support, whether he’s tweaking his producer (Lisa Houle) by ranging off topic with provocative jabs at the cops or trying to get a grip on the disturbing reports of random attacks.

There is none of the usual zombie gore and the violence is almost entirely offscreen (even a shot of survivors kicking an infected attacker to death frames out the victim). It’s carried by language and sound and silence. The anxiety is created by our fears of what exactly is happening on the other end of the phone or the other side of the wall (where we can just hear gunfire and military aircraft and the occasional chant of an infect mob). Meanwhile they have a real conundrum: how do you use radio to warn the populace when your own words may spread the contagion even further? It’s absolutely terrific and one of the most ingenious twists on a genre that has become a cliché. Bruce McDonald directs this Canadian independent horror.

Not rated

Queue it up on Netflix or watch it on Hulu

Also on disc
Pontypool [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.