Bruce LaBruce's day begins with the sound of oven buttons being pushed, a conversation about zombies and a plan to catch two films (an Austrian movie about revenge and the latest, Tokyo Sonata, by Akira Kurosawa) at the Toronto International Film Festival.
"I'm seeing about two films a day, and then I have business meetings and the parties," he says over the beeps.
The undead talk at 10 am (his time) arises because LaBruce's feature, Otto; or, Up with Dead People, screens at this year's Atlantic Film Festival, after screening in Toronto and Sundance earlier this year.
Set (and shot) in Berlin, the film follows Otto, an apparent zombie (this is questioned throughout) in his late teens who wanders from the rural outskirts into the teeming big city. With only hazy, unresolved memories of his past and identity that come to him in flashes, Otto lopes about, trying to orientate to the world of the living. A lost boy, he meets filmmaker Medea Yarn, who's making a zombie movie, and critique of capitalism, called Up with Dead People.
"If you looked at the original script it was a little more like Raspberry Reich (part of the 2003 AFF program) in terms of it being more...," he pauses, "I was writing a lot more about this zombie mythology. I had a lot more voice-over and a lot more ideas about what this new world order looked like after this zombie uprising."
He also had a lot more film than he needed, something new for the independent filmmaker. "When I do low-budget movies, I usually don't have enough material so it was always trying to kind of invent stuff in editing that wasn't there before. So this time it was the opposite, for a change. I had more material than I could use."
How the uneasy co-existence between undead and living came to be was left to the imagination. "When we got into the editing room, we found out that it didn't really work unless we focused on Otto's subjectivity."
Paradoxically, by looking out through Otto's milky eyes, as he searches for a sense of place and a boyfriend to ground him in Berlin, the film tells a more expansive, universal story that asks audiences to reconsider big problems and questions that affect one and all: rampant consumerism, xenophobia, homophobia, hate and violence---which the living perpetrate.
At 44, LaBruce made the film as a way to consider mortality and death head on, but also to converse with "kids---or at least, teens. One of the inspirations for the movie I'd run into a lot of kids who say they feel so alienated that they feel like they're dead inside, or they identify with zombies. They like to dress up as zombies." And march through cities in protest, too.
A former columnist and writer, LaBruce talked in person and on the internet, via MySpace and Facebook, to young people about their outlook and lot in life. He even found his lead, a Belgian kid named Jey Crisfar, using MySpace.
"It seems like the world is so monumentally fucked up and they're inheriting this burden. And then they just don't want to have to deal with it and they tune out and they get lost in their headphones and their technology."
Working with choreographer Alex Roccolli---who also choreographs a gay-bashing scene---on the post-dead posture, gait and body language, Crisfar captures the "melancholy" experienced by part of his generation, LaBruce says. Crisfar's contemplative tone, quiet delivery and Belgian-French accent set him apart---isolate him---from the German cast, all of whom speak English, too.
Everything in the film supports the story, including the sex, which is raw and all-consuming. Simply, men fuck and eat each other at the same time. But there's reason for this: "If you've ever cruised a public park or a bathhouse, it is like Night of the Living Dead. People are coming out of the shadows, walking somnambulists, almost in a trance."