Otto; Or, Up With Dead People Dir. Bruce LaBruce

[Strand Releasing; 2008]

Billing a film as a "political gay zombie porno" is a risky venture. In that intersection of flesh-eating gore, zombie-film archetypes, gay politics, and hardcore sex lies a very specific set of expectations -- I don't really know if anyone could pull it off completely. But cult director Bruce LaBruce certainly tries, and he gets it about half right by imbuing the film with an atmosphere of freewheeling experimentation and mock seriousness, reveling in the awareness of its own inevitable failure.

Otto (Jey Crisfar) is a young Berliner with talcum-white skin and foul-smelling clothes; he also thinks he's a zombie. Roaming through the German countryside, Otto heeds a casting bill posted by avant-garde filmmaker Madea Yarn (Katharina Klewinghaus), who finds in Otto the perfect star for her gay-zombie-revolution flick, Up With Dead People. From there, the story of Otto's past unfolds as Yarn's film shoot slowly, slowly progresses.

Otto's origins are mysterious, his past life pieced together in fragments: a portrait of an alienated, brokenhearted, gay vegetarian (with a butcher father). Perhaps the opening credits, projected over B-roll of Desert Storm bombs exploding, are meant as some kind of explanation for the way Otto is. But then, are those actually happening? Or are they clips from Yarn's own film-within-a-film, which is interspersed unannounced in black-and-white clips?

In the film's middle section, we're either watching or filming Madea Yarn's magnum opus, which happens to be one of the most tediously paced pornos ever made. Perhaps it's art imitating life; as a porn director and performer, Bruce LaBruce would know just how time drags from eye-popping boner to gooey clean-up to all the gratuitous film-school theorizing in between. The entire process is punctuated -- a bit too intrusively -- by Yarn's rambling anti-consumerist analysis; the too-serious director far overstays her welcome. Other recurring gags, like Yarn's silent-film starlet girlfriend who only speaks in intertitles and appears in flickering sepia tones with maudlin piano accompaniment, are welcome diversions.

The film's copious sex -- Otto's penis de résistance -- takes two forms: scenes from Yarn's violent zombie porno and Otto's real-world sexcapades. The former include a deliciously graphic episode of abdomen penetration and a pre-battle zombie-army orgy, while the latter are surprisingly tender, fragile, and even moving. As a former smut vixen, LaBruce excels in portraying sex.

But those scenes of well-executed violence-coitus make up only a portion of the film. Sex aside, Bruce LaBruce's work on Otto is interesting enough in premise and indie-film execution to survive a half-hatched story and zombie-crawl pacing, especially by the forgiving standards of most cult-movie audiences. For all its visceral lovemaking, Otto's main thrust -- and its weakest -- remains intellectual. Even when creatively applied, as it is here, to the gay experience, the zombie metaphor seems a bit tired; it desperately needs a human core on which to rest. Otto's critiques of pornography transgress at all the right conceptual points: it's penetrating in many ways -- but emotionally, not really.

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