Residents in Willard, a post-apocalyptic small town set in the American 1950s, are expected to live their lives following similar tenets as the ones outlined in Zombie Control’s, A. K. A. Zom-Con, motto: “A better life through containment!” (Fido). The theme of self-control and containment of both oneself and others plays heavily into the film’s plot. The Robinsons experience pressure, both by each other and outside influence, to conform to this society’s norms by exercising self-control to maintain their reputation and control boththeir emotions and each other.
The first, and most obvious, way that Fido promotes this discipline is through the interactions of Mrs. Robinson encouraging her son to control himself for the sake of appearances and saving face with the neighbors. After Timmy’s first run-in with Roy and Stan Fraser, the pair of brothers, bullies, and Zom-Con cadets, Mrs. Helen Robinson does not coax her son to talk about the experience even to ask if he’s all right. Instead, she asks, “Did people see you like this? ” and tells him to put on a clean shirt and “we won’t even have to talk about those bullies” (Fido). While Mrs. Robinson disagrees with her husband’s stony-hearted attitude, her own type of control is in how others perceive her and her family. She discourages Timmy from playing baseball with himself by bouncing the ball off the side of the house not for rational reasons, like potential damage to their home’s vinyl siding, but because he looks lonely without someone else to play with. She becomes upset in the garage after Timmy hoses down Fido, saying that the neighbors will call them strange if they don’t have a zombie. By yielding to the peer pressure of other families on the block, especially when Willard’s new Zom-Con head of security and his family become their neighbors, Helen hopes they will fit in and remain a normal, respectable family in a way that they aren’t now. She pins her hopes on the belief that in their small, fenced-in hometown of Willard, normalcy can be bought for the relatively cheap price of one zombie fitted with a domestication collar.
The undead servant that her son dubs Fido is the key to earning her place among their neighbors, in a way that they cannot without a zombie of their own. While Bill Robinson’s phobia means he cares less about the town gossip than avoiding zombies at all costs, his need to control his own emotions comes from a more well-hidden, deeper part of his psyche than Helen’s need for conformity. After his father died and became a zombie, Bill had to kill him personally. In this desensitized world, killing zombies is small talk. It’s part of polite conversation, and normal enough that it’s Zom-Con head of security Mr. John Bottoms’s first question to Timmy’s class when he visits. But for Bill, that experience is engrained in him much more permanently than it is in a normal person…or at least more permanently than anyone else is willing to admit. Bill displays an almost textbook case of post-traumatic stress disorder which, in our own 1950s, was vaguely recognized under the term gross stress reaction in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Disorders of Mental Disorders in 1952 and in which the victim was expected to work it out within six months (Friedman par. 11).
Bill developed a fear of zombies that his wife considered irrational and avoided any conversation or situation that pertained to zombies or his late father. The night that the Robinsons bought their zombie, at the time unnamed, Bill felt the need to assert himself to a restrained and domesticated zombie by shocking him with a remote control that he held, while standing at a safe distance away from the zombie. When Timmy mentions that he believed that Fido died of a heart attack “like Grandpa”, Bill becomes upset and storms out of the dining room (Fido). Because what was likely a deep relationship with his father ended in Bill having to kill him, Bill either decided consciously to not form that strong of an attachment with anyone else, or refused to form such a bond on a subconscious level as a defense mechanism. Either way, it worked: when Helen asks him if he loves her, his only response is a sigh.
After his wife convinces him that she’s pregnant, instead of rejoicing, his only response is that he doesn’t think he can afford a fourth funeral on his salary. In fact, prior to that, when Helen expresses concerns about Timmy’s relationships at school, Bill just reassures her that their son’s funeral will be paid for. While the audience later learns that Mr. Robinson has funeral savings for all three of them, it sounds as if he’s planning for his son to die because he isn’t popular at school. And, once he decides his son might not simply die off, Bill encourages Timmy to ignore emotions the same way he learned to as a way to survive. In the scene where Bill passes the school on the way to drop off Timmy, father presents son with a handgun in an insincere attempt at a heart-to-heart. He offers the half-hearted ‘wisdom’ regarding emotions: “I know when you’re a kid, you feel things. You have to get over that” (Fido). The beginning of that, his assertion that only kids have emotions, may be another callback to the last time he did, when he was forced to kill his father.
In comparison, Mr. Bottoms keeps his Uncle Bob’s head in a jar as a trophy of his first kill. This Zom-Con official sees killing what used to be his family member as a mark of distinction and something to have pride in. It’s one more achievement among his ribbons and awards he received during the zombie wars and it has its own place of honor among other memorabilia in his war room. The only similarity between the two patriarchs is their commitment to not love. Mr. Bottoms agrees that becoming too attached makes it harder to kill a loved one should they die unexpectedly and become a zombie. He readily declares, “I’d take Dee Dee’s head off in a second,” to which his wife just laughs and adds with visible discomfort, “He always says that” (Fido). In addition, Mr. Bottoms privately chastises Bill for not keeping better control of his live wire of a wife. Mr. Bottoms maintains absolute control over his family: his wife jumps up at his beck and call to fetch him refreshments when the Robinsons come over for a picnic. While talking with the head of security’s daughter Cindy, Timmy is told that her father would literally kill her if she were discovered disobeying his orders by taking Timmy to the factory to find Fido after he’s sent away. Mr. Robinson’s family has an astronomical amount of autonomy. Helen frequently disregards his wishes, starting early in the movie when she purchases a zombie despite knowing of his fear. In many cases up until the movie’s climax, Helen exerts a substantial amount of control over Bill, developing her character past her desire for conformity in which the wife submits to her husband. Timmy ignores his father’s wishes when he takes Fido out on walks without permission and talks back, while Cindy couldn’t even muster the courage to tell her father she hates ballet.
In the Bottoms household, much like he does at Zom-Con, Mr. Bottom exerts total control over his subordinates and keeps emotional distance from all of them. While the Robinsons cannot follow suit, they still make an effort to control each other into behaving in a way they believe they should to, as discussed in the paragraphs above, keep up appearances and control their own emotions. Beginning from the opening scene in Timmy’s classroom, Fido exhibits an impressively subtle method of sending a clear message to the audience.
The individualists, the loyal, and the loving have no place in this post-apocalyptic small town. Like in Zom-Con’s motto, control and containment rules here. Residents must control their reputation in Willard, contain their feelings and prevent strong emotional bonds, and control those beneath them. The ones who dare reach out and love others risk not being able to kill a zombified loved one if, or when, the time comes. And those who disobey society run the risk of being sent to the Wild Zone. But when one boy rebels against all of this, he manages to save the family he loves and rid the town of one overbearing head of security to potentially provide room for growth in this town. While the next one may be even worse, one thing is certain: Willard will continue to pressure Mrs. Robinson and Timmy into behaving according to their standards. And the remaining two Robinsons will inevitably continue to do as they please.
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