Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Horny Zombies I Have Known: This Year In Chaos

I suppose it was only a matter of time before sex began to play a pivotal role in zombie films. I mean it's always been around (after all what motivates Charles Beaumont to seek out Murder Legendre and his zombie-making formula in White Zombie) but the fusion of the two in both a content and thematic sense has been surprisingly few and far between. Ken Wiederhorn pays lip service to the idea in Return of the Living Dead Part II, Michel Saovi played with it further in Cemetary Man, in fact the only movie I can think of that makes the connection perfectly explicit was John McNaughton's under-rated Masters of Horror entry Haeckel's Tale. So I thought before the cicrriculum change I would delve into two repulsive zombie tales that deal with sex in a manner both frank and polarizing. These are by no means the only two ways to take the notion of a sexualized zombie movie, but these are two of the only movies to take an exclusively sexual approach to the zombie movie. One posits a world in which humans and homosexual zombies co-exist and the other is as good an argument I've yet seen for mass male sterilization, yet strangely they make for an interesting double-feature if you're hoping to teach a lesson about extremes.

Otto; or Up With Dead People
by Bruce LaBruce
Otto takes place in the not too distant future where our narrator informs us that zombies have become "if not commonplace, then at least unextraordinary." They're a fairly common occurence and have even learned to "speak and reason." In the midst of her extemporizing about this, that and the other thing we learn of the titular Otto, a recently deceased and walking dead soul, "a zombie with an identity crisis." Our narrator, who we learn is an experimental filmmaker called Medea Yarn, lets us know that she studied Otto with her camera and was fascinated by him. He was about twenty one or so when he died and then came back. He has flashes of the life he once lead and it haunts him in death (one of many ideas that LaBruce sadly doesn't do anything with). Yarn tells us that a wave of gay zombies has struck, inciting more fervor than ordinary zombies. Once the public found out about this, gangs took to the streets trying to kill them. Anyway, we watch the exploits of two slightly older gay zombies as they spread their message of equality to a homophobic and violent public....or maybe there are no zombies and it's all part of Medea's film....or maybe some of them are real zombies and others are just fetishists who like the idea of looking like a zombie......or maybe Otto is the only zombie.....or maybe he's not one at all.....? All of this is left infuriatingly vague by the film's end.

Bruce LaBruce is one of cinema's most committed punks and if you need proof of his dedication to the same kinds of ideals that guided the best punk musicians just remember that before now you've never heard of him except maybe in the context of this movie. Like Kenneth Anger before him LaBruce is a gay filmmaker who lives to make films that will arouse the contempt of any poor bourguoise sap who stumbles on his movies. His is a body of work steeped in filmic tradition but in no way willing to play by even the most basic of rules. I'd hazard a guess that aside from today's film (which only appeals to a broader audience in the sense that it is nominally a genre film) the closest LaBruce had ever come to the mainstream was his Fellini homage Super 8½, which was probably never shown to more than 20 people at a time in rented rooms at film schools. The blessing and curse of a personality like LaBruce is that though there is not even the slightest chance of him compromising or doing what is asked or expected of him, he will also neccesarily never find an audience big enough for him to make a lasting impression on the art form. The only other downside to his remaining on the fringes of film culture is that he has apparently resisted learning how to construct a decent movie from his self-destructive and minimalist urges; like Sid Vicious, he tries but he never really learned how to play the bass guitar in the first place. Otto; or Up with Dead People looks like shit and though it's jam-packed with interesting ideas, it never does any of them justice, winding up under-cooked, pretentious and only ideaologically more appealing than straight-to-dvd fare like Dead Summer or Ozone. Even Medea's cameraman Adolf uses a Bolex yet LaBruce sticks with lo-res video (film nerds only complaint). Though I'd have over-looked its craft if it had managed to create characters I could care about Otto's biggest problem is that it's dull and, perhaps fittingly, lifeless.

The reason I stayed with Otto is because despite looking terrible and by the end not really having solved any of its problems, it is a film with ideas. From the opening where Medea says that the zombies learned to communicate with each other mentally (which we never see any evidence of...possibly because it's all just a part of her movie....or not...?), possibly because they want to rebel against the "unceasing hostilities of the living", it becomes clear that LaBruce went out of his way to apply every ounce of reactionary leftist thought he could into Otto but he stopped at that. He never develops any of his ideas beyond running them off like the quotable phrases of his previous film Raspberry Reich; his insolent sloganeering is acceptable if a film's sole purpose to stir up trouble and cause both discomfort and awareness (as all of his films are) but in a film that purports to be a zombie film I wanted more. I wanted a story. The closest thing to a narrative that LaBruce manages is split between the exploits of the two revolutionaries (who wind up being characters in the movie-within-a-movie), Otto's stumbling from one sexual encounter to the next as he remembers his old life, and then the making of Medea's film Up With Dead People. The story of the film-making is a paraphrase of the story of LaBruce's Super 8½, which is kind of a shame. A shame, incidentally is how I'd generally describe Otto. This was the first openly gay zombie film that squanders its ideas as throw-away lines, pays attention to its least interesting characters, and alienates all but committed fans of LaBruce's audacious style.

As far as that style goes, there is as I've said, the ultra-pretentious collegiate jargin that, while not as bad as the dialogue in The Addiction, is still irritatingly facile. Then there are the few film school touches that LaBruce adds as inside jokes for die-hards like that Medea's girlfriend Hella only appears in silent, scratchy black-and-white footage for some reason or that when he mentions violence against zombies, he shows an animation instead of real action (my guess is the budget precluded showing any real violence). Finally the film is full of hard-core sexual inserts (a staple of LaBruce's films) which while admittedly interesting, will scare off anyone interested on the surface in a queer-themed zombie film who is not already used to pornographic images in horrror films. I was expecting it and wasn't bothered anyway, but I feel like there are a few curiousity viewers who are going to get a shock at about the twenty minute mark. I do think there is something compelling about the contact between the two nameless twenty-somethings. LaBruce's portrayol of their sexual contact as involving disembowlment and, in one scene that will undoubtedly have people grabbing for the remote, fucking an open wound is fascinating. It opens all kinds of doors for talk about human sexuality that it then promptly walks away from, leaving it and many like it maddeningly ajar.
Otto is about those maligned, still not given equality - obviously gays and zombies are meant to be viewed as one and the same because LaBruce makes them one and the same. It's an interesting idea but it's also very loud and naked in LaBruce's hands. He has ideas but nothing like a real story to tell, in fact the storytelling often gets in the way of his fountain of ideas. While I understand the impulse to make extreme cinema, I don't think that ideas are enough to carry a film. Craft is equally important. That said, when you have a dearth of ideas and minimal craft (in the case of our next film, decent cinematography), your film is likely to wind up even less appealing (to most straight men, I guess. I don't presume to know what turns people on) than watching an orgy of men painted up like zombies.

Doghouse
by Jake West
This film probably shouldn't have started with a helicopter shot of London. I know that what they meant to do was put us in mind of 28 Days Later but nothing will ever match up to 28 Days Later if they try to. Some films may be incidentally as good but nothing, least of all antiquated sex crimedies with Danny Dyer, is going to beat 28 Days Later at its own game. We next meet the unlovable man-children we'll be spending the film with. There's Mikey, who's kind of an asshole and Matt who's a nerd and an asshole, there's Patrick, who's kind of a new-age asshole, Neil, who's the head asshole, Graham, an asshole who's the only one of the bunch who's not straight, Banksy who's meeting them there thanks to car trouble who is a corpulent asshole, and Vince who's the only one seems a decent chap. He's just been divorced and the rest of the gang are taking him out to the village of Moodley for some pre-Deliverance but instead of sex-crazed hillbillies, they've got something else, something far more sexually regressive, waiting for them.

They arrive in Moodley only to discover the place is a derelict. A little searching (with way too many "we can see it but the boys are oblivious" gags) reveals that the place is over-run with hyper functioning zombie women. The way that our director introduces them is via some gender specific sight gags - never a good sign. First Neil looks under the doors of a toilet and some thick gore falls between the girl inside's legs. Fucking charming. Next we see a woman who I believe is supposed to be a bride carrying an axe, but she's actually dressed in the lingerie equivalent of a bridal gown. Next is a hair-dresser with two pairs of scissors in her hands, a barmaid with enormous tits carrying a sword, you notice the pattern yet? All the women are zombies and they each carry some tool that vaguely matches the costume they're wearing (well, except the barmaid...still a bit puzzled about that). The only man left in town, a Sgt. Gavin Wright, fills them in on what's been happening. Yeah, it's a virus, yeah it only effects women, yeah we still only have these pricks to root for. So, the reasons they're stuck: their bus-driver got the virus and Neil put all their phones in a bag to keep them from calling girlfriends before they got to town which he left on the bus. The reasons to watch the film are even fewer than that. Actually, there's no reason to watch this movie.

Here's Doghouse in a nutshell. When Matt asks the group a logical question, Neil replies with the kind of reductionist mysognysit humour that characterizes the whole movie. "What kind of virus only effects women?" "Bird flu." HAHA! Get it? Cause British people call women birds! I'd love to make a joke like that if I'd been stabbed in the hand, like Neil just was in the story, but I just don't think I'd be smart or witty enough. If you don't get it I could explain it to you in detail, it's a really subtle and nuanced kind of humour and it's just...cause I really want you to get it if you don't. The film is just one gory, anti-feminist set-piece after another. The female zombies exist as the sort of grotesque caricature that only douche bags who cheat on their girlfriends and go to strip clubs imagine. Women are there to be reacted against, not viewed as people. Which is not only harmful toward women, but also sells men short because it fundamentally lacks imagination. Between Dan Schaffer's truly awful, trite and painfully unfunny script and Jake West's clumsy and tension-free direction, the film doesn't even work as the "men and women are different" expose it would like to be. And can I just...the film was made and released in 2009 and as I write this it's 2010...people don't actually invest this much money and energy into this kind of fucking trash, do they?

By the time you figure out the zombies are a government project gone awry, you really couldn't be bothered as its played out its one trick. As a side-note the movie goes to great lengths to explain that its indebted to The Evil Dead. Yeah, no! That film was intelligent and fun and scary. This is awful. Stephen Graham and Lee Ingleby try to rise above the material but can't and in fact appear more than a little embarassed to be here while Danny Dyer and the others are only too happy to sink beneath it. Also, quick clarification, though I know there's no point in this case: Neil says that the zombies are feminist at one point. This isn't even right in its wrongness. Feminism doesn't imply a hatred for men, it's about equality on every imaginable level, which is impossible when fuck-ups like Schaffer insist on getting it wrong for the sake of a bunch of jokes that are older than fucking time. So, yeah....fuck this movie, its creators, producers and everyone who enjoys it. And now I don't think I'm being overly harsh because there are ten thousand zombie films that don't make me furious in their sexual politics alone.
So while I'd take Otto over Doghouse anyday, I can't say either won me over. Otto, at the very least has a reason to exist beyond its many forgotten ideas. People really do fear and despise homosexuals (and as we've seen, almost as badly as some men hate and fear women) so to make a film that points this out and tries to insist that homosexuality is normal is something I absolutely stand behind. Both films are reactionary and both are about the fear of castration/impotence, and though one has the balls to own up to it, neither has a combination of ideas and craft that satisfied me. I know that there are good ideas to be found in Otto, and I know that everyone involved in Doghouse owes it to themselves to do better work than this. So until someone fuses sexuality and zombies in a satisfying way, I suggest you stick to the tried and true, or as one of Otto's victims says, "Come on, it's dead in there"

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