One of the great joys of art is the exploration of a new world. Books, comics, and of course movies have the power to create a place big enough to be lost in, and nothing is more satisfying when that world’s details make it feel larger than the story. Sadly, most plots seem to focus on the destruction of said world, as if the only reason to create a universe was to tear it apart. I hated that growing up. I wanted the sense that this place in which I had invested so much emotion was still out there somehow, chugging along, having an infinite amount of stories within its lovingly defined borders. The makers of the 2006 Canadian horror-comedy Fido seem to agree with me.
The film establishes its world perfectly with a black and white film reel entitled “A Bright New World.” Using fifties-era graphics and cheesy set-pieces, we learn that at some unspecified point in the past, a cloud of radiation enveloped the world and had the effect of bringing the dead back to life. The Zombie Wars followed, and humanity was in bad shape before a savior emerged in global corporation Zomcon and mad(?) scientist Dr. Hrothgar Geiger. With Geiger’s invention of the “domestication collar” and someone remembering that fences are a thing, humanity has managed to thrive under the benevolent rule of Zomcon.
The domestication collar is the cornerstone of the film’s plot as well as how a severely depleted workforce can create the pocket-sized utopias human beings live on. See, the human race is confined into fenced-in safe zones that look like idyllic small towns circa Leave It to Beaver. Every house has a smooth and bright coat of paint, every lawn is as even as a Johnny Unitas flat top, and photogenic flowerbeds bloom on every corner. Humanity is mostly idle while collared zombies go about the tedious tasks of manual labor. As long as the red lights on the neck don’t go out, zombie in a domestication collar will follow commands and won’t attack. As befits a company holding the keys to not dying in a blasted zombie-infested hellscape, Zomcon owns everything. The town in which the film takes place is a wholly owned subsidiary of Zomcon, with Zomcon logos plastering everything from the zombies themselves to beer and milk.
Zombies, as the symbol of the apocalypse, have a certain power over humans, so it’s inevitable that humanity would want to take some of that power away. By turning our predators into gardeners, butlers, dog walkers, etc., they are transformed from rotting cannibal bogeymen to emasculated servants whose clumsiness inspires countless cocktail-time anecdotes. Also inevitably, now that zombies enable idleness and have an element of danger, they have become status symbols as well. Helen Robinson (Carrie-Anne Moss), our protagonist’s mother, is horribly embarrassed when the neighbors move in with a gang of six zombies, and quickly buys one of her own just so she won’t be ashamed at not even having one. They’re like a new car that could messily devour the family if its starter ever got messed up.
The zombie she buys is our titular Fido (Billy Connolly), named by Helen’s eleven-year-old son Timmy. Little Timmy is having a rough time. He has no friends and his distant father Bill (Dylan Baker) could not be less interested in him. Of course, when your father is played by Dylan Baker, that might be for the best. Timmy turns to Fido for companionship, and the big lug turns out to be a pretty good pal for a cannibal corpse. The problem arises when his collar is momentarily disabled, and he causes a miniature outbreak. The penalty for this is the destruction of the zombie in question, and Zomcon has the right to throw the entire family out into the Wild Zone.
Timmy isn’t the only one who has grown close to Fido. Helen, frustrated with her brittle and inattentive husband, turns to the zombie for some needed male attention. Sure, some of that attention is because he wants to eat the soft parts of her face, but it’s been awhile since Helen has felt desired. Fido is the kind of man who won’t abandon her and Timmy to play golf, who notices when she’s wearing perfume, and who will kill and eat anyone who bullies her boy. Bill, sensing Fido’s usurpation of the father’s role in the household, and harboring a shameful phobia of the undead, is only too happy to turn the zombie over to Zomcon when the time comes.
On the surface, Fido is a movie about family. The action serves to pull the family together, granted maybe not without every original member, and certainly not in the way everyone would have thought in the beginning. The theme is paralleled with creepy neighbor Mr. Theopolis (Tim Blake Nelson), a former Zomcon employee let go because of his relationship with a zombie. He got his hands on the fresh corpse of a young woman, and promptly had her turned into his personal undead sexpot. Through the film, he learns to value his Tammy as, if not a person, a being worthy of some level of respect.
For a quickie genre piece, the world of Fido is remarkably lived-in. Beyond the film strip, the ‘50s trappings, and Pleasantville gloss, the movie puts details into things most watchers might never notice. Timmy’s room is decorated with soldiers killing zombies. PE class is a shooting range where kids perforate paper targets and recite a handy mnemonic rhyme: “In the head and not the chest/Head shots are the very best.” Funerals are crushing financial obligations, featuring head coffins to insure the dearly departed remains that way. Instead of Boy Scouts, Zomcon Cadets learn the basics of survival in a post-apocalyptic world. And old people, ready to drop dead at any moment and thus rise as carnivorous monsters, are viewed with open suspicion.
Horror reflects our fears, and Fido is very much a product of its time. A Canadian production in 2006, it illuminates the concerns of the Bush era from an outside perspective. The zombies in the Wild Zone could easily stand in for the persistent and nebulous threat of terrorism. This threat, though valid, has created a police state run not by an elected government but by a for-profit enterprise, the film drawing parallels with real-life ubercapitalists-turned-feudal-barons like George Pullman. Zomcon uses slave labor to keep its empire functioning, and the promise of slow death in the form of exile for anyone who breaks its rules with no oversight or appeal. Mr. Bottoms, the local Zomcon security head, even admits to using his power to score the nice house in which he now lives. What no one in the film realizes is that in horror comedies, irony is king and every character gets exactly what he deserves.
Zombie films often fall into the trap of being nothing but lukewarm remakes of Night of the Living Dead. Fido manages to be unique and inventive, and creates a world I’m glad is still out there.