Fido: Billy Connelly answers the musical question, “How much is that zombie in the window?"
This week, zombie pets and dynamite Vietnam vets combine for a pair of hilarious late-2000s parodies.
For a seemingly limited genre, it’s amazing how many great zombie pictures have risen up and shambled onto the screen. Fido could be the funniest living dead romp since George Romero put an amen on his archetypal trilogy with Day of the Dead. It’s easily the sweetest comedy ever made about necromance.
Judging from the meticulously appointed ZomCon corporate training film that opens the movie, it’s a safe bet that we’re in the care of skilled mimics. Not a splice, scratch or bad haircut is overlooked. (Though there is one jarring continuity flaw: although set in the 50s the film’s opening montage features clips from Romero’s 1968 version of Night of the Living Dead.) And director Andrew Currie has a sure hand with more than just master period re-animators; he expertly guides his cast and crew as they establish a nostalgic fantasy universe oozing with charm, dexterously understated irony, and dark logic.
The colorful, sun-drenched small town on display still exists in reruns on MeTV and Antenna TV. Willard is an all-white storybook haven free of crime and pollution, a tribute of sorts to the world of Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher, the creative force behind both Leave it to Beaver and The Munsters. Timmy Robinson (K’Sun Ray) even has his own 6-foot, green faced monster named Fido (Billy Connelly) for a pet. Actually, he’s the Robinson family’s servant. Theirs was the last house on the block to get their own domesticated zombie — in the ‘50s, servitude was not only applauded, it was a status symbol.
Zombie-phobic Bill Robinson (Dylan Baker) complains about how much it costs to keep a zombie and becomes jealous when wife Helen (Carrie-Anne Moss) casts her romantic attention Fido’s way. Helen comes by her lust honestly: Mr. Theopolis (Tim Blake Nelson) across the street has his own well-preserved zombie to share his bed. Young Tammy (Sonja Bennett) was barely out of her teens when she had an aneurism in the local supermarket. Luckily, she sports a remote control protective collar (designed by ZomCon) to curb her flesh-eating instincts, and she’s been with Theopolis ever since.
Then a local chatterbox turns up dead and reborn, and Mr. Bottoms (Henry Czerny), the Robinson’s next door neighbor and ZomCon bigwig, suspects Fido. He later scolds Timmy, “Because you became friends with a zombie, a lot of nice people have been killed.” The timing and deadpan delivery is uniformly faultless throughout. The casting, too, is nothing short of inspired. Dylan Baker brilliantly fills Don Knotts’ shoes. Lantern-jawed, pipe-smoking Henry Czerny is a perfect representation of ‘50s machismo. Carrie-Anne Moss not only knows how to look smart in a Peter Pan collar, she’s also an expert marksman, skilled in the art of killing wild packs of infected Cub Scouts. Even 14-year-old newcomer K’Sun Ray shines as the adorable moppet who sees through the social panacea.
Light years ahead of Shaun of the Dead and even sharper than Robin Campilo’s French zombie epic They Came Back, Fido is as close as the cinema’s ever likely to come to a Douglas Sirk zombie melodrama. This is one living dead satire that packs an extra bite.
Black Dynamite (2009)
The makers of Black Dynamite obviously know that caricature means more than simply replicating hairstyles and awkwardly staged fight scenes. Watch the movie with the sound muted, and you’d swear that you were looking at an American International Picture from the early ‘70s. But where does Xerography end and parody begin?
Dialogue would be a logical starting point for your investigation. When a clueless young activist calls him an “Uncle Tom,” Black Dynamite (Michael Jai White) — a Vietnam vet and former CIA operative bent on cleaning the garbage and slop off our streets — pauses to compose himself before delivering one of the most impressive resumes ever committed to film: “Listen sucka, I’m blacker than the Ace of Spades and more militant than you and your whole damn army put together. And while you out there chantin’ at rallies and brow-beatin’ politicians, I’m takin’ out any money frontin’ sucka on a humble that gets in my way. So I tell you what... when your so-called revolution starts, you call me and I’ll be right down front showin’ you how it’s done. But until then, you need to shut the ‘f’ up when grown folks is talkin’.” Phew!
One of the great granddaddies of blaxploitation films is Robert Downey, Sr.‘s Putney Swope. The biting satire tells the story of a black man accidentally put in charge of a Madison Avenue advertising firm. The film helped to plant seeds for two elements essential to the genre: subject material that is an affront to the establishment, and using African Americans as talent without giving them any say in the creative process. Blaxploitation films officially coalesced as a genre in 1971 with the release of Melvin Van Peebles’ independently produced Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and M.G.M. ‘s Shaft, directed by Gordon Parks.
Audiences that frequented black action movies weren’t in it for the art. For every thoughtful blaxploitation film (The Spook Who Sat by the Door, Across 110th St., Mandingo) there were dozens of inept action programmers (Bucktown, The Thing with Two Heads, Honky), unwatchable sequels (Scream, Blacula, Scream, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold) and even a generic hybrid or two (Black Shampoo, Disco Godfather). The demand for these films began petering out toward the end of the decade, when home video became a relatively inexpensive entertainment alternative.
There have been several blaxploitation spoofs over the decades, most notably I’m Gonna’ Get You, Sucka, Undercover Brother, and...is it right to mention Mel Brooks in this company? Is Blazing Saddles a blaxploitation film, a parody of blaxploitation films, both, or neither? It really doesn’t matter. None of the aforementioned films come close to nailing it quite like Black Dynamite.
Even his mother calls him Black Dynamite. Forget about Jim Brown, D’Urville, The Hammer, Rudy Ray, and Richard Roundtree. Part Robin Hood, part Father Flannigan, and 100% woman’s dream, Black Dynamite is the biggest, baddest, blackest mother of them all. With all the fists and bullets this dude lets fly, it’s clear that Black Dynamite has no regard for adult lives, but pity the fool who does anything to harm a kid. Borrowing a chapter from the Mr. T playbook — Mr. T needed children to soften his tough side and increase toy sales — our hero’s code clearly states he must do everything in his power to protect the kids, or as he calls them, “keeds.”
After an unnecessary TV commercial parody that kicks off the proceedings, the film seldom breaks character. On the surface, it’s all Afros, Vietnam flashbacks, obligatory anti-drug messages, Kung Fu, community awareness as a means of expressing social consciousness, and men’s black mid-length leather jackets. Director Scott Sanders takes even greater pleasure in lampooning the haphazard style in which these films were slapped together. You’ll find quick zooms to reframe the action, synthesized stock music cues, split screens, flat lighting, garish fight sound effects, death by process shot and even a purposely awful substitution of a double in mid-take. And don’t forget several ill-famed cameos by Mike Shadow.
The only contrivance more prevalent than a sloppy zoom shot in blaxploitation films is painfully self-conscious expository dialogue. All of the black action classics starred African American actors, but the preponderance of them were written and directed by pandering white guys who felt the need to spell things out so as not to tax the target audience. The filmmakers seamlessly insert this type of nuanced detail. A flashback introduces us to two young men we haven’t seen before, and for those who might have difficulty understanding the concept of a flashback, one of the characters kicks things off by saying, “Jimmy, I am 18-year old Black Dynamite and you are my 16-year old kid brother.”
Michael Jai White, no stranger to action or exploitation pictures, co-wrote the script and stars. As authentic as the trappings are, it’s White’s performance that holds the film together. White endows Black with the uncanny ability to shift vocal ranges from measured tones to lively jive. After castigating his underlings and ordering them to “shake the scene,” the bi-polar Black Dynamite calmly finishes his tirade by nicely telling them, “I’ll see y’all tomorrow.”
I’m no scholar on the subject, but I’m not sure home video played that big a part in the end of “blaxploitation.” There was an IFC doc made a couple of years back that suggested it was more the film studios backing off due to the public pressure from black activists complaining about the stereotypes in the films. Many of the black actors and filmmakers interviewed suggest this was a case of good intentions closing a door. Just as more black talent was getting involved in behind-the-camera duties, protests ended the game. Not sure if that’s the lone cause, but it seems to be one of them. And it left a gap of almost a decade before black directors started getting real breaks in the industry. The closest we’ve come to a recent revival was Eddie Murphy’s spot-on performance as Rudy Ray Moore in Dolemite Is My Name, a perfect companion piece for those looking to put together a dy-no-mite double feature.