They don’t come more internally conflicted than Bruce LaBruce’s Otto; or, Up with Dead People (or, Dead People Get It Up). It seems the gay, Canadian provocateur nec plus ultra, having spent much of his career in film and still photography unapologetically reveling in rough trade, has finally pinned his bloody, queer heart on his sleeve. And he doesn’t appear to know exactly why. Otto is garlanded with as much sex, blood, leftist dogma and real-life porn stars (the Teutonically ravishing Marcel Schlutt, in fine fettle) as you’d expect from the filmmaker whose last movie, The Raspberry Reich, spawned the immortal catchphrase “the revolution is my boyfriend.” But despite the fact that the main character is a twink zombie who eats roadkill and cock in about equal measure, LaBruce’s empathetic twist is that gay sex does not in itself imply a political statement, at least not so far as Otto is concerned. Quite simply, Otto’s catatonic state is the inevitable byproduct of an apparently puppy-cute case of young love ending prematurely. When Otto’s droopy-eyed, olive-skinned boy runs out on him in his hour of need, Otto takes the “can’t go on living” cliché to its natural end. That said, zombiedom does stand in as a metaphor for dormant political activism for Medea Yarn, a militant, morose lesbian filmmaker. Yarn’s film within a film positions gay zombies as the vital army of underground sentiment, a savage but humanistic counterpoint to (North American) mankind’s disposable existence. Somewhere between these two positions—psychological isolation and civic disruption—is LaBruce’s own skeptical take, in which scenes of gay zombie orgies are bluntly juxtaposed with images of meat being cut from the bone. (Thematically, it’s somewhere between the bathhouse nightmare sequence of Another Gay Sequel and the anti-consumerism Bible that is Dawn of the Dead.) Though Otto, like any horny fag diving headfirst into a sea of men, tackles more than it can handle, everyone in the movie gets theirs. Otto momentarily rejoins the land of the living, Yarn (after years of filmmaking) finally gets to bark “that’s a wrap,” and her all-male cast gets to wallow in each other’s juices. For a movie with this many ideological loose ends, Otto comes up with a convincingly sweet resolution.
Otto: or, Up with Dead People was shot in HD digital video, so when I say it could look better, I merely mean that it should look sparkling and pristine instead of merely clear and consistent. Instead, this looks like a second- or third-generation dub. Blacks are pretty soft, which does the goth milieu no favors. The sound design (which is occasionally very busy) suffers no such problems.
"Continuity is bourgeois," Bruce LaBruce says at one point, and it's probably the most pretentious thing he says throughout the feature-length commentary track. I was sort of expecting him to make Medea Yarn seem personable and rational in comparison, especially since LaBruce admits the character is both a stand-in for himself as well as an anagram for Maya Deren (the references to whom are a lot more obvious in the deleted scenes reel). Instead, anyone who has the patience for Otto itself should have no problem with LaBruce's loftier claims. He offers simple production anecdotes (catching a rainbow for the final shot; forcing his lead actor to make like Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby and eat raw liver) spiked with acknowledgements of his male cast's porn careers and interpretations of the film I hadn't considered before, like Otto's zombiedom as a metaphor for gay teen suicides. The 20 minutes of deleted scenes include, among some further director-as-dictator Medea repartee, explicit sex footage taken from two of the movie's sex scenes (the second shows about two minutes' worth of Germany and the Netherlands's finest gay porn stars doing what cums naturally).
Even more surprisingly poignant and intelligent upon repeat viewings, Otto is attractively rough around the edges. But whoever saddled the DVD box with the tagline "Bringing sexy back.from the dead" should be eaten alive.