The North American premiere of Bruce LaBruce's unavoidably controversial L.A. Zombie (2010) positioned in TIFF's Vanguard program indicates that it's not quite enough of a horror film but way too much of a gay porno film to satisfy most Midnight Madness buffs. Notwithstanding, through its melding of zombie genre tropes and hardcore mansex, L.A. Zombie achieves a transgressive edginess while eliciting an unexpected poignancy, much more so than LaBruce's previous zombie/porno hybrid Otto: Or Up With Dead People (2008). TIFF's short capsule states: "Corpse-eating meets poverty politics in this pornographic art film set on the streets of Los Angeles, where an alien zombie brings dead men back to life." In his expanded defense of the film, Noah Cowan indirectly argues for the concept of "elevated genre", admitting it is hardcore gay porno but suggesting it is equally an art film reminiscent of Jacques Rivette's Paris nous appartient and a strong maturation of LaBruce's usage of digital media (no pun intended).
From the film's premiere at Locarno, David Jenkins dispatched to Time Out London: "Rather than a torrent of extreme bad taste, the film turns out to be a tender study of otherness in the big city and a cunning reversal of genre conventions." At Eye Weekly, Adam Nayman concurred: "Bruce LaBruce's already-notorious film is more melancholy than confrontational. Porn star François Sagat plays the zombie, Los Angeles plays itself and assorted corpses are tenderly sexed back to life." At Xtra, Matthew Hayes spoke with an upbeat LaBruce after L.A. Zombie was yanked from the Melbourne International. At Twitch, Todd Brown insists "outside the hardcore cult film scene [L.A. Zombie] will have EXTREMELY limited appeal." He's way more fair than Torontoist's John Semley who fumes, "A spiritless, pointless amalgam of gory zombie picture and hardcore porn, L.A. Zombie is the confluence of two cultural crosscurrents that nobody asked for." But whether LaBruce made his film for those who prefer to be comfortably enslaved to the narrative or for those whose critical objectivity is hazardously gnashing at the homophobic bit, or—more to the point—whether LaBruce would be true to his own artistry if he ever made a film someone asked for, I predict his film will speak to a larger community than is now being granted and that L.A. Zombie's shelf life will gain a poetic notoriety, as well it should.
Myself, I'm somewhat intrigued by L.A. Zombie's surprising poignance given its horndog reliance on pornography to remonstrate a heartfelt argument for how identity is perceived both within and through others. I would have readily sought out an interview with Bruce LaBruce but—after reading Olivier Père's "Ten Morally Indefensible Answers From Bruce LaBruce On L.A. Zombie" in the current issue of Cinema Scope—I felt the job had competently been accomplished. Unfortunately, Père's article has not been chosen to be made available online.
This film could easily be entitled The Zombie Within or, alternately, The Zombie Perceived, though its focus on L.A. suggests a possible referent to that city's thriving porn industry, or perhaps more exactly the rejects of that industry rendered as homeless hunks. L.A. Zombie stages a relevant tension between self-image and projected fantasy, especially as seen through the eyes of queer men, both gay and trade. I've long admired LaBruce's ability to enflame controversy within the queer community, which—as it increasingly approaches a disappointing homonormativity—deserves to be shaken up and reminded of its radical potential. When Hustler White (1996) screened at the Castro Theatre some Framelines back, I thought a near riot was going to erupt during the amputee sex scene. Outraged men stood up and shouted at the screen while others stood up and shouted at them. To hell with all the petty heterosexist dismissals of queer film, here was a film that stabbed a lightning rod into the queer community itself and I loved the ruckus! I was one of those cheering the scene on while my own partner at the time prudishly edged towards the exit. You can't forget a divisive movie moment like that.
It's especially difficult not to read too much into L.A. Zombie and to let it stand on its own raw, sexually ravishing ethos; but, here are a few of my own thoughts, wayward or not. When the film's protagonist is visualized as an alien zombie—whether he is thinking of himself as an alien zombie or being seen as an alien zombie—he is adorned in glaring primary neon colors. When he's not being visualized as an alien zombie, he is depicted as a homelessly hot homo who—at first—you want to offer your shirt to but then—on second thought—prefer to leave shirtless, charity be damned. LaBruce is commenting on an eroticized solidarity, an exact specularity that's involved when queer men perceive themselves or see each other as zombies, fuck each other, as if to become non-zombie, i.e., human. This is the tenderness that is so surprising in L.A. Zombie for being presented so ghoulishly.
Pursuing the wound fucking initiated with Otto, L.A. Zombie converts the penetration of another's wound as a life-giving act. It's as if LaBruce is suggesting that furtive zombie sex makes you feel human; akin to sexual indiscretions that leave you feeling innocent once fully satisfied. Within this visual transgression lies an ancient fascination wherein the virile erection is—for wont of a better term—a magic wand. In fact, according to Thomas Wright in his 1886 essay "A Worship of the Generative Powers" (p. 28): "One name of the male organ among the Romans was fascinum ... hence [is] derived the words to fascinate and fascination." As if to prove that point, I remember visiting Pompeii and reading in the literature that winged phallic tintinabulum were hung in the doorways of Roman houses and shops as protection. But I digress by aligning ancient phallic charms with today's thriving fascination with the commodified gay porn body....
Whether or not LaBruce intends his domain of gay imagery to bear the taint of HIV infection—a near cultural cliché in the social imaginary—it's difficult to resist tracing a metaphor of "the walking dead" as an infected constituency negotiating its compromised and complicated pact with life. What's perhaps the most intriguing reversal in this scenario is that the experienced dead in L.A. Zombie restore life to the recently deceased. It's like one big support group of the dead. There's even a disturbing hint of the undeniably questionable philosophy of infecting others with HIV as providing "the gift." I've often wondered what exactly that "gift" is supposed to be? A sense of longed-for belonging, albeit to a community whose awareness of life has become intensified for being threatened? I really don't know. It's a disturbing concept to me.
LaBruce's appropriation of homelessness speaks less to me as a contemporary social condition than it does as an existential longing for "home", for a place within a community already fractured and disenfranchised. This malaise of alienation beautifully reveals itself in the doughnut café sequence which is framed in a frontal horizontal composition reminiscent of certain Edward Hopper paintings. There's a genuine pathos in our alien zombie trying to be like his former human self: ordering coffee at the till, exchanging currency and then (unsuccessfully) gulping it down. How many late night denizens have expected as much human connection from a cup of coffee?
But LaBruce is not totally without humor. There's an amusing cardboard box sequence reminiscent of the Tardis on Dr. Who. The alien zombie enters the cardboard box shelter of a homeless man who has died to bring him back to life. Once he's inside, it's like he's in a huge cardboard room. It's a wonderful shift of perspective.
Schizophrenia has been bandied about a lot in reviews of L.A. Zombie to make sense of the film's shifting perspectives and even LaBruce admits in his Cinema Scope interview that "the alien zombie may be a homeless schizophrenic." Earlier he mentioned he was influenced by the theories of post-Freudian psychoanalyst Melanie Klein: "She talks a lot about splitting and projection in terms of subjectivity and identification, so I was thinking about those kinds of schizophrenic perceptions of reality." I guess that's as good a handle as any to explain why sometimes our protagonist looks like a zombie, other times doesn't, and—towards the end of the film during its disturbing group kill sequence—becomes something of a super-zombie. I found it profoundly unsettling during that kill sequence to be unable to determine the exact presence of our alien zombie. Was he at the window voyeuristically watching himself in something of a group sex fantasy and, if so, does fantasizing himself in this way account for why he has metamorphasized into a super-zombie? Is all of this to say that the sexual drive has been zombified? I don't think there are answers to these questions, and I didn't ask to have them be posed, but I certainly appreciate Bruce LaBruce's audacity to ask them.
Finally, after all of his efforts to simulate his humanity and to bestow life on the recently dead, our alien zombie frequents a graveyard and digs up a grave as if to return to source. As a final touch of irony, the headstone reads LAW. Do what thou wilt and all that....
Cross-published on Twitch.