Review: “Otto; or, Up With Dead People” (2009)

otto1Up with dead people, down with rabbits!!

The first thing you need to know about Bruce La Bruce‘s oddly-punctuated Otto; or, Up With Dead People is that you will absolutely hate it for the first 30 minutes. Seriously, it took me three – count ‘em, THREE – attempts before I was able to get past the half-hour mark without flinging an empty beer can at the TV, swearing off watching movies forever, and finally passing out in a dazed heap of semi-drunk rage.

Which is not to say that the first third of the movie is unwatchable; it is just obtuse to the point of madness. La Bruce fucking firehoses you with images, ideas, stylistic flourishes, and stone-cold man ass …  it’s like dreaming a gay porn Godard film after eating a spicy sausage pizza at a funeral.

What? I know!

And that’s exactly how you’ll feel during the first part of this movie.

otto2“A little club soda will get that out” … “LIAR!”

The second thing you need to know about Otto is that it is totally worth your patience. Stuff coheres after a while and your “huh?” turns into an “ah!” and by the end your heart is breaking and, depending on how long it has been since you got royally fucked over by someone you love, you might be in for a good ol’ fashioned ugly cry.

Otto resonates in a very real way, which is not something you’d expect from a moderately batshit zombie movie that graphically makes you consider the concept of “wound-fucking”. (More on that in a bit, because obviously…)

So, okay, here’s the thing: I don’t really want to talk about the plot of Otto. Or at least I don’t want to talk about it too much, because I went in blind and was totally taken by the zigs that happened when I was expecting zags. Which is not to say that there’s some kind of lame twist ending or anything; if anything, the events that unfold are telegraphed from the very beginning, but it’s like one of those Highlights for Kids puzzles where they show you a common object but in extreme close-up so it looks all foreign and weird even though it’s just a stapler or a piece of melon or an old shoe. Because the first third of the movie is such a confounding muddle, the simplicity of the plot isn’t immediately apparent.

Here’s the basics:

The world has zombies, but everyone’s kind of over it. Also, the current “generation” of zombies are gay. This doesn’t exactly make sense, nor is it really ever explained, but it’s okay because La Bruce is shooting for the metaphorical here as opposed to the literal. He’s basically making a movie about the Gay Experience – what it’s like to be an outcast in society, forbidden love, etc.

otto4Otto at rest

Personally, I think the metaphor would have been stronger if he HADN’T made his zombies gay; as it is, it’s a little “on the nose.” However, La Bruce is clearly trying to corner the market on gay zombies and – hey, more power to him, because on the nose or not, it still mostly works.

Anyway, the titular Otto is one of said gay zombies. Maybe. It’s actually not %100 clear if he is or if he isn’t (the zombie part anyway; he’s definitely gay), but that’s at least half the point of the movie (I have a theory, but it is a minefield of spoilers so I’m keeping it on the down-low). He certainly acts like a zombie, though – all shambling around and gnarly-looking and at one point he feasts on some dead-rabbit roadkill which is a scene gross enough to make being a vegan seem like a valid life choice.

Eventually, Otto hooks up with a band of guerrilla filmmakers that are making the most deeply, deeply pretentious, totally nonsensical zombie movie you’ve ever seen (even more so than Otto itself). The movie is – or at least it APPEARS to be – a chronicle of the aforementioned gay zombie experience, which nicely parallels the movie’s main action in a film-within-a-film sort of way. The filmmakers love Otto; they find him “authentic” and super-method like Brando so they make him the star of the show, all the while trying to figure out if he really is or really isn’t an actual zombie.


And … that’s kind of it. I mean, there’s more, but you don’t want to know about it now. I want you kids to go into this movie fresh as a Woolite-soaked unmentionable, much like I did. However, since I’ve kind of given you the short-shrift, plot-wise, let me point out some things – both good and bad – to be on the lookout for as you watch Otto. I’m so helpful, I know it.


- From a cinematography standpoint, the movie is just flat-out gorgeous. Eye candy all over the damn place, particularly with regards to the character of Hella Bent, who for reasons unfathomable is always shot in dramatic, scratchy-film black and white like she’s in a silent movie. And I mean ALWAYS … like, she’s in a silent movie bubble even when she’s in a scene with other people. It’s the most bizarre stylistic flourish in a film full to burstin’ with them, yet it works better than any of the others, coasting along on sheer whimsy and WTF-ness. Even beyond that, though, the movie itself as a whole is often stunningly beautiful.

-This is going to sound like a knock, but it’s actually not, so here me out. While the performances in Otto aren’t necessarily… you know… good, they are played with %100 conviction and commitment. Considering the acting fare in most low budget horror flicks, I’ll take palpable zeal and an overall sense of engagement with the project any day over the shitty pseudo-emoting of blank, plastic skanks not good enough for The Vampire Diaries.

-When you talk about how good a movie’s soundtrack is, it usually means there’s no redeeming qualities within the movie itself. Most people feel this way about Garden State, for example, though I personally love that movie with a passion that I imagine will one day lead me to roofie-ing Zach Braff.

Anyway, Otto has a FANTASTIC soundtrack, but it’s a completely separate idea from the fact that the movie is fantastic too. “Everyone’s Dead” by The Homophones will be stuck in your head for literally the rest of your life, so you should make arrangements for that beforehand.



Well, okay, not bad per se… that’s not really fair. How about:


If anything, Otto suffers from too many ideas. There’s a lot going on here – not just plot-wise, but with the ideological structure behind the film itself, as well as with the panoply of filmmaking techniques that La Bruce applies in actually constructing what ends up on screen. Scenes bleed into one other (literally); the film’s non-musical audio is loaded with what sounds like an “avant garde art gallery DJ’s doing-the-dishes” mix; there are multiple sources of narration, some disembodied, some straight to the camera; and on and on and on… it all gets to be a bit busy, in other words. Two things in particular that bugged me (though not enough to keep me from recommending Otto):

-There’s a particular quirk in arty film making that drives me to drink (more) and it’s this: A director places a camera on a tripod, turns it on, and then just lets it roll for minutes upon endless minutes. Sometimes action will happen within the frame. sometimes not. What most definitely DOES happen is that I get bored and wander off to find some Raisinets. The extended take is becoming more and more popular amongst the Film Forum set – it’s way more “real, ” or whatever – and, sorry, but from an audience perspective it’s just a chore to watch.

The Austrian squirm-fest Funny Games is really the only film that’s ever truly pulled off this tricky technique, and honestly I don’t even know if that’s accurate because that movie gave me Stockholm Syndrome so bad that I still regularly show up at Michael Haneke‘s house sobbing, nude, and wrapped in a bed sheet. Anyway, Otto sadly indulges in this momentum-killer a  few too many times for my liking. It doesn’t torpedo the whole production or anything, but I would recommend you time your bathroom breaks accordingly.

-My other big issue with Otto is with the fucking. Not a fan. I mean, I’m a fan of the act itself; don’t get me wrong, I’m ready to throw on a Harry Connick Jr. CD and light my Hot Apple Pie-scented candle at the drop of a zippered, leather gimp mask. I just don’t like it when film makers, in an attempt to inject a little controversy or realism or whatever into their films, feature overly-explicit sex scenes in otherwise non-pornographic movies. Maybe I’m just a spinster prude, but goddamn do I find it distracting.

Otto, as I mentioned above, has a few scenes where the gay zombies go to town on each other and it just seems… unnecessary. Particularly the part where a zombie literally (and graphically) fucks the gaping wound in the side of his undead lover. It’s gross, and about as far away from “sexy” as one can get without involving a tax audit or some sort of standardized test.

And don’t get me wrong, I don’t just take issue with the gay sex – I find it equally as irritating when the straights do it to. Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs, for example, was an excellent concert video for some great indie bands that got totally spoiled by brooding naked Brits having really emotional sex every ten minutes. Franz Ferdinand will always be equated with cumshots in my mind, which I believe does the band a disservice. At any rate, there’s not TOO much of the down-n’-dirty in Otto, but what’s there is totally not on.

Dawn of the Dead didn’t feature zombie balls for a reason, all I’m saying.

All in all, despite it’s quirks and flaws, Otto really is a film worth tracking down. It’s certainly something different, and its emotional complexity will sneak up on you. It’s a zombie movie, yes, but it’s also more than that. What it is exactly is for you to discover. Thanks for reading! Deuces!!!



Otto is rated NR for zombieness, gayness, and aforementioned wound-fucking.

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