What do you get when you cross social satire, revisionist history, zombie-movie mayhem, and an old-fashioned boy-and-his-dog tale? Well, I’m not sure, exactly, but it probably looks and acts something like Fido, a mixed-genre mutt of a film that tries to do too many tricks and fails at nearly all of them.
#ad#Fido takes place in an alternate-history 1950’s U.S. In this America, the planet was mysteriously irradiated, and the dead were brought back to life. A series of Zombie Wars ravaged the world, and the undead looked poised to win — in part because every live person who died instantly became a mindless, flesh-eating, walking corpse. Fortunately, a company called ZomCon invented a neck clamp that, once fastened around a zombie’s head, turned it into a docile servant — and a must-have accessory for every modern home. The company set up perimeter fences and security forces to patrol communities for zombie infiltrators who had yet to be pacified. And they (mostly) figured out how to keep the dead good and buried. By the time the film takes place, schoolchildren are taught to fire guns at zombie targets during Phys. Ed., and everyone uses extra caution around the elderly, but otherwise life is as clean-cut, gee-whiz-swell as our most earnest myths about the 1950s.
It’s an ingenious concept, and it should be all sorts of ghoulish fun. But this is no jammin’ undead party — it’d be better off sent to the grave. Director Andrew Curry weights his film down with metaphorical deadweight, so that it lurches from half-dead idea to half-dead idea with all the grace and wit of its big, dumb zombie characters — which is to say very little. And what it tries to say isn’t even worth getting out of your grave for: Diversity is good! Capitalism is bad! Suburbia breeds stifling conformity! Did somebody eat this movie’s brain?
The film is set in the sun-speckled small town of Willard, and it centers around the Robinson family. Bill and Helen (Dylan Baker and Carrie-Anne Moss) have a house, a yard, a car, a kid, and another little one on the way. The only thing they don’t have is a servant zombie. Helen goes against her husband’s wishes and bring one home; their timid, school-age son Timmy (K’Sun Ray) names it Fido. He and Helen instantly befriend the flesh-devouring beast. But in a town where zombies are a feared, servant class, such friendships eventually leads to trouble.
Comedian Billy Connolly plays the titular zombie, a sluggish, hulking lunk with dead, grey skin and exposed veins. His dialog is limited to “urrrrggghhh” and “hrrrnnnhhhh.” He gives the put-upon creature a gentle, even noble, if somewhat reluctant, willingness to go along with his human masters’ plans because, well, what else is he going to do? For a role with no dialog and only the halting motions of a walking corpse, it’s a strong performance. But it doesn’t save the movie, which, unfortunately, expects its audience to follow it just as unthinkingly as its zombies.
To be sure, Fido looks as sparkling clean and fussily proper as a Nickelodeon remake of Leave it to Beaver. Curry and cinematographer Jan Kiesser paint the movie’s small-town suburb as a Technicolor Candy Land, with explosions of bold Crayola color brightening every frame. It’s not quite as eerie or comically outlandish as, say, Tim Burton’s bubblegum nightmare, Edward Scissorhands, but it’s in the same creeptastic neighborhood.
And, like Edward Scissorhands, Fido sees itself as suburban social satire. But who, outside the mansion-lined streets of ritzy Hollywood communities, really wants yet another movie decrying the soul-crushing conformity of suburbia? Yes, the Sopranos had an original take on the topic, but for the most part, it’s a genre that, like the residents of Willard, deserves to stay dead. Fido, though, rolls out every suburban-hell cliché in the community owner’s guide: the homes all look alike, strivers and social climbers derive status from acts of ostentatious conformity, and everyone pretends to be happy to hide frustration and dissatisfaction. Can I get a big, undead grooaaaan? Curry has simply given us a brightly colored, zombiefied American Beauty; wake me when David Lynch decides to make Blue Velvet II.
But Fido isn’t content just to rehash all the old complaints about suburbia. It also feels the need to enlist its zombies as all-purpose metaphors for… whatever. Are they illegal immigrants — an exploited underclass kept chained up and repressed, used to do dirty work for the upper middle class? Are they gays, perhaps, or just minorities in general? Fido can’t decide, and frankly, I don’t care. The all-purpose “other” metaphor worked somewhat better in the middling X-Men 3, and George Romero’s Land of the Dead already perfected the “zombies are people too” message.
Perhaps, though, we’d be better off dropping the sociological baggage from films like this altogether and letting zombies just be zombies, crazed, dead, and scary — and nothing more. With all the cinematic pleas for respecting the creatures, you’d think we could just let them be. Sometimes a hungry zombie is nothing more than a hungry zombie.
–Peter Suderman is managing editor of National Review Online.