Film Review: Otto; or, Up with Dead People (2009)

Before watching provocateur Bruce LaBruce's latest film Otto; or, Up with Dead People for the first time, I proudly recounted my understanding of what the film was like, "quasi-porn foreign satirical indie semi-horror film." Technically, the description is accurate. There are light pornographic scenes. It is a foreign film. There are elements of satire. It does behave like a horror film at times. The experience of the film, however, is far greater than its separate parts.

Otto is a young man in Germany who has risen from the dead to rejoin society. He does not remember who he was or how he died. He just knows he craves raw flesh of any kind. He is discovered by Madea Yarn, a filmmaker, creating her political opus--a gay zombie revolution film. The line between reality and fantasy is blurred as it becomes impossible to tell if Otto is actually a zombie or simply playing a role in a film within the film.

Bruce LaBruce uses a variety of great visual tricks and showpieces to bring his vision to life. The film opens in black and white as Otto rises from his single-name grave to embrace the tombstones of his fallen brethren. Madea Yarn's death-obsessed girlfriend, Hella Bent, is only filmed in grainy, 1920s-style back and white. Her dialog is presented as silent film cut away cards and her ghostly appearance remains unchanged even when interacting with the colorful world around her. Otto's perspective is always cast in a bright pink hue, distorting reality into a blood-tinged fantasy of forbidden flesh and social taboo. LaBruce also makes great use of open roads, abandoned amusement park rides, public transportation, and cemeteries to continually ratchet up the tension in the film.

The controversial pornographic scenes are not nearly as explicit as I was led to believe. To start, there are only two. The first involves a pair of zombies dining on each other while one penetrates the other in an open flesh wound. Yes, nudity is shown, but it is so cartoonish and outlandish it could hardly be called pornography anymore than Heavy Metal. The second scene is the much talked about gay zombie orgy, which is no more clear in action than the much-maligned orgy at the end of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. The only difference, and I assume the source of the controversy, is the the actors in both scenes are men. It's the reaction to homosexuality more so than sexual acts that is feeding into a negative perception of the film.

Some have objected to the high level of camp without the compliment of humor. To me, this is a failure of interpretation. The film is meta-theatrical, focusing on a zombie in a society where a gay subculture of zombie-players exist who happen to be recruited to star in a film about gay zombies overtaking society. I would assume the camp factor goes without question from the conceit of the film. Without camp, this film would be pure melodrama, a few stray sex scenes away from being a movie of the week. With the camp, LaBruce is able to broach a wide range of subjects in an inventive way.

Zombie films, at least the ones that are remembered, have a long tradition of exploring the failings of society. For George A Romero, rampant consumerism is the greatest ill infecting America, a theme he's reflected on from Dawn of the Dead all the way through Diary of the Dead. For Danny Boyle and Alex Garland in 28 Days Later, it's rage, violence, and isolation that hold society back. For Bruce LaBruce, it's homophobia and the failings of mental health care. More than other attempts at socially aware zombie films, LaBruce is knocking on risky territory. Showing Otto be chased by teenagers for clearly being different--gay--is one thing in a post-Matthew Shepard/Laramie Project world. Exploring how warped people can become to be pushed to make films about gay uprisings saving humanity or stumbling about in a haze of alcohol fantasizing about eating flesh is quite another. Together, it's uncomfortable. It's difficult to watch. And it's utterly compelling in the context of Otto.

I'm aware that Bruce LaBruce has a reputation for making films dealing with homophobia, explicit sexual content, and an arguable anti-heterosexual mindset, though I have not seen them myself. Otto; or, Up with Dead People is a sensitive examination of a lost soul doing everything he can to find out who he is and what he should do. It's not a perfect film, and I doubt that was the point. Otto is about the messages, thoughtfully and stylishly presented, and they deserve to be heard.

Trailer embedded below the jump: