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PONTYPOOL

Written by Tony Burgess

Directed by Bruce McDonald

Starring Stephen McHattie,

Lisa House and Georgina Reilly

Classification: 14A

***

Though every Canadian filmmaker's friendly uncle, Norman Jewison, was an early sponsor, Bruce McDonald is the most unruly of the student moviemakers who turned Toronto into a film lab in the eighties. (Alumni include Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema, Don McKellar, Ron Mann, Peter Mettler and Jeremy Podeswa.) Who can forget McDonald's graduation speech after his debut feature, Roadkill, won best Canadian film at the 1989 Toronto International Film Festival, when he promised the $25,000 award would go toward "a big chunk of hash."

Since then, McDonald has seen more lows than highs. His $10-million feature, Picture Claire, with Juliette Lewis and Mickey Rourke, went unreleased. Though broke, he managed to purchase screen rights to The Tracey Fragments by mailing novelist Maureen Medved his cowboy boots as down payment.

You can't keep a bad cowboy down forever, however. McDonald's latest, a zombie movie with more brains than gore called Pontypool, finds the filmmaker in a typically defiant mode. It's a shameless piece of self-aggrandizement, really, with McDonald's alter-ego, a mouthy Stetson-wearer (the filmmaker's signature top) telling off the world from the pulpit of a small Ontario radio station.

It's also a great time and the best movie McDonald has ever made.

As always, the director comes out shooting from the lip. Middle-aged shock jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) storms into a rural radio station, bristling about the weather while quoting Norman Mailer and French literary theorist Roland Barthes. A Joey Ramone bobble-head by his microphone nods in constant agreement.

Mazzy's angry, elitist tone gets on the nerves of producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle). Pontypool is a small town, she explains. There is a storm outside. Schools will be closed. And there is a disturbance at the doctor's house in town. Be courteous, informative. Get along.

When Mazzy starts on the drinking habits of the provincial cops sorting out the mess at Doc Mendez's, Sydney lays into him, explaining Pontypool is the kind of place where people take pride in pretending to have a traffic copter, even if their eye in the sky is a sedan sitting on top of a big hill.

It's only when traffic reporter Ken Loney reports a herd of stuttering cannibals tearing into the cops like they're Sunday dinner that we realize Pontypool has a bigger problem than school closings.

Then the cannibals attack the radio station.

Pontypool (which shares its name with an actual Ontario village) is a smart, intriguing reshuffling of classic pop-culture influences. The narrative is styled after Orson Welles's infamous 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast. And the setting and storyline - monsters attacking a civilian outpost in the snow - reminds us of The Thing.

Then there's the danger of mass conformity, a motif borrowed from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Pontypool is being destroyed by a virus spread through the English language. McDonald uses the theme to mount a wickedly funny bit of distinctly Canadian satire, as Mazzy and Sydney fight past trouble speaking French in the manner of every Anglo toastmaster who has broken into a flop sweat negotiating our other official language.

McHattie and Houle make a wonderful pair of grouches. But Pontypool is ultimately a testament to its frequently besieged director's audacity and vision. "I'm still here!" McDonald has Mazzy shouting at the slavering zombies at one point.

He sure is.