Zealot Zombies vs. Apolitical Vampires: Bruce LaBruce’s Political Enlivenment of the Undead

In the late ’90s, Joss Whedon gained critical and cult respect for the way he weaved homosexuality, teen suicide, drug addiction, and other taboo realties into supernatural drama. Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer know that the television show stands apart because, for all its vampires and demons, it said something sincere about American youth culture. Looking back in history even further than the ’90s — shocking, I know — there is precedent for the vampire as a political metaphor. It most famously was used to represent a nefarious Victorian class and their alarming social and sexual morals. Though the vampire trope was once a tool of social commentary, its current resurgence in popular culture is occurring without any of the political significance that formerly made the metaphor so valuable.

Neither of the two major vampire franchises, Twilight and True Blood, are producing meaningful or analytical fictions. They both seem to be saying something about teen angst, abdominal muscles, and maybe something about a variant kind of sex, but these over-marketed, over-sold bastardizations of the bloodsucker trope are ultimately about ratings and profits. Apolitical vampires have garnered legions of fans and dedicated followings while another nineteenth century theme is being worked to a political end with almost no recognition. Whereas the Post-Buffy vampire is failing to live up to its predecessors, remarkable things are being down with zombies today.

Like the vampire, there is precedent for reading and reacting to the zombie metaphor politically. In cinema studies, George A. Romero’s excellent film Night of the Living Dead (1968) provoked a variety of scholarly interpretations. The politics of Vietnam imagery was read onto the film’s zombie carnage, feminist arguments surrounded the catatonic Barbara character, and a race reading was provoked by Ben, the black protagonist, who survives the film’s zombie onslaught only to be killed by a militia of rednecks. On more than one occasion, cultural commentators have used the metaphor of the zombie to call to mind hordes of shoppers marching hungrily towards banal goods that only increase brain-deadness, and queer artists like John Greyson have previously appropriated the zombie trope as an affecting way to represent a population rejected by society because of AIDS. It’s been fourteen months since Bruce LaBruce’s second zombie film, L.A. Zombie was banned from the Melbourne International Film Festival, but in the last three years the Canadian filmmaker has taken the zombie metaphor to its most complex, grotesque and subversive height.

The new documentary about LaBruce, The Advocate for Fagdom, will have its Canadian premier in November at Montreal’s LGBT film festival, image+nation; awaiting it anxiously, I have become nostalgic for last year’s screening of L.A. Zombie, which made it past censors to be shown at another important Montreal film festival, Festival du Nouveau Cinéma. For fear that interviewees in the documentary, like John Waters or Harmony Korine, will say what I am going to say only funnier and faster, I now present my heretofore-dormant critique of Bruce LaBruce’s zombie politics.

In Otto; or Up With Dead People (2008) and L.A. Zombie (2010), the Canadian auteur/pornographer colludes supernatural elements with mental illness, HIV/AIDS, and the social stigma surrounding American homelessness in order to disrupt sexual narratives and political realities. Excuse this all-encompassing thesis statement, but LaBruce has before stated in press releases that his films operate “obliquely”. Obliquely because his film’s posses multiple narratives, subtexts, and genres, but not obliquely as in subtle. In fact Bruce LaBruce’s films are remarkably unsubtle, pornographic and comedic pastiches of high and low culture. His films have previously mixed skinheads up with allusions to Bertolt Brecht, or paired the philosophy of Herbert Marcuse with political slogans like, “Madonna is counterrevolutionary!” More recently, LaBruce has looked to zombie metaphors for the advancement of his subversive cultural commentary. The filmmaker has come a long way from Toronto’s underground queer punk subculture, but now that he has an international platform, his message for audiences does not seem to differ much from the one spouted by his pioneering Queercore zine, J.D.s. Amongst all the irony, blood, and sex, Bruce LaBruce is still demonstrating, albeit now with zombies, that it is better to be recklessly political, than not political at all.

If LaBruce’s zombies have indefinite politics, at least their sexual orientation is quite clear. In Otto and L.A. Zombie, the zombies are queer, plain and simple, because they keep having gay sex. Otto was LaBruce’s first zombie film; he found his star Jey Crisfar on the internet’s first social network turned cruising website (MySpace), and much of the film’s narrative follows the title character meeting men while trying to reunite with his ex-boyfriend. L.A. Zombie, on the other hand, demonstrates an advancement in the erotic-zombie-horror-comedy sub-(sub)genre: it stars Gay VN award winner Francois Sagat and is sexually explicit from the first shot of him emerging from the ocean until the last scene where, in a sort of meta-moment, an orgy of top-dog gay porn stars ensues. The hardcore sex reduces LaBruce’s viewership, but it does not detract from the ideological challenge he is making with his films. In fact, it places LaBruce in the company of great thinkers like Jean Genet, Georges Bataille and Susan Sontag, people who have previously demonstrated, or passionately argued, that pornographic art is well suited for pursuing our culture’s most unacknowledged truths.

Bruce LaBruce treats sex in his films the same way Jean-Luc Godard treats politics, the way Michael Haneke treats violence. This is an incredibly succinct and esoteric way of saying that Bruce LaBruce uses sex to disturb the conventions of his genre and the dynamics of film spectatorship. To choose Francois Sagat as your lead actor is to implicitly suggest to spectators that they are in for something arousing. When the porn star-turned-actor appears on screen as moldy creature with a (disturbing-spoiler-alert!) charred black penis that spurts black plasma, LaBruce makes a deliberate choice to shut down, or at least complicate, the pleasure mechanisms of what was supposed to be an erotic film. Likewise, in Otto, people familiar with LaBruce’s art might expect something shocking from the film’s breakout twink star, but when he is later seen (disturbing-spoiler-alert #2!) penetrating flesh wounds with his bloodied penis, the explicitness exceeds expectation. The aforementioned directors are awarded critical acclaim because they challenge their viewers to finish a film feeling uneasy, attacked, maybe even accused, but whereas Godard attacks viewers’ bourgeois politics and Haneke critiques our passive acceptance of onscreen violence, LaBruce disrupts the pleasure in onscreen sex, which I’ll remind you is even more about pleasure than a Hollywood musical number. Bruce LaBruce’s manipulations of film conventions are not postmodern maneuvers meant to demonstrate that there is no dominant narrative, everything is an assemblage, signifier/signified, arbitrary! — the disruptions are part of a strategy meant to free contemporary filmgoers from a manipulative ideology that renders them complacent consumers of mass market sexuality.

Jey Crisfar in Otto; or Up With Dead People

Bruce LaBruce’s zombie films complicate what Hollywood has oversimplified. It is obvious that vampires today have skyrocketing popularity because they are being sold with six-pack abs and an everlasting sex drive, but LaBruce’s films counter the manipulative ways that sex and sexuality are rampantly marketed and sold. Directing his films to the gay community in particular, it is because this community — his community — is most guilty of, but also has the most to lose by consuming its own sexuality as a product. In LGBT culture, alternative sexuality is a means to distance itself from the mainstream. This is why Bruce LaBruce’s zombies posses a grotesque sexuality: so that they can that mobilize the truth about mass market sex, namely that it is sold as part of a manipulative system that gives you something seemingly transgressive so that you think you’ve chosen it out of free will, and therefore do not have to actually transgress in any meaningful way. That truth is far more disturbing than any amount of fake blood.

Though the fake blood is quite something. Once viewers are in the theatre, the gory nastiness might make them cover their eyes and it might drive them from their seat, but the disruption to their passive spectatorship is ultimately supposed to make them question the legitimacy of all sexually violent horror films, and where their desire to watch them comes from. The films accuse viewers of being responsible for the blood, sex and gore, and make a very messy mise-en-scene in order to draw viewers in until they are asking themselves why they came in the first place.

I worry that I have made it seem like Bruce LaBruce’s films are no fun, and all that you have swirling about in your head is grotesque, flesh wound, disrupted film spectatorship, never see these films! It’s worthwhile to take a moment and say that all of LaBruce’s disruptions to the passive act of cinema going make for a hilarious good time. Bruce LaBruce employs some very original cinematic maneuvers, his films are abrasive but arousing, and the polemics march along comedically. Maybe don’t bring your mother, but watching Bruce LaBruce’s films are some of the best times I’ve had at the theatre.

If he were a painter in Paris under Gertrude Stein’s patronage, it would be said that Bruce LaBruce is in his zombie period. He has previously fetishized skinheads, hustlers, and gay neo-Nazis, but his current work with the undead is his most awe-inspiring. The zombies allow LaBruce to craft an ambiguous duality. Potentially the living dead, probably mentally ill, Bruce LaBruce uses the zombie protagonists to shows that in America there is no difference. In L.A. Zombie, Sagat is frightening to people as a rotten, fanged zombie, but when the makeup comes off and he roams the streets as a spaced out homeless person the disturbed glances still come. Likewise, in the scene from Otto where the title character is chased by a bunch of street punks, it is not clear if he is being chased because he is a “zombie”, he looks homeless, or because in previous scenes he has been kissing boys.

Bruce LaBruce’s zombies are imbedded with political provocations, but in case the provocations do no land, the films are backed up with explicit political gestures that take social disturbance right onto the street. By committing his films to activism, protest, and civil disobedience tactics that call to mind the queer activist group ACT UP, LaBruce ensures that his films are politically accomplished. Nowadays all you need to do is have James Franco wave a placard and you can call your film activistic. Some films depict controversies or enrage their viewers so that they feel compelled to act out, but it is something far more pragmatic to make political gestures during production. When LaBruce films two men making out in the middle of a popular German square, or when he captures from a distance Sagat standing in line for the bus during Los Angeles rush-hour wearing nothing but short-shorts and a torn open hoodie sweat-shirt that exposes his affronting Adonis physique, bystanders, not actors, can be seen responding to the social disruptions with reprimands and dirty looks. Spectators watch citizens glare at actors, and the theatre is turned into the perfect vantage point from which to see the very disconcerting way our society hands out labels of unacceptability. Moreover, because the films might be walked out on, it’s extra thorough of LaBruce to partake in a little bit of social disruption.

If it seems counterproductive at first glance that Bruce LaBruce represents marginalized communities by depicting them as inhuman, for indeed it is difficult to make a political agenda in zombie garb, it should be noted that Bruce LaBruce does not offer a political rallying point with his films. They are not accessible enough to be political lightening rods: only a few international film festivals or the occasional museum show his films, and if the movies go to DVD they are purchasable in some gay video stores, or by online order. Even with the lack of publicity however, Otto and L.A. Zombie are more legitimate forms of activism than Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008) was.

Bruce LaBruce’s silver-screen queers always appear as individuals on the fringe of society making things worse, but then they redeem themselves by directly addressing the camera to state anti-capitalist truths about the relationship between the meat industry, inequality and world hunger, or by frankly asking the unasked questions about sexuality in concentration camps. Bruce LaBruce’s activism stands alone, it does not motivate the masses, and he is not a queer martyr. The films challenge viewers, and might motivate them to devise their own creative form of societal disruption, but they adamantly resist being co-opted, even by activists with similar political aspirations.

Bruce LaBruce is not preoccupied with uniting a generation of political agents, but he is using an easily co-opted metaphor and an easily depoliticized medium to get his own activism accomplished. Bruce LaBruce’s zombie films are not for everyone, and only a few fans of True Blood are viable for making the switch from apolitical vampires to politically enlivened zombies, but at least in LaBruce there is one filmmaker willing to sacrifice profits in order to preserve and disseminate what is rightfully a transgressive metaphor.