Friday, July 6, 2007
You just can't keep a good zombie down. Scottish comedian Billy Connolly joins the ranks of the undead in the Canadian zom-com Fido (opening July 6 for a limited one-week run at Landmark's Ken Cinema). Essentially, it's the story of a boy and his dog, uhhh, I mean pet zombie.
"Fido" sticks with a lot of the conventions of the genre, keeping the zombies slow, dumb and hungry for human flesh. But the film relocates the zombies in a kind of retro future that looks amazingly like a picture perfect portrait of Eisenhower-era suburbia. The country is recovering from the great Zombie War. A Duck and Cover style black and white educational film informs us of how the zombies came to be and how a great company called Zomcon came to the country's rescue. Zomcon developed a special collar that could essentially domesticate zombies. The collar keeps the zombies hunger for human flesh in check so the undead creature can be a servant, collect garbage, mow your lawn or be a pet. The informative film also explains that Zomcon has built fences between the "wild" areas and the safe pockets of suburbia. When the instructional film ends, we find ourselves in a cheery classroom where little Timmy Robinson (K'Sun Ray, yes that's really how he's credited) struggles with the difficult question of Are the zombies really dead? His questions annoy the teacher, make the other kids laugh and pique the suspicions of Zomcon's new head of security, Mr. Bottoms (Henry Czerny), who's visiting the school.
Back at the Robinson home, mom Helen (Carrie-Anne Moss) worries about keeping up with the Joneses--or the Bottoms as it turns out. Dad Bill (Dylan Baker) is still traumatized about having had to kill his dad who went zombie on him after a heart attack. But to the outside world, the Robinsons present an image of idyllic domestic life. Then Helen brings a zombie (Billy Connolly) into their home in order to not look lower class to the Zomcon head of security who just moved across the street.
Bill can't get used to the creature but lonely Timmy takes to the likable lug and the two strike a bond when the zombie saves Timmy from a pair of bully classmates (Aaron Brown and Brandon Olds as two of the best screen bullies). Timmy decides to name the zombie Fido and treats him like a pet. But this particular pet has a defective collar, and ends up killing a crabby neighbor that no one actually misses much. That leads to a zombie outbreak and chaos in the orderly community.
Director and co-writer Andrew Currie creates a black comedy done in the style of a fifties sitcom but with a high Technicolor gloss. Some of the dialogue could have been lifted straight out of an old "Leave It to Beaver" or "Lassie" episode. Fido's owner even bears the name of Lassie's youthful owner--Timmy. Both Timmie's have to deal with questions about telling the truth and being a good neighbor. Only in the case of Fido's Timmy, the moral dilemma involves whether or not to fess up to the fact that his pet just ate the neighbor. "Fido's" humor comes from the clash of genres: bright cheery Americana butting up against the death and destruction of zombie horror. But unlike "Shaun of the Dead," "Fido" plays down the gore and delivers a rather cute take on zombie horror.
Currie uses zombies and 50s archetypes as a means of satirizing social conformity, conservatism and the increasing dysfunction behind white picket fence America. Currie using the 50s stereotypes in much the same way that "Pleasantville" or "Parents" (Bob Balaban's deliciously dark comic tale of a boy who thinks his parents are cannibals). So on that count, Currie is not mining particularly new ground. But he does have some genuinely inspired moments. The film makes a point of showing how important and expensive it is to have a funeral that will guarantee you will not return as a reanimated corpse. So Dads been putting himself into debt to get funeral insurance for little Timmy. When Helen questions him about this Bill simply replies, that the other kids don't like Timmy and he probably wont have long to live. Its not often that you get a film that will treat a child's death with such sly, off-handed humor. Currie also has a nice eye for detail. At one point Bill's reading a magazine that looks like Life magazine -- only this one reflecting the times-- is called Death."
The film also benefits from a sparkling production design by Rob Gray. Everything has a brand new look, as if the houses were model homes that were just for show and not for living in. Even the clothes have the kind of crisp look of never having been worn. Currie even serves up much of the zombie attacks in bright, clean shots as if he weren't shooting gore at all. During one zombie attack, blood splatters on the symbolically pristine white picket fence, but the blood has the vivid hues of a slick magazine ad. This is gore made bland so that no one gets too upset.
But Currie gets these bright, shiny surfaces down so well that the characters never develop beyond their smiling facades. Unlike the characters of "Shaun of the Dead," "Fido's" characters never develop any real emotions and the film never develops much dramatic interest. The film works only on the level of a sly, knowing satire about blithe conformity. Currie never manages to kick his satire into high gear. Instead he keeps the film on steady cruise control, providing a nice comfortable ride. It's highly entertaining but a bit thin.
"Fido" does boast a fine cast. The performers polish up their best saccharine smiles and deliver chilling cheeriness. Dylan Baker as Bill has the perfect kind of Howdy Dowdy face to play the completely square head of the Robinson family. Carrie-Anne Moss epitomizes the ideal 50s homemaker but with a hint of modern day feminism just starting to percolate beneath the surface. Young K'Sun Ray never wavers in his golly-gee-aw-shucks homage to sitcom kid cuteness. The normally very verbal and animated Billy Connolly tones it way down to play Fido. But there's just enough glint in his eyes to suggest that Fido's got more going on that everyone thinks. He's like Peter Boyle's monster in "Young Frankenstein" when Boyle gives a knowing look to the audience.
"Fido" (rated PG-13), like "Shaun of the Dead," is the perfect zombie films for people who don't think they'd like the genre. Both films are smart and funny enough to win over non-fans. But if you are a zombie lover like I am you will take particular delight in this deliciously funny take on zombies in America.
Companion viewing: "Shaun of the Dead," "Parents," "Night of the Living Dead"