Is there any other subset of the horror genre that’s undergone as radical a transformation as the zombie film? The rise of teen slashers and torture porn means you hardly ever see old-school creature features anymore, though when you do, vampires are still made out to be terrifying, mummies and mutants are given due respect for the violence they can cause, and so on. But zombies have been co-opted by the modern generation of authors and filmmakers and turned into something humorous. They’re not so much villains as punchlines, and plot devices. Granted, some of the humor was always there, and is just now being brought out: Zombies really are stupid and slow-moving, and it’s inherently comical to see them stumble about and bump into things. But they’ve been used in so many satires and self-aware comedies that they aren’t really scary anymore: The key example of this is the tongue-in-cheek, deadpan humor behind The Zombie Survival Guide, which took what used to be a pretty creepy horror artifact and funneled it through the sieve of hipster humor. It’s works like that one that make a film like Fido possible, but are also probably responsible for its ultimate weakness. The script itself is flawed — it’s 90 minutes of setups with almost no payoffs — but the bigger issue is that the prevalence of zombie humor seems to have persuaded director Andrew Currie, who co-wrote with Robert Chomiak and Dennis Heaton, that a good gimmick is a worthy substitute for a complete story. It isn’t.
Fido opens with an educational filmstrip that establishes the film’s era and tone: It’s the mid-1950s, and humans are still adapting to life after the recent zombie outbreak and war after a radiation cloud appeared from space one day and caused all dead tissue to suddenly reanimate, leading to a massive uprising of undead. People figured out that destroying a zombie’s brain or decapitating it was the only way to kill it for good, and what’s more, scientists developed collars to modulate zombie behavior, turning them from flesh-hungry murderers into doped-up houseboys and assistants. Currie’s screenplay starts off smartly enough, with John Bottoms (Henry Czerny), the newly installed security head at zombie containment company Zomcon, addressing the local school about the dangers of zombies and the importance of safety. Then the kids go for “outside education,” which means lying down in rows and firing .22s at a row of zombie cutouts to practice those all-important head shots. The irony here is hip-deep, and already threatening to bog things down, but Czerny, a gifted character actor, is the perfect choice for the somewhat blustery and possibly devious corporate representative. He affably fields a question from young Timmy (K’Sun Ray) about the effects of the radioactive cloud that makes everyone who dies now a zombie: Namely, what about all the people who were long dead when the cloud hit; will they become zombies now and claw their way up to he surface? John blows off the question, and it’s tempting to believe that this will play a part in Currie’s story: the inevitability of surprise, man’s inability to control his surroundings, the conflict between corporate rigidity and individual free will, etc., all grounded in a playful satiric comedy. Alas, none of that comes to be, and Timmy’s supposition about a sudden resurgence in the zombie population is left by the wayside in what will soon become indicative of Currie’s storytelling style of creating a setup, milking it for a weak joke, and then moving on.
In fact, the only plot that Currie actually carries all the way through is that of the zombie bought by Timmy’s parents, Helen (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Bill (Dylan Baker). Helen is a doting wife and mother who’s deeply unhappy with how aloof her husband is becoming, and afraid of being upstaged by the wealth of the Bottoms, who just moved in next door, so she picks up a zombie (Billy Connolly) to help around the house. Timmy names him Fido, after which the movie devolves into a series of scenes that are too interconnected to be considered vignettes but not possessed of the emotional thread that would turn them from contiguous concepts into an actual narrative. Timmy ostensibly has a crush on John’s daughter, but shares only a handful of scenes with her, and never does anything about it. There’s also the burgeoning relationship between Helen, fed up with her estranged husband, and Fido, who begins to show a bit of control over his homicidal tendencies. By far, the cutest moment is when Timmy is tied up by bullies and sends Fido to get Helen for help, at which point Fido finds her and offers only a series of worried grunts, prompting Helen to ask, “What’s wrong, boy? Where’s Timmy?” It’s a decent laugh, but the sequence feels unconnected from the rest of the film because its particular consequences have no affect on anything after it. After stretching out the premise farther than even he probably thought possible, Currie gives up and just paints John as the villain, culminating in a climactic zombie showdown at the Zomcon factory that could just as well have been its own short film; after all, the final 30 minutes don’t have much in common with the preceding 60 except for the actors.
But despite its soggy plotting, the film is gorgeous to look at, an explosion of primary colors and immaculate production design that surpasses the content in quality and detail. Jan Kiesser’s cinematography is as bright and chipper as rose-colored memories of the time period deserve to be, and Mary McLeod’s costumes, especially the variety of dresses worn by Moss, are fantastic. It was also shot entirely on location in British Columbia; I had no idea parts of Canada were that lush.
Ultimately, Fido is a good premise in need of some desperate cleaning up. As far as postmodern-ironic-zombie-based-satires go, it’s a few leagues below Shaun of the Dead, the gold standard in the field. But Shaun of the Dead, in addition to the monsters, had a definite plot, and characters with tangible goals and relatable emotions, which gave the comedy its weight. In contrast, Fido stumbles around like one of its own undead, with nowhere to go and in need of resuscitation.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.Roll Over, Play Dull
Film Reviews | June 15, 2007 | Comments ()