Numéro Cinq at the Movies: Zombie Longings: Bruce LaBruce’s Otto, or Up With Dead People — R. W. Gray
In probably the most horrific and pornographic scene in Bruce LaBruce’s Otto; Or, Up with Dead People, one man sexually penetrates the gaping wound in another man’s abdomen. It is a shocking scene, and it marks the moment when we realize perhaps zombies have more erogenous zones and erotic options than we do. Though theorists like Georges Bataille, have pointed to how death is a structuring aspect of the erotic, the gory abject as it appears in Otto and LaBruce’s subsequent film L. A. Zombie puts a perhaps bolder more graphic face on the relationship between mortality, the body and eroticism.
Navigating these uncomfortable hinterlands between horror and pornography is a confused and confusing young man named Otto who thinks he’s a zombie and can’t remember his life from before. The perverse collision between horror and pornography for Otto opens the possibility of a narrative turn to melodrama and a possible connection with another, however untenable this might be in his zombie world.
Near the beginning of Otto, Up With Dead People, Otto rises up out of a grave with his name on it; the gravestone simultaneously names him and troubles naming as it is only his first name that appears there and there are no dates indicating his birth and death: the stone’s ability to name and identify him is limited. A voice-over reveals that, “Once upon a time in the not so distant future there unlived a zombie named Otto.” This underscores the fantasy and fictional aspects of his zombie identity.
This fictional status is further underscored through the film’s multiple narratives and texts: his first first-person narrative is intercut with the first-person essay-like narrative of a filmmaker Otto meets, Medea Yarns, and these are also intercut with several of Medea’s films, primarily a longer narrative telling the story of a gay zombie who rises up in a revenge plot against straight men who bash gays. These many narrative texts that make up the larger film Otto problematize classical Hollywood story structure that might offer Otto the protagonist a more privileged, unproblematized position. Whether or not Otto really is a zombie is more ambiguous as a result.
Medea’s film within the film further problematizes Otto’s zombie identity: the narrative repeats the scene where Otto rises from the grave and this time discloses that it was staged by Medea for her film, “Up With Dead People.” Medea’s attraction to Otto as a zombie figure for her film and her desire to tell a fictional story of a zombie world where the gay undead seek revenge creates narrative ambiguity as it becomes unclear how much of a zombie Otto really is, what aspects of his identity and narrative are constructed by Medea, and which parts are his own invention or experience.
This collision of genres and narratives is characteristic of LaBruce’s work. Eugenie Brinkema in her essay “A Title Does Not Ask, but Demands That You Make a Choice,” observes that “[LaBruce’s] works bear witness to the aesthetic and historical crisis of this borderland, speaking the wild language of the indeterminable”(97). Like LaBruce, Medea, the filmmaker within the film, is overtly ideological. Yet, oddly, she is making a fictional film about zombies and is attracted to Otto because “there was something different about [him]. Something more authentic.” In the confusion of texts and in the face of the indeterminable, Otto stands as perhaps more determinable than the others, and as the possibility of something authentic in among the ambiguous texts, at least for Medea.
Both Medea and Otto script scenes with zombies and sex (Medea’s more graphic, the penetration scene already mentioned and the film’s climactic zombie orgy) so that zombies are sexualized and fetishized in the film in a pretty common way. While naked zombies have appeared in films before, (in the opening to Day of the Dead and the self explanatory Zombie Strippers) and, faced with impending death, live people in zombie films have been known to fornicate, as a generalization most film zombies are interested in one thing: eating live humans. There’s a beauty to that simplicity and however it might serve as a metaphor for other drives, it removes all the complicated issues of desire. There is the drive to eat. That is all.
Otto as an ambiguous character signifies in both the genres of horror and pornography. Medea points out that Otto works perfectly: “In a way he fits the typical porn profile: the lost boy, the damaged boy, numb, phlegmatic, insensate boy willing to go to any extreme to feel something, to feel anything.” This, too, could describe the horror figure of the zombie: Otto’s detachment, his extreme repression make him something to fear or be repulsed by. As Fritz, the star of Medea’s zombie film, describes him when Medea tries to hook them up, “he’s homeless, delusional, and possibly schizophrenic. Plus he seems to have some kind of eating disorder . . . if you think I am going to sleep with him you’re crazy.” Indeed, even in scenes where he encounters other zombies he seems more detached than them, too zombie even for the zombies.
For Otto, however, zombie identity seems to be a coping mechanism, as though he has opted to feel nothing even in the presence of sex. Near the beginning of the film, on his journey to Berlin, he sits in an abandoned carnival where he finds other zombie gays cruising one another, two of whom proceed to have sex in front of him, almost on top of him as he sits paralyzed. Later he is picked up by a man in zombie make-up out front of a bar aptly called Flesh (the man warns, “it’s dead in there”). The man takes him home to his apartment where he has what we must assume was sex. We have to make this assumption as we are visually given a before and an after but the narrative (and by extension Otto) seem to black out for everything in between. In the aftermath, the man lies disemboweled, his walls and sheets sprayed red with blood and his furniture overturned and destroyed. But he still asks Otto “Can I see you again?”
What the one-night stand in particular points to, something underscored by the films within the film, is that gay sex in the film Otto carries something of death and infection with it. This carries all kinds of significances mirrored in LaBruce’s follow up film L.A. Zombie and its profound reversal where the zombie creature there is able to bring dead bodies back to life through his sex and fluids. What is of primary interest for me in Otto is simply that Otto sees sex with men as potentially harmful and the destruction in this one night stand also reads back over Otto’s own attempts to only satiate on non human flesh (road kill, stray cats, butcher market chickens) as a way of repressing what he sees as his own destructive impulses with other more lively men.
Otto confesses, “I wanted to consume the living, to devour human flesh but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. At first I thought it might have something to do with the time before. When I was alive. It occurred to me I might have been a vegetarian. Or worse, a vegan. But that wasn’t exactly it.” Otto’s zombie hungers are something he tries to repress, but both the hunger (via the zombie identity) and the desire to repress it refer to a back story that is inaccessible to him.
What undermines these scenes is that they are told unreliably from Otto’s perspective. As the film unfolds, it becomes more and more apparent that carnage and disembowelment, cannibalism and death are metaphors for Otto, not reality based: he sees the world through zombie-coloured glasses. This is partly revealed via the fragmented structure of the film as it moves from Otto’s first-person narrative to the filmmaker, Medea’s first person narrative and her “real” engagements with Otto. It’s in one of these “real time” moments, when Medea asks Fritz to let Otto stay with him for a few days and Fritz describes Otto as “homeless, delusional, and possibly schizophrenic.” This response is both comedic and tragic as the ambiguity drops out from under Otto’s first-person narrative. Medea’s fictional gay zombie dystopia and Otto’s performed zombie identity are compatible, but Fritz’s reality-based response undermines both, grounding everything in a rather disappointing realism.
What we must gather then is that Otto’s perspective and experience of the men cruising in the abandoned carnival and the his one-night stand with the man from the bar called Flesh are unreliable, a fantasy of zombie bodies. We are then left to ask, why does he see these experiences as laced with death, objectification, and the abject? What is the lure of a corpse-like abject identity? In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva theorizes that the corpse has a significant place in terms of the abject: “the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. It is no longer I who expel, “I” is expelled” (3-4). Further, she theorizes that “The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object” (4). The zombie is both corpse and pseudo subject, animated and hungry.
For Otto, then, the zombie identity is in some way the obliteration of the ‘I.’ The key here, though, is as Kristeva asserts, “abjection is above all ambiguity.” Otto is neither corpse nor live body, neither self nor other, but maintains an insistent ambiguity. And this is not just a specific response to sexual situations, but a generalized response to his identity in the world at large.
Pornography and horror contribute to a terrorized subject position for Otto. As Brinkema notes about Catherine Breillat’s theorizing of sexual acts in her films, “Breillat’s insistence that it is the sexual acts that themselves act on the spectator, that lead to physical or intellectual satisfaction, affirms that sexual representation is still conceived of in terms of affect, that sexual representation moves the spectator, displaces him or her from an otherwise stable spectatorial position” (102). The unsimulated sex scenes in Otto trouble the spectator’s position in much the same way that Otto’s voyeuristic eye is troubled. There is no safe, cold, zombie distance from which to watch these experiences for him or for us.
Otto’s one night stand with the man who is wearing zombie make-up reveals to us and him why he seeks that distance. When he fully embraces his zombie identity with that man, the resulting carnage, imagined or not, illustrates what Otto fears in his own hunger. In Otto’s world, sexuality is often a little horrific. In an interview with Interview magazine, LaBruce discussed how for him pornography and horror have corresponding real life collisions in some gay experiences: “If you’ve ever cruised a public toilet or a bathhouse, it’s like Night of the Living Dead. You’ve got people in this zombie-like trance, in dark shadows with disembodied body parts. And I don’t mean that negatively; it’s kind of exciting. But there is that aspect to gay culture and sometimes it can be kind of sad” (Speyer). For LaBruce, sex that is objectifying this way is both exciting and sometimes sad, and one could read Otto’s experience as similar. The room the one night stand lives in is full of sexual paraphernalia that intrigues Otto and the wall above the man’s bed is collaged like a teenager’s wall of magazine clippings, though here the images are of penises and various other body parts. This objectifying sexual experience is both exciting and overwhelming and Otto can no longer repress his zombie hunger. As a zombie having sex he can have the safety of numbness and the freedom to consume, but the carnage emphasizes his conflicted relationship with that release.
Otto’s work with Medea the filmmaker at first promises to make his life easier, but then further troubles the boundaries between his zombie world and the real world. Initially, he notes, “With a camera following me around, no one would suspect I was a real zombie. I would just be playing one in the movie.” But through working with Medea in her fictional film, Otto’s sense of his zombie self wavers, and begins to fail. Where prior to this he would practice imagining live passengers on the train were zombies, shoring up his detachment from (and peculiarly also his affinity with) them, through Medea he builds relationships where he is in a sense normalized and not objectified. This dangerously opens him up to being a subject. When she pays him and tells him to put the money in his wallet to keep it safe, he realizes he has a wallet and subsequently that that wallet holds evidence of his former identity and self: a library card with his former boyfriend’s phone number. Details of Otto’s former life flood in and he’s left defenseless, able to only verbally parrot what the exboyfriend says: that Otto himself has mental issues, that the boyfriend left him because of this, that Otto’s father is a butcher and that Otto was a vegetarian in that life before, before he took to eating the flesh of roadkill, grocery store meat cases, stray cats, and the occasional gay man.
The exboyfriend’s disclosures point to both romantic loss and mental breakdown. Indeed the two become inseparable in Otto’s zombie identity. So the zombie identity, though an extension of his schizophrenia and mental illness, is also here a coping mechanism to block the memories of his former happiness and his loss. To be dead is to escape memory. The zombie identity protects him from the past and any other possible present vulnerability. As a dead man, the living should not be able to hurt him. This logic is challenged by the various interactions with the living throughout the film though that are the product of him being un-dead.
The last sex scene of the film occurs when Fritz, the lead actor in the film within the film, finds Otto outside the film studio beaten and bloody. He takes him home and checks his wounds and then a tender love scene occurs.
This scene stands in contrast to the prior sex scenes in the film as the emphasis is less on the objectification of the two men’s body parts and more on the kindness and tenderness between the two. Also absent is any zombiness, blood, or gore. Their bodies are left unbitten, uneaten, untorn, and, at least on screen, unpenetrated. Otto does not black out and no one dies. In the Interview magazine interview, LaBruce revealed that for him, “The idea was to lure in these horror geeks on the promise of a zombie movie and torture them with a tender love story” (Speyer). From this we could conjecture that Otto himself is lured in by the zombie genre, lulled into thinking it might protect him from the pornographic and melodramatic aspects of his life.
But the co-presence of both horror and pornography tropes do not provide explicitly safe havens for Otto. Linda Williams, in her essay “Film Bodies: Genre, Gender, and Excess,” argues that horror, pornography and melodrama are bodily genres, intent on bodily affect. What all three have in common is how they affect the body. This, in Otto’s case, is paradoxical then. He chooses an undead identity, partly to preserve himself, but that body performs the intersection between a horrifying sexual hunger and a terrible emotional vulnerability. The play of these three genres, all three aspects of his own experience, promises a numb and safe identity, but concurrently terrorizes him, provokes him bodily and emotionally. Around Otto, through the imagined films within the film and through his interactions with the men he meets, it turns out sex and death are not as safe a split as he might have hoped and yet might secretly wish. This abject place, caught between genre and fluid and decaying bodies, both promises and protects an ambiguous place between self and not-self.
Despite Otto’s desire to separate himself from the living and his own past, becoming a walking corpse in essence takes him to the ontological threshold of what it means to live. When after their more tender and less cannibalistic night, Fritz awakes to find a sign that Otto has left him that says simply “Otto. RIP.” It is an ambiguous ending for in a sense Otto kills himself, but the phrase is “rest in peace,” so his note also implies he has found some peace. Not enough that he will forgo the allure of his zombie identity, though, so he goes on lurching into the distance, still searching.
Otto, or Up With Dead People is available for viewing on Netflix.
Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death and Sensuality. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986.
Brinkema, Eugenie. “A Title Does Not Ask, but Demands That You Make a Choice: On the Otherwise Films of Bruce LaBruce.” Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts (48:1) pp. 95-126, 2006 (Winter).
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
LaBruce, Bruce. Otto; Or, Up with Dead People. 2008.
Speyer, Ariana. “Up with Bruce LaBruce: an interview.” Interview Magazine February 13, 2009.
Waugh, Thomas. Romance of Transgression in Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006.
Possibly the best opening line in NC history.
I am partial to the second: “we realize perhaps zombies have more erogenous zones and erotic options than we do.”
Yes, a very sly following line for sure. I like the “perhaps.”