“Otto; or, Up with Dead People” – KEVIN VICKERY’S Thoughts on Gay Zombies!

OK since it is HALLOWEEN, I thought it would be treat to get to hear what my best friend Kevin Vickery thought about some horror films. He wrote this essay as part of an Independent Study on Gender and Queer Issues in Horror Movies. He knows a lot about horror films and for years now that is all we talk about and watch together. So here is his essay about the zombie movie “Otto; or, Up with Dead People“.  His essay starts after the trailer.

The Trailer:

Sexuality and Hunger: Understanding the Carnal Appetite of Zombies 

As there are few narratives that feature queer zombies as leading characters, the recent independent film Otto; or, Up With Dead People is perhaps the first picture to do so in a profound manner. The film follows a homeless zombie named Otto, who wanders aimlessly through Berlin until the eccentric Medea casts him in her low-budget film called Up with Dead People. The piece disregards common tropes that foreground the perceived excesses and stereotypes of homosexuality and instead deals with serious concerns in the queer community, such as sexual objectification and homophobia. Writer and director Bruce La Bruce scatters scenes from Medea’s political zombie porno, which groups homosexuals and the undead as fellow outcasts, throughout the actual film to misconstrue the difference between fiction and nonfiction for the audience. This ambiguity allows him to destruct conventions of hunger and sexuality to propose that there is little difference between the perception of the sexual living and of the hungry undead.

Director Bruce LaBruce consistently crosscuts scenes of sexual activity with images of animal meat, to suggest the similarities between sexual attraction and hunger; furthermore, this juxtaposition allows the director to argue that homosexuality is as natural as appetite. As Medea prepares to shoot a scene in which Otto eats raw meat from a supermarket shelf, she states that he should “focus on the meat. The world is meat. We are meat.” The reduction of the human body to simple venison becomes a central theme in her movie and consequently the entire film. In an earlier scene, Otto sits on a park bench and watches passersby as his voiceover explains that he “wanted to consume the living, to devour human flesh.” As the people pass him quickly, they ravage hamburgers and hot dogs in much the same way that zombies devour human flesh. The juxtaposition of his expressed lust for human flesh and their insatiable desire for fast food suggests the similarities of their interests. This scene means to question the difference between human flesh and hamburger meat and demonstrates a more objective stance by proposing that the only difference is biological. Perhaps the strongest evidence for the thematic reduction of the human body to edible meat comes toward the end of the film when the homosexual zombies participate in a massive orgy and the scene is crosscut with images of butchers preparing comestible meat.

Throughout the film LaBruce also stresses the multiple functions of certain bodily organs, specifically the mouth and penis, to obscure the difference between eating and sexual activity. In the park scene, a young man stops before Otto to lick an ice cream cone in a suggestive manner, which demonstrates the similarities between the uses of the mouth and tongue while eating and during sexual activity. This secondary theme—the dual functions of various body parts—is later developed during flashbacks of Otto and his boyfriend Rudolf. In one memory, the boys drink soft drinks and, in the next memory, they are kissing. Otto also recalls a scene where Rudolf pees in a public fountain, followed by a scene where the boys are engaging in sexual activity, scenes which similarly support the duality of the male genitalia by presenting its multiple uses in close succession. The song playing during these flashbacks, Everyone’s Dead by the Homophones, says, “I want to lick your lollipop…. I want to lick your Popsicle.” The song speaks to various childish activities—swinging on a swing set and bouncing on a seesaw—but coupling the song with images of homosexual courtship and sexual activity imparts a more sexual meaning to the lyrics. Lollipops and Popsicles are often symbols of the human penis, a perversion of childhood innocence especially popular in pornographic movies. The zombie-themed event at the gay dance club called Flesh is another more obvious example of this theme, because it equates sexual attraction in nightclubs with a zombie’s lust for human flesh. As Otto is a zombie and cannot effectively discriminate between sexual activity and nourishment, sex with the stranger he meets there becomes a literal bloodbath.

Just as he couples fast food with human flesh and sexual activity with cannibalism, Bruce LaBruce seems to question the difference between necrophilia and the sexual objectification of the living. Throughout the narrative, there are several instances when people assign sexual meaning to inanimate objects, usually dead bodies. In one of the opening scenes of Medea’s movie, a homosexual zombie has sex with the punctured stomach of his dead partner. Later in the actual film, Medea and her girlfriend Hella playfully molest female statues in a graveyard. The director uses these various moments of sexual aberration to ask the audience the difference between intercourse with actual inanimate objects and the reduction of living people to sexual objects. This ambiguity relates to an important theme in this film, the deadening of the soul, which is introduced when Otto’s old boyfriend Rudolf refers to his eating disorders, melancholia and schizophrenia as “disorders of the soul.” When Rudolf returns a book entitled Dead Souls, Otto holds the book to his chest as he walks away, almost as a personal nametag, signifying his sexual objectification and the death of his soul. Even after he realizes that he suffers from psychological disorders and may not be a zombie in the most literal sense, he maintains with certainty to Medea that he is dead. In this way, the zombie becomes a metaphor for the sexually jaded or emotionally exhausted individual.

While many of the movie’s themes concern issues of romance and sexuality within the homosexual community, the film is also very much concerned with the sexual other in the context of the whole. In one of her narrations, Medea essentially establishes that excessive industrialization requires both the popular distraction from personal and sexual needs and the oppression of particular minorities to encourage production and avoid stagnation, which ultimately lead to the reduction of sexual minorities (among several other groups) to second-class citizens. She also states that the repression of human sexuality reduces people to near zombies and because the ruling class regulates dominant discourse on the conception of reality and sanity, effective revolution first requires a backlash against consensual reality. Given that Otto is a vagabond who challenges conventions of both reality and sanity by believing that he is a living corpse, he seems the perfect person through which to express her political agenda. As her brother films Otto rising from his fictional grave, Medea coaches Otto from behind the camera:
“Now raise your hand up out of the grave. That’s it. Raise it as a protest against all the injustices perpetrated against your kind. Raise it in solidarity with the lonely and the weak and the dispossessed of the earth, for the misfits and the sissies and the plague-ridden faggots who have been buried and forgotten by the merciless, heartless hater of fascist majority. Rise. Rise…”
Otto stands in this way not only as a discontented homosexual but also as a representative of any marginalized individual acting against oppression. In one of the final scenes of the film, a group of men drag Otto into a secluded alley to violently beat him. The song that plays during this scene, Atrocities by Antony and the Johnsons, seems to comment on the event by speaking (as the title suggests) of the innumerable atrocities of human history. After this presumed hate crime, his injuries cause him to shamble much more irregularly than before. As the director relates zombies to disenfranchised minorities, the shamble seems almost to reflect the damage inflicted and atrocities perpetrated against the marginalized of society.

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