Chivalry Is Not Undead
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The 2004 horror spoof “Shaun of the Dead” introduced the idea of domesticated zombies as its final send up of the classic horror staple. Three years and a handful of other interpretations of the zombie genre later, the screenwriters Robert Chomiak, Dennis Heaton, and Andrew Currie (who gets directing credit) have siphoned off that mildly amusing concept and tried to fill a feature-length film with it. Perhaps out of desperation to make the rip off less transparent, their “Fido” is a pastiche of the zombie, child-pet camaraderie, and 1950s family sitcom subgenres.
An electric collar developed by the ZomCon Corporation has enabled the residents of an idyllic Cold Warera subdivision to suppress the flesh-devouring tendencies of zombies and effectively enslave them. The duties of the undead include everything from house cleaning to factory labor. The Robinsons are the only family in the neighborhood that has remained zombieless — that is, until some ZomCon bigwig moves in across the street and the family feels pressure to keep up with the Joneses. So Fido (Billy Connelly) joins the Robinson household. Cowed by bullies and neglected by his parents, little Timmy Robinson (K’Sun Ray) quickly finds solace in the company of his brand new pet zombie. But when a malfunction in Fido’s collar sets off a chain of brutal attacks, Timmy scrambles to protect his new friend and keep the truth buried.
The success of a parody is mostly dependent on how well it plays on our familiarity with convention. In this case, the screenwriters channel several subgenres but seem woefully oblivious to their key traditions. It’s readily apparent that the film attempts to spoof the George Romero breed of zombies, as seen in “Night of the Living Dead,” “Dawn of the Dead,” and “Day of the Dead.” But while “Shaun of the Dead” paid homage to Romero staples such as terrified suburbanites under siege in public buildings, “Fido” barely references the dawdling locomotion and flesh-eating habits of the undead. Its running one-note joke about domesticated zombies gets old quickly.
“Fido” also calls on 1950s family sitcoms such as “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best,” but the filmmakers again fail to recognize fixtures such as the patriarchal nuclear family and the moral lessons so blatantly presented in those shows. Since Bill Robinson (Dylan Baker) would rather play golf than spend time with his family, Fido becomes a sort of surrogate dad to Timmy and husband to Helen (Carrie-Anne Moss). Apparently she isn’t the only one developing a necro-crush — their geeky neighbor Mr. Theopolis (Tim Blake Nelson) also seems quite lovey-dovey with his bikini-clad zombie, Tammy (Sonja Bennett). While films like “Pleasantville” used the concept of the 1950s family sitcom to address the conformity of that era and the lost innocence of our own time, “Fido” uses it to suggest that a zombie is better than an absentee family man.
Timmy and Fido’s friendship lampoons the type of child-pet relationship seen in the likes of “Lassie” and “Flipper.” Through playing catch and exacting revenge on Timmy’s tormentors, the two form a bond strong enough to dissuade the loyal Fido from harming Timmy when his collar goes haywire. Indeed, the schoolyard bullies are more threatening here than the zombies. Apparently, target practice has become part of the elementary school curriculum, and the children in “Fido” wave shotguns in one another’s faces in an effort to intimidate. Shrewder filmmakers might have been able to make a worthwhile point with these images, but in a post-Virginia Tech, post-post-Columbine world, the material isn’t exactly a laughing matter.
“Fido” evokes many Cold War-era themes and motifs, but it’s impossible to pinpoint its motivations or goals. The film tweaks all its subgenres so far beyond recognition that even occasional chuckles become hard to find. The costume design is about the only element that appropriately reflects the period. Mr. Connelly is quite subdued in the title role. His static performance lingers in robotic zombie mode; one can almost sense his reluctance to lower himself and act like an obedient pet. Mr. Nelson stands out in the ensemble, mostly because he’s the only cast member who gives the animated sitcom-esque performance the film demands. It’s difficult to blame his co-stars, however, who have so little in terms of depth and dialog with which to work.
“Fido” may not be the final nail in the coffin for zombie flicks, but after the success of “Shaun of the Dead,” it does show that you need more than just a reliable concept to craft a worthwhile parody.