Even as an ardent, tireless fan of zombie cinema, I’ve never seen anything quite like Otto; or, Up With Dead People. Existing in some heretofore undiscovered common ground between the arthouse and the grindhouse, Otto is a tale of a young gay zombie in a cruel world that’s as dead in its own way as he is.
He wanders through a bleak, decayed city, adrift and lost, until he walks into a casting call for a zombie movie. As he becomes the lead in the director’s latest opus, he begins to recover memories of who he used to be, but it’s not clear that that’s a good thing. It’s not a film for everyone; even zombie lovers may have trouble sinking their teeth into this one’s flesh. The film moves at a zombie’s pace — slow, steady and nearly unvarying throughout. In its use of layers of meaning, film-within-a-film and other arty devices, it can be bewildering. In particular, it can often feel too self-consciously arty, but there’s also a sly sense of humor at work that disarms the pretentiousness to a large degree. There are a number of explicit but not hardcore gay zombie sex scenes — disturbing, perhaps, but no more so than the explicit torture-porn close-up of an eye being punctured in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, if viewed objectively. I’d go as far as saying the gay sex scenes are part of the genius of this film. Director Bruce LaBruce is clearly using zombies to reflect on society’s distaste for and hatred of homosexuality — he explicitly states as much, through the words of one of his characters as it is explained that the recent plague of gay zombies are the most hated zombies of all. I can only imagine a large percentage of zombie fans, the same ones who might revel in the explicit, ultra-realistic gore in some zombie movies, blanching and walking out of Otto at the sight of a few erect penises — much less the wound fucking scene.
He doesn’t only deal with homosexuality here. No, this film dives headlong into the long tradition of using the zombie to represent or reflect themes of alienation, anti-consumerism, persecution and loneliness. It’s unclear if Otto is really a member of the walking dead, or merely a confused youth reacting to the hostility and emptiness of his world by embracing death, and the fact that ultimately it doesn’t matter is part of why this film works. It’s not an easy film by any means, and I can’t say that it is one that everyone will enjoy, much less “get,” but for its originality in a genre that all too often settles for rehashing favored old tropes with slightly new make-up I really think it’s worthwhile. Director Bruce LaBruce has concocted something both strange and satisfying here by creating a zombie movie that may disturb even the most hardcore zombie fans.