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Otto; or, Up With Dead People (Bruce La Bruce, 2008)
A unique, if not especially successful, take on the zombie genre, Bruce La Bruce’s Otto; or, Up With Dead People brings at least some of the sensibility of an underground art film to unlikely material. Set in an alternate-world Germany, where zombies have become a fact of life, this highbrow trash flick picks up as the latest generation of the undead evolve (unsurprisingly, given that La Bruce is directing) into a pack of homosexual predators. The plot, such as it is, follows Otto, a young, gay zombie who wanders about confused and conflicted, at least until he becomes the lead in an experimental film being made by a would-be Maya Deren. From there, sequences showing the movie-in-the-movie’s guerilla production are alternated with those showing Otto as he grows closer to remembering his past life.
Otto’s selective perception sets the tone for the disorienting first half of the movie that bears his name. For the bulk of its run time, the director keeps viewers at a Brechtian distance through the use of multiple, emotionally detached narrators, a narrative that lurches about in a haphazard manner, the random inclusion of stock footage, blatant visual allusions to highbrow cinematic classics, and arch monologues equating zombiedom with various forms of political unrest. Around seventy minutes into the movie, however, La Bruce seems to have a change of heart, and quickly recaps his twin narratives. Everything is suddenly made as clear as day, and the narrative trajectory becomes firmly defined. From this point forward, Otto becomes considerably less fragmented, far less revolutionary, and even somewhat emotionally affecting.
This concession to the audience’s expectations certainly makes Up With Dead People a more palatable viewing experience, but it also makes it seem less dangerous. What was once challenging becomes almost comforting, as a series of narrative climaxes are offered up (including a hate crime, a reconciliation, a zombie orgy, and a staged political martyrdom). Each of these scenes does provide the audience with some closure, but collectively they have the effect of undermining everything that Otto’s aggressive first hour stood for. Even though the last moments of the movie are purportedly open-ended, they feel utterly resolved. What results, then, is a movie that is clever, but clearly torn between the mainstream and the transgressive. Otto’s diatribes give way to heart to heart dialogues, and there’s something actually quite disheartening about that.