A Quickie on a Quickie: KING OF THE ZOMBIES (Monogram 1941)

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KING OF THE ZOMBIES is a 1941 Monogram horror quickie that does not star Bela Lugosi. Apparently, the great Hungarian actor was too busy at the time. I don’t see how, it’s not like he was making A-list epics that year.  Looking at his 1941 output, Lugosi starred in the studio’s THE INVISIBLE GHOST, SPOOKS RUN WILD with the East Side Kids, and had small roles in Universal’s THE BLACK CAT and THE WOLF MAN . That’s what, about 4-5 weeks worth of work? Anyway, the part of zombie master Dr. Sangre was taken by Henry Victor, best known as strongman Hercules in Tod Browning’s FREAKS.

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What KING OF THE ZOMBIES does have is black comic actor Mantan Moreland . In fact, I’m pretty sure if it wasn’t for Mantan, this film would’ve been long forgotten. I know many people today find his pop-eyed, mangled English, “feets do yo stuff” scairdy-cat schtick offensive and stereotypical. But it’s that very schtick that carries the film and rescues it from the abyss of obscurity. Besides, he’s treated more as an equal among his white cohorts, regardless of being called the nominal hero’s “valet”.

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The movie itself will scare nobody, though it does have a few atmospheric scenes courtesy of director Jean Yarbrough . It’s basically an “old, dark house” story with zombies, but the zombies aren’t very creepy, and the voodoo ritual scene is pretty blah. Madam Sul-Te-Wan tries to give it some oomph as voodoo priestess Tahama, but Henry Victor is no Bela Lugosi as Dr. Sangre, who turns out to be a mere Nazi spy. Marguerite Whitten has some good banter with Mantan as Sangre’s housekeeper Samantha; the two would work well together in several films. The “good guys” include John Archer, Joan Woodbury , and Dick Purcell (the screen’s first Captain America!), all of whom are much blander and less interesting than Mantan.

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So if your interested in seeing a spooky zombie movie, you’re in the wrong place. But if you’re looking for comedy, watch KING OF THE ZOMBIES and let the underrated Mantan Moreland entertain you with his brand of buffoonery. He was a very funny dude who starred in his own series of independent “all-black cast” movies, and saved many a low-budget studio effort with his comic support (especially those late 40’s Monogram/Charlie Chan efforts). He worked steady in films for years, transcending his stereotyped roles, and deserves to be remembered for his comedic talents.

Halloween Havoc!: ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (Universal-International 1948)

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It’s Halloween, and we’ve finally made it to the Universal Classic Monsters! Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and The Wolf Man had last appeared onscreen in 1945’s HOUSE OF DRACULA. Shortly thereafter, Universal merged with International Pictures and decided to produce only “prestige” pictures from then on, deeming their Gothic creature features no longer relevant in the post-war, post-nuclear world. The comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were also in danger of becoming irrelevant, victims of their own success, as audiences were beginning to grow tired of them after twenty movies in a scant eight years.

That “prestige” thing didn’t work out so well, and Universal went back to what they did best…. producing mid-budget movies for the masses. Producer Robert Arthur developed a script called “The Brain of Frankenstein”, giving it over to Frederic Rinaldo and Robert Lees. Lou Costello hated it, and the team’s gag writer John Grant was brought it to punch things up. Horror icons Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr, and Glenn Strange were recruited to reprise their most famous roles, and the title was changed to ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, the template for all horror comedies to come.

Lou Costello (Wilbur Grey) and Bud Abbott (Chick Young) deliver two crates to a house of horrors. The crates contain Count Dracula and Frankenstein's monster. The vampire wants to transplant Wilbur's simple brain into the monster so he will be completely under Dracula's control.

For the uninitiated, Bud and Lou play a pair of inept delivery men charged with transporting two very large crates to McDougal’s House of Horrors, said to contain the remains of Count Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster. Lou gets creeped out when Dracula’s coffin keeps opening (mainly so they could use the old “moving candle” gag), which of course Bud doesn’t see. The two fiends escape and McDougal has the boys arrested for stealing his property. They’re bailed out by a beautiful woman, but it’s not Lou’s girlfriend Sandra, it’s Joan Raymond, an undercover insurance investigator hired by McDougal.

Bud doesn’t understand how two gorgeous women can go ga-ga over short, fat Lou. What he doesn’t know is Sandra is Dracula’s assistant, a female mad scientist out to help revive the Monster by transplanting Lou’s pliable brain into it. Add Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man himself, into this mix trying to put an end to Dracula’s grandiose scheme, and you’ve got a recipe for horror and humor that ends in a climactic Monster Battle Royal and a guest “appearance” by The Invisible Man (voiced by the one-and-only Vincent Price !).

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The monsters play it straight, leaving the comedy to A&C, except for a funny bit when Lou scares the bejesus out of the Monster! Lugosi dons Dracula’s cape onscreen for the first time in 17 years, though he still toured with the stage play on occasion. With those hypnotic eyes and double-jointed hand gestures, the 67-year-old Lugosi still conveyed the power of the evil Count. He’s charming under the guise of Dr. Lejos, but as Dracula he’s still the deadliest vampire of them all. This was Bela’s last good role in a major motion picture, and takes advantage of it, showing his acting talents hadn’t diminished one bit. Unfortunately, he received no further scripts of this caliber, and found himself mired in dreck like BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA , Ed Wood’s no-budget efforts, and his own tragic opiate addiction.

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Lon Chaney Jr.  returned to the studio that made him a star after being dismissed with the rest of Universal’s contract players after the merger. He’s less whiny than usual as Talbot, playing the nominal hero dead-set on stopping Dracula’s quest for world domination. Chaney still makes an athletic werewolf, as his physical acting had always outshone his sometimes awkward way with dialog. When they find Talbot’s room a shambles after the moon rises, Bud quips, “Boy, what a bender he must’ve been on last night”, possibly a veiled reference to Chaney’s problems with the bottle. In a funny bit, Talbot explains, “In a half hour the moon will rise and I’ll turn into a wolf”, to which Lou replies, “You and twenty million other guys!”.

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Glenn Strange once again portrays the Frankenstein Monster, as he did in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HOUSE OF DRACULA. His shambling, psychotic version of Mary Shelley’s creature is an instrument of pure destruction, totally unlike the Karloff original. Strange’s Monster has no soul, and who can really blame him, having suffered through all those brain transplants over the course of the series. Lenore Aubert as Sandra is both beautiful and deadly, Jane Randolph is okay as the plucky heroine, Frank Ferguson blusters his way through the part of McDougal, and Charles Bradstreet has the thankless role of Sandra’s assistant who suspects foul play.

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Abbott and Costello are… well, they’re Abbott and Costello! The duo had spent years honing their schtick in burlesque, on Broadway, radio, and in films. Teaming them with the Universal Monsters helped put them back on top and opened the floodgates for a slew of ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET movies. They met THE KILLER BORIS KARLOFF, DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (again with Boris), THE INVISIBLE MAN, THE MUMMY, and even THE KEYSTONE KOPS! The boys are in top form here, their timing and snappy patter routines sharp as ever, and are the comic glue that holds the horrors together.

Many horror fans ask, “Yeah, but where does this fit in the Universal horror canon?” My answer to that is, “WHO CARES!” ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN stands alone as a horror-comedy classic, and should be enjoyed as such. It’s your last chance to see Lugosi in his definitive role, Chaney as the cursed Larry Talbot, and Strange as the demented Monster. Plus Bud and Lou at the peak of their comic power. That’s more than enough for me, and will be for you too when you watch ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Happy Halloween all you monster lovers out there!

 

Halloween Havoc!: A BUCKET OF BLOOD (AIP 1959)

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We can’t have Halloween without a good Roger Corman movie, and A BUCKET OF BLOOD is one of my favorites. This 1959 black comedy is a precursor to Corman’s THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, and I actually prefer it over that little gem. A BUCKET OF BLOOD skewers the pretentiousness of the art world, the 50’s beatnik scene, and the horror genre itself with its story of nerdy Walter Paisley, a busboy at a hipster coffee house learns making it as a famous artist can be murder!

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Walter’s a no-talent nebbish longing to be accepted by the pompous clientele at The Yellow Door, especially beautiful hostess Carla. When he accidentally kills the landlady’s cat, Walter covers it in clay (with the knife still protruding in poor little Frankie!), and brings it in to work. The grotesque sculpture causes a stir among the patrons, and Walter is congratulated for his brilliant work ‘Dead Cat’. Beatnik chick Naolia is so impressed, not to mention hot for Walter, she gives the innocent busboy some heroin to celebrate.

But undercover cop Lou, staking out the joint, sees the transaction and follows Walter home, arresting him for possession. Walter reacts by crowning the cop with a frying pan and stashing the body in his ceiling, blood dripping down as he thinks of a way out of this mess. Thus a new masterpiece, ‘Murdered Man’, is born! Meanwhile over at the Yellow Door, owner Leonard discovers Walter’s gruesome secret when he accidentally drops ‘Dead Cat’ and cracks the plaster. Leonard’s horrified, until an art collector offers him $500 bucks for the piece, and his greed takes over.

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Walter invites Carla and Leonard over to view ‘Murdered Man’, complete with split skull, and while Carla hails him as a genius, Leonard’s a nervous wreck! Walter shows up at work all artsy, dressed in a tam and ascot, long-cigarette holder dangling from his lips. House poet Maxwell composes an ode in his honor, but stuck-up model Alice still treats him with distain. Guess who becomes Walter’s next objet d’art? After Walter cuts off a workman’s head with a buzzsaw for his newest work, Leonard’s had enough, and arranges a showing of Walter’s bizzare statues. All the local hipsters are on the scene giving the boy raves reviews, but Walter’s depressed when Carla tells him she just wants to be friends, so weirdo Walter decides he’ll use her as his latest creation…

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Character actor Dick Miller will be forever identified as Walter Paisley, so much he’s used the character name on six different occasions, including HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, THE HOWLING, TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, and CHOPPING MALL. Miller was one of the key players of Roger Corman’s stock company, appearing in 17 of the director’s films, from THE OKLAHOMA WOMAN to THE TRIP, and a host of others with Corman as producer. Miller was introduced to a  new generation of filmgoers in the 80’s as neighbor Murray Futterman in GREMILINS and GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH. Happily, Dick Miller is still with us as of this writing at age 87, and occasionally acts in small roles.

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Other Corman regulars in the cast include pretty Barboura Morris as Walter’s crush Carla, Anthony Carbone as Yellow Door owner Leonard, Ed Nelson as vice cop Art Lacroix, and Bruno VeSota as the art collector. Future game show host Bert Convy (billed here as Burt) plays the unfortunate undercover cop, while sexy Judy Bamber is the doomed Alice. Julian Burton is great as beatnik poet Maxwell, and John Shaner and John Brinkley are hilarious as a pair of hopheads who frequent the coffeehouse.

The legend goes that Corman and screenwriter Charles B. Griffith spent an evening prowling the beat scene in Los Angeles trying to come up with a story, when they met up with struggling actress Sally Kellerman, working as a waitress to supplement her income. The trio sat down as the coffee shop was closing and concocted the wild tale. A BUCKET OF BLOOD has since become a true cult classic over the years, an original black comedy that takes the MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM /HOUSE OF WAX premise and turns it on its ear, satirizing Corman’s more conventional movies in the process. Its warped worldview makes A BUCKET OF BLOOD a must for your Halloween watch list!

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (AIP 1964)

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Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone had all appeared together on film in various combinations seven different times, but never all at once until THE COMEDY OF TERRORS. This black comedy masterpiece spoofs AIP’s own Poe flicks and Shakespeare, with the quartet of chiller icons having a grand old time playing Richard Matheson’s delicious screenplay to the hilt. Horror and noir vet Jacques Tourneur gets to direct the old pros, and the supporting cast features classic comic Joe E. Brown and Rhubarb The Cat (more on him later!).

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Price  is Waldo Trumble, the besotted, greedy proprietor of Trumble & Hinchley Funeral Parlor. He’s cruel to wife Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson), a failed opera singer (“I wish her vocal chords would snap”) who he married only to gain control of the company from her doddering old, half-deaf father Amos. “Demon rum will get you yet!”, she tells Waldo, to which he replies, “I look forward to that occasion with anticipation, madam”. Waldo keeps trying to give Amos a dose of poison, which the elderly man thinks is medicine, and Amaryllis keeps stopping him, causing the befuddled Amos to wail, “I don’t believe you care whether your poor old father lives or dies!”.

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Business has been off lately, and landlord Mr. Black (the Shakespeare-spouting Rathbone ) demands his year’s worth of back rent or he’ll throw them all out within 24 hours (Waldo calls him a “penny-pinching old pig”). Soon Waldo and his assistant, the fugitive Felix Gillie (Lorre , who’s wanted for “sundry illicit peccadillos”), go and drum up some business on their own, murdering a well-to-do local. They get the stiff’s funeral, but the widow stiffs them, running off to Boston without paying, leading Waldo to a morbid conclusion: he’ll “kill two birds with one pillow” by murdering Mr. Black, thus billing for an expensive funeral and ridding himself of his overdue rent obligations.

This leads to total chaos when Black, who suffers from catatonia, refuses to stay dead! “What place is this?”, he bellows as he rises from his coffin, causing Waldo and Felix to kill him again. Black’s finally laid to rest in his family crypt, but rises again, scaring the beejesus out of the cemetary caretaker (Big-mouth Brown in his final screen appearance). While Waldo and company celebrate their success, Black grabs an axe and heads for the funeral parlor in a rainstorm, ready to unleash mayhem on the lot of them!

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Price is at his hammy best as Waldo, with one snide remark after the other. When he finds out the first victim’s widow has run off, the murderous undertaker moans, ” Is there no morality left in the world?”. On Amaryllis’s singing, he growls, “Will you stop that ungodly caterwauling!”. He and Lorre (who calls Waldo ‘Mr. Tremble’) are like a macabre version of Abbott & Costello with their homicidal wordplay and bumbling pratfalls (performed by stunt doubles). Rathbone gets to shine too, spouting Shakespeare alone in his bedroom while fencing with shadows, and continuously popping back from the dead with lines like “What jiggery pokery is this?”.

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But its King Boris who truly steals the show as the feebleminded Amos Hinchley. Karloff shows a flair for comedy rarely seen in his films with just a look and a quick quip. Boris stands out amidst all the absurdity, and his soliloquy at the dinner table, babbling about embalming methods, is a scream:

“Old Ben Jonson, buried standing up… Edward III, buried with his horses… Alexander the Great, embalmed in honey, so they say, heehee… Egyptians used to hollow ’em out and fill ’em full of rosin… Egyptains used to bend ’em in two and stick ’em in a vase of salt water… give ’em false eyes, yank their brains out with a hook!”.

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Joyce Jameson holds her own with the seasoned vets as the off-key Amaryllis. She’d acted with Price and Lorre in a segment of the horror anthology TALES OF TERROR, and appeared in films from THE APARTMENT to DEATH RACE 2000, but is best remembered as one of the “Fun Girls” from Mt. Pilot on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW . Then there’s Rhubarb the Cat, who slinks his way throughout the film as Cleopatra. The Orange tabby, who’s real name was Orangey, was a star in his own right, winning two Patsy Awards (the animal equivalent of the Oscar)  for RHUBARB (costarring with Ray Milland) and as Audrey Hepburn’s pet “Cat” in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. The feline was one of trainer Frank Inn’s animal stars, and his science-fiction credits included THIS ISLAND EARTH and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN.

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Richard Matheson’s  screenplay sends up his Poe films with wit and black humor. Jacques Tourneur takes a break from serious filmmaking like CAT PEOPLE and OUT OF THE PAST , and lets the veteran horror actors take free reign. All the old AIP behind the scenes gang contribute to the madness (DP Floyd Crosby, music score Les Baxter, editor Anthony Carras, art director Daniel Haller), and have a good time doing it. But it’s the four Masters of Terror that make this worthwhile, especially Karloff’s comical performance as Amos. Sandwich this one between ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN for a triple bill of horror and humor on All Hallows Eve, and have yourself a hysterically horrific Halloween!

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: Bela Lugosi Meets The East Side Kids… Twice!

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Ten years after making horror history as DRACULA,   Bela Lugosi signed a contract with Monogram Studios producer Sam Katzman   to star in a series of low-budget shockers. The films have been affectionately dubbed by fans “The Monogram Nine” and for the most part are really terrible, redeemed only by the presence of our favorite Hungarian. Two of the films were with the East Side Kids, SPOOKS RUN WILD and GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE, making them sort of Poverty Row All-Star Productions for wartime audiences.

I won’t go too deeply into all the Dead End Kids/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys variations here. Suffice it to say original Dead Enders Leo Gorcey   (Muggs), Huntz Hall (Glimpy), and Bobby Jordan (Danny) landed at Monogram after their Warner Brothers contracts expired, much to Jack Warner’s relief. The young actors were a rowdy bunch, and Jack was probably glad to be rid of them! Anyway, the trio were popular with the masses, and Katzman snapped them up to star in a quickie comedy series about a gang of slum kids getting involved in the usual movie-type shenanigans (boxing, high society, etc etc).

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The first teaming of Lugosi and the East Side Kids was 1941’s SPOOKS RUN WILD, an “old dark house” flick that plays on Bela’s Vampire King persona. The movie suffers from extremely poor lighting and camerawork, not to mention a lousy script by Carl Foreman, who went on to much better things (CYRANO DE BERGERAC, HIGH NOON, BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) later in his career. Bela’s an obvious red herring but is seen to good advantage. The plot has the Kids reluctantly going to summer camp for the underprivileged while a “bloodthirsty monster” is on the loose. They wind up at your standard “old, dark house” with the usual spiders, skeletons, and secret passageways before they discover Bela’s a mere stage magician and the real maniac is finally caught.

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Besides the original Dead Enders, SPOOKS RUN WILD features Sunshine Sammy Morrison as Scruno, the only black member of the Dead End/East Side/Bowery conglomerate. Morrison was a former silent child star and original Our Gang member, and he’s pretty funny in a Mantan Moreland sort of way. Dave O’Brien (REEFER MADNESS THE DEVIL BAT ) is on hand as a camp counselor, and 2′ 11″ actor Angelo Rossitto skulks about as Bela’s assistant, as he did in two other Lugosi vehicles (THE CORPSE VANISHES, SCARED TO DEATH ). Little Angelo had a lengthy film career that stretched from the silent to the 1980’s (MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME), and included supporting roles in Tod Browning’s FREAKS, the exploitation classic CHILD BRIDE, a pair of Al Adamson shockers (BRAIN OF BLOOD, DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN), and a recurring role on Robert Blake’s 70’s detective series BARETTA.

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Bela and the boys reteamed two years later for GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE, with our man Lugosi as a legitimate villain this time, leader of a Nazi propaganda ring. This is the better of the two, as the series began to hit its stride. Once again, the boys get involved in some haunted house gags that were as moldy as the house itself, with moving pictures, mysterious laughter, and the like. Gorcey’s still the leader of the pack, mangling the English language as only he could (“I’m gonna send you to an optimist and have yer eyes examined”), and there’s more slapstick added, with Gorcey and Hall beginning to gel as a screen comedy team. Jordan and Sunshine Sammy return, and perennial messenger boy/elevator operator Billy Benedict makes one of his first appearances with the gang, as does Stanley Clements (GOING MY WAY), who would later take over the Gorcey part in the series last few Bowery Boys entries.

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Extra added interest to movie buffs is the young lady playing Glimpy’s sister. She’s none other than Ava Gardner, at the time a struggling bit player best known for being married to Mickey Rooney. This was Ava’s first billed role, and though she isn’t really given much to do, she’s certainly lovely to look at. Ava would go on struggling a few more years, until 1946’s THE KILLERS made her a star.

The two films have their moments, with a few chuckles to be found, but they’ll never make anyone’s Ten Best Lists. It’s fun watching Gorcey and Hall come together, and their ad-libbing is funnier than the most of the dialog they’re given. Bela Lugosi completests (like yours truly) will want to catch these, as will any East Side Kids/Bowery Boys fans out there (and I must admit I have a nostalgic soft spot for these movies) . For the rest, I’d recommend GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE for the presence of Miss Gardner, and skip the wretchedly made SPOOKS RUN WILD.

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: GHOST PARADE (1931) Complete Mack Sennett Short!

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Today’s horror comedy short is an oldie but goodie from slapstick pioneer Mack Sennett titled GHOST PARADE. This send-up of “old dark house” chillers stars Andy Clyde, Harry Gribbon, and Marjorie Beebe. A little creaky but still fun to watch, here’s 1931’s GHOST PARADE:

Halloween Havoc!: FIDO (Lionsgate 2007)

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I found this 2007 Canadian horror-comedy hybrid on The Movie Channel and stashed it in my DVR for future reference. After viewing it, I’m on the fence about recommending it. FIDO tells the tale of a 1950s world where a radioactive cloud from space caused the dead to rise. A great Zombie War was waged, and the ghouls were contained by Zomcon, an official government agency. Now the zombies are fitted with collars to control them and used as servants. The more feral ones are banished to “The Wild Zone”, outside the fences of cities.

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The story focuses on young Timmy Robinson (K’Sun Ray), a lonely boy picked on at school by bullies. His mother Helen (Carrie Ann Moss) gets him a zombie companion (Billy Connelly). Timmy names the zombie Fido and the two bond, much to the chagrin of dad Bill (Dylan Baker). When Zomcon Head of Security Mr. Bottoms (Henry Czerny) moves into the neighborhood and sees Timmy and Helen getting too attached to Fido, he has the zombie hauled off to “The Wild Zone”. But never one to “waste a good zombie”, Bottoms has instead shipped Fido to the Zomcon factory to toil. Timmy gets wind of this through Bottoms’ daughter, and with the aid of neighbor Theopolis (Tim Blake Nelson), who has a zombie girlfriend, he sneaks into Zomcon headquarters to try to rescue his undead pal.

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Writer/director Andrew Currie tries, but can’t quite pull off the delicate balance needed for a film like FIDO. The movie is trying to make a statement with its themes of containment and conformity, yet fails in that regard. There’s a few chuckles here and there, and virtually no scares at all. Coming off like a cross between PLEASANTVILLE and EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, FIDO comes close to neither. I would love to see what Tim Burton could do with the material; the film is lacking that macabre touch necessary for it to succeed. FIDO does put good use to period songs by Jimmy Witherspoon, Billy Eckstein, Buddy Stewart, and Kay Starr. as well as originals by 60s British Invasion rocker Ian Whitcomb (“You Really Turn Me On”). All in all, FIDO is not bad, but not worth going out of your way to find, either. A game effort, nonetheless.