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In Features, Issues

Bruce LaBruce finds zombies among today‘s reality TV-crazed teens in his latest film, Otto; or Up with Dead People.



If you are talking about a filmmaker who tackles sociopolitical topics and taboos in a sensationalistic style with good ol‘ gay sex, then you might be speaking of Bruce LaBruce. With roots in zines, photography and every film format ever created, LaBruce has established a style that is slick yet defiantly lo-fi. In LaBruce‘s sixth feature film Otto; or Up with Dead People, Otto is a disaffected gay teenager who gets bit by a zombie. A wanna-be revolutionary casts him in her politically laced zombie film, only to start a documentary about Otto. LaBruce attaches the zombie genre to today‘s MySpace reality-TV world, obsessed with documenting moments instead of experiencing them; except with enough sex, gore and humor to make you sit up in your seat. Strand Releasing opens the film in November.


It seems like every famous filmmaker from Lumiere to Kubrick wanted porn in their art. You‘ve been one of the few to pull it off in more than one film with actual stories and acting with real sex. What is your motivating factor for this combination? It‘s true. You know I interviewed the great Joseph Stefano a while back on the set of Gus Van Sant‘s Psycho remake — Mr. Stefano wrote the original Psycho screenplay and produced The Outer Limits on TV — and he told me he and his colleagues always talked about wanting to make porn in the ‘70s. I think it‘s just a natural thing because graphic sex is a natural part of most people‘s lives. It almost seems odd that it‘s elided from mainstream film. I just saw I Am Legend, and I was thinking, “If I made that film, the main character would definitely be watching porn and having sex with a blow-up doll, if not the dog!” But then again that movie was totally ideologically reactionary because the Will Smith character was supposed to be so pure and righteous that even when he‘s the last man on Earth he clings to monogamy and fidelity, not to mention Christianity. Don‘t get me started. For me, like Godard said, the sexual is political, and I‘ve always used explicit sex to make certain political statements about gay representation, about defining and transgressing taboos, about issues of homosexual identity and difference, etc. But having said that, I‘m still not in favor of the mainstreaming of pornography. Like Jane Fonda says in Klute, “inhibitions are always nice because they‘re so nice to overcome.”

Is the Internet ruining that? The lure of finding dirty magazines in dumpsters is so lost now. The Internet is an amazing playground where you can find any kind of pornography that your imagination desires. I‘ve even seen some zombie porn on the net, which I predict will become huge in the next few years. As I demonstrate in Otto, you can create your own orifice in a rotting zombie body. It‘s so convenient! Kids are so lucky these days. When I was a teenager, all I had access to was my brother‘s hidden copies of Naked Lunch and The Happy Hooker. Actually, maybe that wasn‘t so bad.

Are famous actors wrong to be scared of real sex in their films? Are distributors scared for no reason? You can see anything on the Internet. I think it‘s a sign of the times that it does make a difference. There were famous instances in the ‘70s ­— Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Don‘t Look Now; Sarah Miles and Kris Kristofferson in The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea — where stars performed extremely graphic sex scenes, albeit without penetration being shown, which is the line that separates softcore from hardcore, and it didn‘t negatively affect their careers. Today I think it would. I mean, actors are still afraid to define publicly their sexuality as bisexual, never mind gay, out of the fear of limiting their careers. Despite the outward appearance of sexual permissiveness in our culture, there is a new overriding Puritanism that even extends to a resurgence of homophobia and antifeminist sentiments.  Today your only option is to have a sex tape that you supposedly didn‘t intend to be released on the Internet. That absolves you from direct responsibility.

Would you ever cast a celebrity? There is something to be said for unknown faces disappearing into a role. Although a Fonda/Jeff Stryker tour de force would be critically acclaimed. I have a couple of projects in development that aren‘t sexually explicit for a change, so I do plan to cast name actors. Otto had a significantly larger budget and longer shooting schedule than I‘ve ever had before, and for the first time I really enjoyed shooting. So I‘m looking forward to larger budgets still, and in order to get financing you really need to use name actors. But I would still like to use non-actors as well.

How do you direct a guy fucking another guy‘s stomach wound? Very carefully.

The film has a lot of strong social and political commentary. Is anonymous sex more exciting with a zombie? Listen, zombie porn is the wave of the future. Think of all the potential orifices to be explored. As to your question, if you‘ve ever had anonymous sex in a park or even in a bathhouse, basically it is like having sex with a zombie, and not necessarily in a bad way. Zombies tend to be kind of emotionless and anonymous — they all act pretty much the same, and they‘re interchangeable — so having sex with them frees you from the personal and emotional restraints of normal sexual behaviour and allows you to overcome all your inhibitions and really go crazy. That concept interests me, but the sociopolitical dimension of the zombie phenomenon interests me even more. As the master, George Romero, always reminds us in his films, zombies result from the alienation, materialism and rampant consumerism that is the logical outcome of advanced capitalism. Zombies are the ultimate consumers. Like one of the characters says in Dawn of the Dead, the zombies are drawn to the shopping mall because it was the most important place in their lives. And of course the joke is that they act pretty much the same as zombies as they did when they were alive. In my movie I try to make a paradigm shift. I‘ve made a movie in which the zombie becomes more human than the living. It‘s the living who represent violence, intolerance and consumerism, and it‘s the zombie who has become the victim — a sensitive figure with a conscience. Otto is the result of the deadening effects of a selfish, violent culture.

Did the horror genre give you more to work with? You‘ve already hit most boundaries films shy away from. Yes, well I haven‘t really got into the blood and gore before, outside of my photography, so that was fun. Although I tried to approach it as somewhat of a critique of over-the-top cinematic violence. Media sees cinematic violence more as a kind of commodity fetish. But there is something really visceral and primal about horror. I found it very therapeutic. We also didn‘t have any special-effects budget, so the art department had to be very inventive to come up with all the horrific imagery.

Real zombie kids in America probably haven‘t seen your previous work; is there a chance they will hit up this one though? Wide eyes in every seat. One of the inspirations for making this film was all the kids I was running into, gay and straight, who told me they felt dead or dead inside. I think a lot of kids these days feel really alienated by the clamped-down, militarized corporate world. So I did have young people in mind, and I would hope that Otto can reach a wider audience. In fact, my friends in the Toronto-based band Crystal Castles, who is really popular right now with the kids, just released a music video which incorporates clips of Otto from the movie, so hopefully they will seek it out. Otto‘s on MTV!

Otto seems more hip and informed than the rest of his generation, but he still gets the zombie bug. Is there no hope? I think it‘s because Otto is more hip and informed that he‘s susceptible to the zombie bug. It‘s his sensitivity and empathy that make him vulnerable. That‘s also the sad thing about AIDS, which is a subtext in the movie. Fran Leibowitz famously said that AIDS killed all the cool people, but I would add that it also killed a lot of the sensitive and creative and artistic people as well. The world is becoming an increasingly brutal place, and in such a scenario it‘s the sensitives who are the first to suffer. But I think there is some hope at the end when Otto heads north with the rainbow at his back. That was a real rainbow by the way — we had no CGI budget. He seems to have transformed at the end into a hardier, more resilient kind of creature.

Too many filmmakers become enamored with the process. Your documentarian inside the film seemed to rip that up. How self-reflective does cinema need to be? People have pointed out to me that almost all my movies are about filmmaking. A critic in Flash Art International once called me a “pornographic Brecht” because I seem always to use a lot of distanciation techniques, including films within the film, the mixture of black-and-white and color, the use of sound and music that seems to be at odds with the visual image, etc. I think I developed this technique initially because I was “the reluctant pornographer” — the name of my premature memoir — I wanted to make the audience self-conscious and aware of its own voyeurism. I do think that the seamless Hollywood narrative style, the complete lack of self-reflexivity, has become really played out. I‘m a sucker for ‘60s Godard, and I think more of that kind of smart and political filmmaking should make its way into new cinema, especially in America. Having said that, I‘ll probably end up making a more narratively conventional movie in the near future. I try to contradict myself at least once a day.


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