Auteur. Avant-garde. Risque. Enfant Terrible.
More than one French cliché come to mind when thinking of French-Canadian, queer-guerilla film director Bruce LaBruce, and he’s back with another feature-length, “LA Zombie,” but don’t expect to see it any time soon alongside Disney’s latest at your nearest Hollywood dumping ground/mega-plex. Like his past films “LA Zombie” challenges cultural and sexual commonplaces, reverses conventional understandings and continues the unabashedly and unapologetic sex-positive stance he’s championed since his first release, “No Skin Off My Ass,” nearly 20 years ago. In short, LaBruce hasn’t lost his edge. Indeed, far from it.
In “LA Zombie” porn-star Francois Sagat plays the lead role who, after reanimation, wanders the streets of Los Angeles fucking the dead back to life. Rather than turning the living into the undead, Sagat’s character resurrects homeless men, white collar criminals, junkies and, of course, dead porn stars. In short, he’s zombie jesus. Minus the cross. Plus a penis.
This too throws on its head the traditional metaphoric understanding of zombie as contagion or AIDS-like viral figure, an understanding advanced in such popular films as 28 Days Later.
Critics and censorial governments have responded just as you’d imagine. The Australian film board refused to rate the movie effectively censoring it from the entire continent. (No matter, the Melbourne International Film Festival held an underground screening to a standing-room only audience of cheering admirers). The mainstream media in his hometown Toronto was no more enthusiastic, but LaBruce, hardly a stranger to shallow-minded, hetero-normative critiques, effectively gave it all the Jay-Z shoulder brush-off.
LaBruce and I recently exchanged emails about his new film and his motivations behind it.
MarioJohn: How did you move from your most recent movie, “Otto,” to “LA Zombie”? While you use the same trope (the zombie), you appear at least on the surface to be using it for radically different purposes?
MJ: You mentioned you’ve often made zombie movies and called, for example, the “Raspberry Reich” gang ‘zombie-esque.’ How do you define zombie (beyond just the “undead”) and how do you understand ‘zombie-hood’?
LaBruce: It’s easy to apply the concept of the zombie to any gang or group that conforms slavishly to a particular ideology or belief system. Zombies are the ultimate conformists – they all talk and walk the same, congregate in the same places, eat the same things. They don’t have individual thoughts or even distinct personalities. The same could be said for people who have fixed, dogmatic ideological or political beliefs, which is often the case on the extreme right (neo-Nazis, say) or the extreme left (anti-capitalist terrorist groups, for example). Having said that, it’s not a formula that you can apply monolithically. Political cults like the RAF or the SLA leave much more room for large personalities and individual antics that, say, religious cults like Hare Krishna or Scientology. My movies generally celebrate outsiders and misfits, and are critical of characters who are conformists. Even my zombies – be they left wing terrorists or neo-Nazis or actual, literal zombies – have to express themselves as individuals apart from the crowd.
MJ: Given the popularity of zombies in cinema lately, are you afraid that they come already pre-packaged with cultural meaning and understanding? Or, is that perhaps why you like working with them in the first place?
LaBruce: I think most zombies are pre-packaged in very predictable and formulaic ways, which is why I try to expand or subvert zombie mythology. I’ve said many times that I resent the way zombies are quite often depicted as worthless homeless people, a rejected underclass that can be annihilated for sport. It cuts a bit too close to the reality of what goes on in the modern world. For me it’s fun to speculate, as I did with Otto, about what a zombie might have been like when he was alive (he was a vegetarian, for example), and how that might effect his zombie behaviour (basically, it gives him an eating disorder – he doesn’t like to eat flesh). I think the humanization of zombies is inevitable, otherwise the genre really has nowhere to go. In L.A. Zombie, the title creature is an alien zombie, so that allowed me to change the rules even more – this zombie is able to fuck human beings back to life. When you open up the genre, anything is possible. But, I guess rules need to exist before you can break them.
MJ: The traditional zombie attacks the living and, in turn, makes them undead. Your zombie fucks the dead back to life. That seems like a key reversal. Are you trying to say anything through it?
LaBruce: Well, the idea of resurrection in this scenario is unavoidable, and it’s difficult to make a movie about resurrection and not have it be interpreted as an allusion to Christ. Although a movie I’ve always really liked is “Resurrection” with Ellen Burstyn, directed by Canadian Daniel Petrie, in which Burstyn plays a woman who develops healing powers after being in a horrible car accident which she insists don’t have anything to do with Christ or Christianity. I definitely wanted my alien zombie character to have a kind of Messianic/superhero aspect, partly to reverse the conventional expectations about zombies, or about monsters in horror movies in general. They almost invariably bring death, whereas my alien zombie finds dead bodies and fucks them back to life. Zombies are conventionally associated with viral contagion, disease, and cannibalism; there’s not usually anything very nuanced about them. Zombies can very easily be interpreted as a fear of AIDS. So to create a zombie who heals and brings people back to life through sexual contact and the dissemination of fluids is a strong reversal of the usual paranoid representation of gay sex and AIDS. The whole movie runs in reverse – instead of coming out of the earth at the beginning, as in most zombie movies, my zombie digs back into the earth at the end. And, of course, he comes out of the water at the beginning, which is a kind of birth, or baptism.
MJ: Is there a logic behind the dead the zombie fucks back to life? Obviously, you could have chosen to “save”/”resurrect” any number of different cultural types.
LaBruce: For the people the alien zombie fucks back to life I was thinking mostly of characters who exist at the margins of society. If you interpret L.A Zombie as a “Visit To a Small Planet” movie, wherein an alien comes to Earth and disguises itself as a human in order to observe humanity (Brother From Another Planet, for example, or The Day The Earth Stood Still), my alien zombie disguises itself as a homeless person. So, it makes sense that this homeless person/alien would observe criminals and outcasts who conduct their business on the streets or in dodgy corners of society. The alien zombie fucks back to life a surfer, a couple of white collar criminals, a black gangbanger, a homeless person, and a group of porn stars. It’s kind of a cross section of marginal types that gives him a disturbing view of humanity.
MJ: In Seattle after the screening of “Otto,” an audience member in all seriousness asked how your movie was received at Sundance, to which you replied, “Everyone at Sundance is looking for the next Juno. How do you think it was received?” So, I have to ask, how do you feel your chances are at Sundance this year?
LaBruce: As L.A. Zombie has already played in competition at Locarno and at dozens of international film festivals like Toronto, Vancouver, and Helsinki, it’s unlikely that it will screen at Sundance. Which is too bad because I always enjoy being slaughtered at Sundance.
After LA Zombie, buy “OTTO; or Up with Dead People” on Amazon.com
For more on Bruce LaBruce and LA Zombie check out the film site: Lazombie.com