Saw a little gem of a movie last night: FIDO, which opens on Friday for a two-week run at the Nuart Theatre.
The title may suggest a story about a boy and his dog, and that's not far off - except that, instead of a dog, the titular character is a zombie. The premise is that, years ago, the Earth passed through a cloud of space dust that turned the dead into flesh-eating zombies. After the "Zombie Wars" put down the undead uprising, a giant corporation called ZomCom managed to domesticate the the walking dead with an electronic collar that quells their urge to eat warm human flesh. Zombies now work in menial tasks, as milkmen, paper boys, and servants; in fact, it somewhat embarrassing for a family not to own at least one zombie.
This set-up sounds like an amusing premise for a mild little low-budget spoof, but FIDO is much more than that: it's a full-blown social satire with zombies at its center. Equal part LASSIE, old TV sit-coms, and 1950s movie melodramas, the film pokes fun at contemporay society in the tradition of the old TWILIGHT ZONE series - by hiding its commentary in another time, another place. It's not very scary; it's not even always hysterically funny. But its satire is always sharp as steel, cutting through the facade of happy, everyday "normality" with almost as sting as David Lynch's BLUE VELVET.
The story is set in a quiet suburban neighborhood, where the grass is always green and everything is pleasantly upbeat. The Robinson family has recently aquired their first zombie: Dad is phobic about the creatures, but Mom insists that their family not be the only one on the block without one, especially since the head of security at ZomCom has just moved in across the street. Little Timmy, a lonely boy picked on by his peers at school, befriends the family servant and names him Fido. Unfortunately, a malfunction with Fido's collar results in his attacking and killing a neighbor, setting off a chain reaction of events that results in ZomCom recalling the zombie for use in their factory. But Timmy refuses to give up on his friend and sets out to rescue him...
What makes this relatively simple story shine like a gem is the Technicolor stylings that (despite the modest budget) capture the colorful artificiality of old-time Hollywood movies. The glossy look perfecly captures the complacency blanketing the town, hiding the darker undercurrents. In this regard, FIDO bears some resemblance to Todd Haynes' charming FAR FROM HEAVEN (2002), which also modeled its look after 1950s Technicolor productions. (In fact, the two films would make an excellent double bill, despite their obvious differences.)
FIDO also warrants some comparison to 1998's over-rated opus PLEASANTVILLE, which also cast its eyes back to the era of 1950s sit-coms. The crucial difference is that PLEASANTVILLE was supremely smug, patting itself on the back for taking aim at an easy target (the '50s were, like, so totally un-cool, don't you know?) and assuming that the only thing wrong with the "Good Old Days" was that they weren't enough like the enlightened Present.
FIDO bears a superficial resemblance, with its young school children indoctrinated with propaganda films and taking target practise to deal with the zombie menace. The word "containment" is ever on the lips - a buzz word literally refering to the need to contain the problem but figuratively signifying the need to conform to the ZomCom authority that keeps everyone safe.
In effect, the zombies are like the Red Menace from the Cold War: your neighbors, your friends, your loved ones (especially the old and the infirm) could die at any minute and become one of them - the Enemy Within - so it's best to keep an eye on those around you and not get too emotionally involved, lest tender feelings make you hesitate to pull the trigger when the time comes.
It's easy to laugh at this portrait of paranoid American culture as some kind of dusty relic of the past, but before too long you see the present-day parallels. The zombie menace is a sort of dormant threat, one that must be kept alive because it maintains the status quo. Without it, ZomCom's ability to run the show would be obsolete and unnecessary. In effect, the unplesant situation is not so unpleasant for ZomCom head of security Mr. Bottoms (Henry Czerny); he actually seems to relish it. It gives life meaning - gives him a reason for existence.
The ugly parallel with today's political situation is so blatant that it almost needs no explanation. Conservative politicians and pundits embrace the threat of terrorism because it gives meaning to their lives; it seems to justify their world view. We see it in Republican presidential debates, in newspaper editorials, and in the ranting of right-wing bloggers: the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) wish that the threat continue to thrive because without it their pitiful house of cards will blow apart in the wind.
If FIDO has a failing, it is that, having set this scenario into motion, it shies away from the potentially apocalyptic implications; following the idea to its logical conclusion would result in an explosive destruction of the conventional social order along the lines of George Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD. Instead, the film opts for a hokier ending, which at least is in line with its cornball sources of inspiration. Nothing really changes; life goes on, but at least people learn to love their zombies...
Despite this minor failing, FIDO is minor milestone in the history of zombie films. In fact, outside Romero's LIVING DEAD films, this is one of the few efforts to advance the sub-genre on a conceptual level. The zombie rules are clearly borrowed from the archetype laid out in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (the school kids even recite a rhyme to remind them to aim for the head, not the heart), but FIDO uses this set-up to go in its own direction by asking a fascinating "What if...?" question: "What if zombies could be domesticated?" Romero himself toyed with this idea in DAY OF THE DEAD, but his characters never got the chance to put it into practise. Now FIDO shows us the results - imaginative, weird, funny, and fascinating.
Anyway, Los Angeles fantasy film fans have a two-week window of opportunity to catch this funny, subversive satire. If you miss it in favor of the FANTASTIC FOUR sequel, well...shame on you.