Of all the holidays celebrated worldwide, no single day is loved by the Substream staff more than Halloween. With October’s arrival, the time has finally come to begin rolling out a slew of special features we have prepared in celebration of our favorite day.

31 Days Of Halloween is a recurring column that will run throughout the month of October. The goal of this series is to supply every Substream reader with a daily horror (or Halloween-themed) movie recommendation that is guaranteed to amplify your All Hallows’ Eve festivities. We’ll be watching every film the day it’s featured, and we hope you will follow along at home. Reader, beware, you’re in for a… spooky good time!

pontypool title card

Day 16: Pontypool (2008)

The human imagination is a powerful thing. From playing superheroes as a child to conceptualizing new technologies in adulthood, the ability to shape thoughts and picture new things is the greatest gift evolution has given humanity. However, that same capacity for joy and happiness is also a potent source of fear and terror. The imagination turns a slight shadow into a heartless killer and a distant sound into a bloodthirsty creature of the night. With a solid set of building blocks provided by past knowledge and folklore, humans are capable of filling the unknown with horror. Pontypool takes our wealth of zombie tales, adds a twist, and ends up as one of the most horrifying tales of the undead while barely showing anything at all.

Stephen McHattie plays Grant Mazzy, a personification of every sleazy radio personality you’ve ever heard. On a cold, snowy day in the town of Pontypool, Mazzy hosts the local radio show with his technical assistant Laurel-Ann (Georgina Reilly) and his exasperated boss Sydney (Lisa Houle). While everything begins normally, the news reports they receive from their correspondent start to become disturbing, with reports of people losing their minds before committing acts of extreme violence on one another. After a short investigative period and a helpful French military broadcast, the problem becomes apparent: words. Something has happened to the English language, causing people to turn into violent zombies upon hearing a trigger word unique to each person. The radio station employees must stay hunkered in the station as the town goes to hell around them.

As most of the film takes place in Pontypool’s radio station, we see very little of what’s going on outside their walls. Part of this is undoubtedly because of production restrictions, with the movie having a shoestring budget of $1.5 million. It works magnificently as a stylistic choice, though. We’ve all been exposed to enough zombie media over the years to know what zombies look like and what they do. Culturally, we’re approaching desensitization to zombies. They’re barely even the point of The Walking Dead anymore. But by stripping away those visual cues we so heavily rely on, Pontypool becomes terrifying again. The panicked descriptions of brutal violence from newsman Ken (Rick Roberts) and the gruesome sounds coming over the radio allow the viewer to fill in the blanks of the physical action, and that room for interpretation leaves plenty of space for horrifying mental pictures.

The corruption of language also serves as a potent source of fear as well as a novel twist on the zombie genre. A disease or disaster on a citywide scale is an all too real fear to begin with, but imagine going through it without being able to speak. One of our greatest skills as a collective people is communication. We gather together and verbally express ideas in order to create a solution. Take that away, and every person is on their own. That intellectual isolation is a chilling notion, and it gives Pontypool even more bite.

This kind of approach requires strong performances, and director Bruce McDonald manages to bring the best out of his actors. Some of the most compelling scenes are of Mazzy trying to talk his way through the unrelenting horror he’s hearing while still on the air, with Sydney and Laurel-Ann attempting to cope on the other side of the booth. The small facial expressions and physical cues they all do sell the horror to the audience.

Pontypool doesn’t entirely stick its landing, with the final scene requiring some mental gymnastics to wrap your head around and the post-credits stinger wildly shifting tones from terrifying to campy. That being said, the main bulk of the film is still more than worthy of a watch. If you like zombies but are entering undead-fatigue, Pontypool just might be the movie for you.


31 Days