Up with Dead Privates

Curator's Note

The clip I have chosen comes from queercore director Bruce LaBruce’s 2008 film Otto; or, Up with Dead People. Set in a near-future Berlin, Otto follows the adventures of the film’s eponymous zombie (or would-be zombie?) hero as he finds his way into Berlin, attempting to remember fragments of his pre-zombie puppy love. Homeless and almost always devoid of affect, Otto finds himself cast in goth dyke director Medea Yarn’s “political porno-zombie movie” as he seeks to avoid the perils of a city in which anti-zombie violence is on the rise. “Lonely, empty, dead inside, he fit the typical porn profile,” Medea claims, later instructing Otto that the capitalist “industrial wasteland of casual extermination and genocide” will be left for zombies to inherit. The clip follows Otto upon his arrival in Berlin as he gets picked up in front of a gay bar called “Flesh” and (re)visits what later turns out to be his father’s butcher shop or Fleisherei.

In spite of the fact that Medea happily appropriates zombies to be figures upon which to found a critique of capital, Otto spends very little screen time taking account of corporate conglomerates, deteriorating state services, the privatization of public goods, European imperialism, or neoliberal relations of production. That Medea proves to be an unyielding and bombastic boss helps to give Otto’s viewers ample cues to read the politics of the film-within-a-film with a hearty dose of irony.  But this irony nonetheless points to Otto’s ambivalence about publics, privates, and capital more broadly.  When Medea instructs Otto to act intoxicated by “the sweet systematic slaughter that could only have been devised by the diabolical mind of modern man”, she advises him to “think of it as a metaphor for the heartless corporate technocracies that govern the earth and you’ll be fine.”  Otto is thus not so much a figure for resisting to capital as he is a figure for surviving it; as with most contemporary cinematic zombies, his disaffected blankness highlights the fact that capital has already evacuated any possible private subjectivity-as-property, deadening him without putting him to rest.

Medea’s opinions about what zombies signify show two distinct trends.  One, zombies designate an evacuated soullessness that exemplifies the ravages of life under capital.  Two, zombies offer the potential for forming radical sex publics of the kind that can take on the “overwhelming forces of the dead and living”; in the final scene of her film, the zombie leader calls for an orgy in which to prepare the zombies for their revolt.  I selected this clip because it highlights some of the tensions between these two nodes of zombie critique.  In this clip, Otto’s two most momentous experiences both begin under the (literal) signs of capital.  Otto gets picked up standing right under the neon sign “Flesh” because the public proffered inside the bar is unpromisingly dead; the coupled sex in the confines of an apartment mirrors Otto’s later sense that it would be better if he had a room because the streets are hostile places for gay zombies.   The scene at the Fleisherei may substitutes lust for bloody carcasses in the place of familial attachment, and does so by spectacularizing consumer desire in the process (Otto is, after all, window shopping). 

In Otto, the greatest moments of optimism and pleasure in the film clearly appear in the wake of scenes of sex/evisceration in which zombies tear the blood, organs, and sinews of their lovers/prey from the inside of the body. The idea that zombies have nothing “inside” of them is as corporeal as it is psychological and the de-privatization of thoughts, feelings, and body parts clearly suffuses LaBruce’s film with its largest doses of glee. But these de-privatizing endeavors never produce much of a public. Berlin’s streets are not safe for twink gay zombies such that Otto, at the end of film, heads north, both because the cold preserves his flesh and because he may find others of his kind and, possibly learn to enjoy their company. 

But there is little discussion—either in LaBruce’s Otto or in Medea  Yarn’s film-within-the-film—of  the forces that organize these streets as spaces of violence.  When Otto encounters groups of people, they are (mostly) brown-skinned young men that jeer or bash him. In these moments, Otto inverts but reproduces the racist logic of Hollywood’s appropriation of Haitian zombi. In classic zombie films, zombies stand for the angry black slaves threatening to eviscerate the pale-skinned Euro-American hero(ine); in Otto, the zombie/human position shifts, but the racial schema remains otherwise the same. Otto accounts for anti-gay violence by referencing a backlash that occurred when humans found out that a “new wave of gay zombies” was eating raw human flesh, a backlash that LaBruce and the film’s critics often read as an allegory for the homophobic response to the AIDS pandemic. But, as many AIDS activists have pointed out, it is racist and homophobic state violence (and the corporatized media coverage that attends it) that has fostered and that continues to foster the AIDS crisis. In Otto, however, marauding bands of (mostly) darker-skinned young men act as a threat, seemingly divorced from the overarching necropolitical structures that, we might presume, would affect them as much as Otto himself.   Otto’s desire to head the icy isolation of the north (a tradition in alienated-monster stories at least as far back as Frankenstein) rewrites the zombie as a figure of collective action.

Zombie politics have famously flourished at the University of California this year in response to UC President Mark Yudof’s claim that he manages a cemetery. Whether or not the queer zombie offers any revolutionary promise in this film thus remains to be seen; but Otto should haunt our contemporary zombie politics as we think about the relationship between queer bodies and de-privatization.  What forms of consciousness, affect, and embodiment (if any) do we need to produce radical queer (un)life? Is it, as Otto asks, possible to come back from the dead?  And, if so, do we want to?

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