[15 June 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The ‘50s were so filled with fears – fear of Communism, fear of nuclear annihilation, fear of minorities – why not add zombies to the mix. After all, the living dead have come to symbolize so much in our current cinematic zeitgeist that allowing the undead to combine all the Eisenhower Era horrors into one flesh eating fiend seems like a pretty smart idea. A pretty funny one as well. Conceived as a combination satire and scary film, Fido is a surreal surprise, a genuinely touching tale of tolerance and totalitarianism reminiscent of Bob Balaban’s equally brilliant suburban frightmare of conformity Parents. Canadian filmmaker Andrew Currie has taken the standard iconography of the era – the freshly manicured lawns, the cocktail dress and pearls housewives, the sleek Detroit automobiles – and perverted them, ever so slightly, into a commentary about race, relationships and reality.
After a radioactive cloud blankets the Earth, the dead come back to life. The government responds to the cannibal crisis by launching all an out war. Things do not go well at first. Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Hrothgar Geiger, however, the zombies are contained and controlled. He comes up with the ‘head wound’ theory, and the collar that domesticates the creatures. Soon, all suburban households have zombie servants, while the corpses do most of the menial chores and jobs around town. Naturally, there are accidents, but the corporate security forces of multinational ZomCom Industries keep everyone – living AND undead – in check. When the Robinson family gets its first rotting man-monster, it causes a split among the members. Dad hates it. Mom is intrigued. And little Timmy? He names it “Fido” and adopts it as his ‘pet’. Soon, the two are inseparable.
At first, it’s rather hard to see the parody present. Because of his attention to period detail and desire to make his characters more than just silly symbols, Currie stays subtle – maybe even too much so. Even the black and white ‘educational’ film shown at the beginning of the movie (a nice way to introduce us to this particular take on the zombie’s origins) feels too ‘real’ to be overtly ridiculous. No, it takes a while before the script starts slipping up, tossing in little baneful beauties about “wild zones”, protective barriers, and citizen ‘re-education’ procedures. By this time, we get the idea – the gated community with its internal security and demanding deed restrictions is the ultimate example of ‘white flight’ illustrated and acted upon. And the reanimated corpses carousing around the perimeter? They’re the undesirables (racial or social) that the scrubbed Caucasian citizenry is desperate to avoid.
Yet there is much more to Fido’s narrative than ‘us vs. them’. There’s a murder mystery thread running through all the stories, hints at aberrant sexuality (thanks to an odd duck neighbor who treats his knock-out zombie servant just a tad too friendly), notions of growing martial unrest, and the erratic beginnings of the freedom and liberation that would come to define the revolutionary nature of the next decade. In between, we have the Conservative Establishment trying to moderate the primal, uncontrollable ‘counterculture’, along with a fatalism that suggests the battle may be already lost. Throughout, Currie paints pictures with a pulsing primary color patina. Everything looks bright and shiny and crazily kitsch. It’s only when we see the rotting facades of the dead-eyed zombies that we recognize how phony this entire world really is.
If one wanted to be cynical, they could argue that Currie is making a comment about traditionalism – and it’s a criticism that cuts both ways. For the Robinsons – Bill (Dylan Baker), Helen (Carrie-Ann Moss) and son Timmy (the excellent K’Sun Ray) – a zombie represents status and standing. Helen even argues that they need this one. After all, there neighbors already have six! Bill’s reactions are more distant. He has bad memories of the initial undead outbreak, and can’t stand being around this constant reminder. Like an episode of Lassie gone loopy, Timmy decides that ‘Fido” would make a good friend. He benefits from his ghoulish presence, but also learns how ill-prepared he is for the responsibility. Still, they want to be part of the planned community, a place that ZomCom runs with a slightly sinister set of kid gloves.
But the undead don’t get off so easily. Because he casts them as maniacal flesh eating fiends, Currie can countermand the nuclear family with its own parallel plight. The zombies are definitely supposed to be seen as the harsh underbelly of humanity that we try to keep in check – our unhinged hunger, our predominant pituitary evil. When you think about it, it’s a fairly potent metaphor. It draws directly into the allegorical nature of the genre, and it provides a portal for many of the movie’s more intriguing ideas. The whole whodunit angle, for example, is hinged on the fact that the undead are ‘automatically’ considered the criminals, and while cinematic statistics bear this out, Fido suggests the protector may be more corrupt than the provocateur. Additionally, this is perhaps the first film (after Scott Phillips’ fascinating Stink of Flesh) that actually broaches the subject of sex. After all, if you can get a compliant corpse to do anything, like mow the lawn or take out the trash…ummm…
Naturally, a great deal of the movie’s success rests on the tone taken by the actors. One wink at the audience too many, or a few too many tongues planted openly in cheeks and the whimsy wears off. Luckily, Currie rounded up a cast so sensational that they occasionally feel like subjects in a deranged documentary, not a group of fictional creations. It has to be said that Billy Connolly, the mad Scottish comic, is lost inside Fido’s fright mask make-up, his expressive eyes all that’s left of his standard Glasgow façade. But his performance is exceptional, always suggesting something more complex and compelling behind his rigor mortis movements. Similarly, Carrie-Ann Moss makes frustrated ‘50s housefraus seem like the sexiest soon to be bohemians in the bridge club. Released from her Matrix-imposed S&M ambivalence, she’s down to earth and very endearing. Tim Blake Nelson certainly delivers on his naughty nebbish demeanor, while Dylan Baker remains an actor unstuck in time. He can play both contemporary and Cold War with unimaginable ease.
As for Currie, his lack of outlandishness may put off some macabre fans. After all, he treats his zombie kills in an almost comic book manner, offering them on camera but blotted out by an amazing full moon or a park draped in deep shadows. And still, his undead register real fear – both to the characters and to the audience. It’s the concept of unpredictability that makes them so suspicious. Fido himself seems to be capable of controls that his fellow fiends can barely contain. Still, he happily feasts away when need be. Perhaps the most compelling element of this fully realized film is its ending. Laced with irony and some unsettling comeuppance, it sets the stage for the next ‘evolution’ in the human/zombie order – and the inevitable question of where society goes when intolerance no longer owns its purpose.
For all its grandiose implications and subtle social skewering, Fido remains a wildly entertaining comedy. It has as much humor as horror, and a wonderfully wonky way of making its many cogent social critiques. A few may scoff at a deeper meaning, reducing Currie to a comic resorting to gimmickry to produce his gags. And unlike Shaun of the Dead, this is not a movie macabre homage. Nor is it a 28 Days/Weeks reinvention. No, Fido is a wholly original take on a very familiar film foundation. Ever since DVD destroyed the creepshow category, mainstream moviemakers have been looking for a way to reclaim their rotting corpses. According to Fido, you’ll never beat them, and you really can’t join them. Better to accept them and move on with life. It’s how you finally defeat fear once and for all.