Sunday, December 14, 2008

Movies: "A modest proposal" or "A vote for the Zombie Adjustment Agency is a vote for the future."

Fido, Andrew Curries's 2006 zombedy, is an innovative and clever flick that suffers from the fact that, at this point, making a zombie film is somewhat like announcing that you're going make a cop buddy pic in which two mismatched partners, perhaps some young gun who doesn't play by the rules and an old hand who is getting a bit long in the tooth for these shenanigans, learn to work together in the course of solving an action-packed case whose implications go all the way to the top. Sure, there's room for innovation there. But that room is more a product of the fact that all artistic endeavors carry in them gaps and lacunae that can be filled, rather than due to the innate lure of a concept that still has so much more to give to the genre.

Honestly, what can be said when we've been afflicted with not one, but two zombie stripper projects in the past two years?

Well within their analog for the "Jason's Manhattan vacation" stage of slasher flicks, zombie films have lapsed into their decadent period and almost can't help but become self-referential parodies. In 2007, both 28 Weeks Later and Grindhouse, apparently in independent incidences of inspiration, included scenes in which helicopter blades go all lawnmowery on a flesh-hungry horde of mindless cannibals. Only the presence of Rose McGowan gave eagle-eyed viewers a hint as to which of these two scenes was meant as an over-the-top parody.

In fact, even the figure of the zombie itself is dangerously close to becoming a postmodern joke with a Moebius Strip for a punchline. An overwhelming horde of dead, thoughtless things destroying all life before their relentless shuffling – zombies are the single best symbol we have for the zombie industry.

Which is a shame, 'cause there's still good stuff like Fido getting cranked out.

Let's get to the movie proper, and then I'll give you my modest proposal for ending the Great Zombie Depression.

Fido is a wonderfully built, delightfully silly comedy that takes place in an alternate 1950s in which . . . aw, heck, why don't I just let Fido do the yeoman work? Here's a nice educational-film-within-a-film that opens our flick and efficiently does all the heavy-lifting worldbuilding exposition in just a few minutes:

Into the world of Zomcom town-fortresses, we get Timmy. Little Timbo is a socially awkward youth with a dysfunctional family and bully problems. At home, his dad is emotionally stunted because he had to off his own pops in the zombie war and his mom is a hollow shell of Ike Era femininity who fills her intellectual, social, and sexual cravings with a unsatisfying habit of chasing the material signifiers of prosperity. At school, the too-thoughtful Timmy is the target of taunting by a pair of Zomcon Scouts, a sort of corporate sponsored cross between Hitler Youth and the Boy Scouts.

Spurred by the material wealth of their new neighbors – like plantations of the antebellum South, the number of zombies a household owns in the post-Zed War 1950s is a synecdoche for prosperity and status – Timmy's mom (played with winking campy gusto by Carrie-Anne Moss) purchases a new zombie. Tim's pops, still dealing with PTSD zombie fears, hates the new undead appliance. Timmy is indifferent to the reanimated corpse until the creature stops the Bully Scouts one day in the park. Suddenly seeing the undead chattel as a pet, Timmy dubs the zombie Fido and they quickly become best friends.

Unfortunately, Fido's collar is a bit twitchy. It blinks off at an unfortunate moment and Fido chomps down on the neighborhood snoop and busybody. As these things do, each zombie mishap breeds more zombie mishaps and, before you can say "That's a lovely dress Mrs. Cleaver," Zomcom's gung ho security chief is asking questions and on the trail of Fido.

To make matters even weirder, mom and pops's marriage, never all that sturdy to begin with, gets wobbly when the zombiphoic dad detects some smoldering sexual tension between mom and the new servant/appliance/family pet.

Unlike the other zombedy to which Fido is inevitably compared, Wright's superlative Shaun of the Dead, director Currie keeps thing light and likable. Though there's a fairly sizable bodycount, Currie manages to communicate the idea that there's nothing bigger than a boy and his dog (where dog = zombie) tale here. The film riffs off the great Western secular religions of consumerism and conformity, but the targets of these light and passing jabs are so abstracted into realm of media allusion as to become little more than nods to shared TV Land references. This isn't the 1950s as it was lived; it's the world of "Father Knows Best" and "Leave It to Beaver." The metaphorical implications of the zombies are left shallow and unresolved. Are they meant to be understood as pets? Bits of domestic technology? Slaves? Minorities? At various points in the film, one or all of these interpretations make sense – but none of them ever gets developed or applied to film in a holistic way that would give viewers a framework to interpret. Even within the film this sort of lack of a cohesive understanding seems the norm. Timmy can think of Fido the zombie as a faithful pet-like companion and mom can get all manner of nether-tingles over him, but no conflict will arise even though, from Timmy's frame of reference, this means mom wants special grown up time with the creature who is essentially his dog. Furthermore, whatever metaphorical slot you push them into, the film never really tries to get over the fact that, as a rule of thumb, it's really only a form of massive and innately nonconsensual behavior modification that makes the zombies not fulfill their natural inclinations and make with the chomp-chomp. Which, if you think on it too long, is a troubling aspect of the zombie-human romantic relationships depicted in the film (aside from the whole necrophilia angle, of course). How much of a romantic relationship can you have if your partner's personality is the product of brainwashing? I bring this up here, but the film never gets that interested in such questions.

This isn't a criticism of Fido. In fact, it is the key to its success. Instead of philosophical gravitas or social relevance, charm is what holds the film together. The fantasy world of the film doesn't just defy disbelief, it flaunts its impossibility. Even if one granted that people could survive in little fortress-towns, where are they getting all these fabulous new clothes? How do they get gas for those chromed out road-boats that ruled the pre-eco-guilt streets of America? This sort of nitpicking is so rarely helpful that it seems silly, but Fido is almost pick-proof in its refusal to even bother with those problems. Its embraces it premise with the ease of a confident humorists setting up a gag. Why would a priest, a rabbi, a blonde, and a giraffe all walk into a bar together? Because it'll be funny, trust me. The trick with this sort of loose and easy storytelling is that you actually have to be pretty accomplished to pull it off. And, happily, Currie and company are up to the task.

The flick looks great. I've said before that we've entered an era where even tiny productions, given the talent and insight, have the technical resources to produce a professional film. While this is, I think, the defining trait of the modern era of indie film, it does give short shrift to flick's like Fido. This film nails a sun-warmed, crisp neverwas 1950s that can make a viewer born more than a decade later nostalgic for the Father Knows Best boyhood they never had. Though they're given intentionally thin roles, the cast embraces the project and has a ball. Even comedian Billy Connolly, who has no lines a thick layer of zombie make-up to deal with, gives his character some real on-screen presence. Together, this crew delivers the gags with skill and the jokes land more often than they miss.

Fido is pop candy in the best sense. Entertaining, quirky, innocently good-natured, humorous, innovative in a non-presupposing way, and well executed, it has something of the pre-Batman Burton about it. It will be a bit too tame for horror junkies looking for thrills, but for those looking for some a clever fantasy tale end a long day on an up note or fill a chilly afternoon, you could do a lot worse.

And out . . .

Now let's cut the crap and get down to brass tacks.

We've just got too much zombie crap floating around out there. If Fido had come out five or six years ago, I think it might have made a large impact on the horror-o-sphere. Even if it'd come out today, but not been one of a seemingly endless stream of zombie flicks, Lego models, foodstuffs, and social events, it might not seem so (unfairly) ordinary. But that's economics for you: when you glut the market and supply outpaces demand, the value of the commodity sinks.

Here's my proposal. We take a page from the FDR's New Deal. Back in Great Depression I, farmers faced an unusual problem. They were overproducing to such a great degree that they destabilized their own prices. They were making more food, all of it valued less, and starving in the midst of their own plenty. With the passage of the Agricultural Adjustment Act in 1933, the Agricultural Adjustment Agency set product limits, called domestic allotments, on basic agricultural crops. Those allotments set the amount of corn, wheat, beans, whatever, that a farmer could send to market. Anything produced over that amount, the government bought and destroyed. By creating a flexible level of artificial scarcity, the government prevented the bottom from falling out on the agricultural sector. It drove up market prices, which was good for the farmer, and prevented a real and inflexible scarcity that would have been the product of farm failure, which was ultimately good for the consumer.

I think we should do the same with zombie crap.

We create a Zombie Adjustment Agency. This government group will set undead allotments for each medium, regulating the number of zombie-themed films, music videos, games, cereals, clothing, novels, short story anthologies, parades, feminine hygiene products and whatever the hell else people can think of that can actually head to market. Any zombie production past those allotments is purchased by the government at a reasonable price and destroyed.

And if you get clever and pull a "they're not zombies, but actually people infected with the rage virus" then it's off to Gitmo with you. The zombie bubble is going to burst any second. We don't have time for your crap now.

My fellow Internetians, I know this sounds like a drastic measure. But these are drastic times. Right now as we speak, people are writing scripts about zombie old-folks homes, planning novels in which Cotton Mather fights British Red Coat zombies, designing video games in which vampire elves fight gay zombie circus performers on the surface of the moon, and plan anthologies about zombies attempting to devour the band Alabama while riding a rollercoaster that travels through multiple dimensions. All this crap is headed to market as we speak, drowning out the good and lowering the value of every zombie project. We must act and we must act now. We cannot stand idly by and watch this happen to the horror genre. History, and our children - in the metaphorical sense of "our children" as you, the party reading this, and I, the blogger you are reading, have never actually had children together; unless you are one Sandra Helen Baumgartner, current resident of Pocomoke City, Maryland, in which case my lawyers have instructed me to tell you and your attorneys that we are developing a response to your query, please be patient – will not forgive inaction.

Good night. God bless you and God bless the United States of the Collective Sense of Horror-Specific and Horror Interested Blogs and Web Sites, Despite the Lack of Any Formal Organization or Doctrine of Unity.


Anonymous said...

I absolutely adore your blog. This post is, simply put, amazing. I can only hope to write this well one day.

Tenebrous Kate said...

Bravo! I heartily endorse this plan. Zombie is the new... awww I dunno--all I *am* sure of is that once the Z-word has been spoken, I just hear Charlie Brown Teacher Voice afterwards. I've reached maximum zombie saturation!

Sasquatchan said...

The 50s look/feel to it reminds me of the Fallout series of games.. Ghouls were the zombie-like shell-of-a-human (rotting flesh, hard to kill, etc) after massive radiation exposure.. Everything that's in a zombie but the hunger for brains (well, they get reformed a bit, depending on how you handle the game..)

CRwM said...

Conductor Kate,

That's two of us against the world then!

I say the world doesn't stand a chance!

CRwM said...


Thanks for the kind words. We aim to please.

OCKerouac said...

It's always something... If not zombies it's vampires, if not vampires it's genetically altered escaped zoo inhabitants, if not kill-crazy grizzly bears it's supernaturally strong teenager hating serial killing machete fiends...

If only a query could be generated in which a film maker could push a button and be told exactly what their next film should be about without having to actually think about it... I mean, we know most of the time there's no thought going into this stuff anyway, why not make sure we dole out the crap in appropriate increments?

I however would make an exception for far-east style hopping vampires... You can NEVER have too many hopping vampires...

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