Bruce LaBruce (photo by Christian Vagt)

Bruce LaBruce (photo by Christian Vagt)

Queer Porn-Star Zombies Attack!: An Interview with Bruce LaBruce (Web Exclusive)
by Matthew Hays


Since first making his mark on the punk scene of the Eighties, Toronto based filmmaker Bruce LaBruce has become a staple of the queer and alternative film festival circuit with his graphic, countercultural, low-budget features. His first feature, No Skin Off My Ass (1991), was an erotic and melancholic homage to Robert Altman’s 1969 oddity That Cold Day in the Park. LaBruce has consistently positioned himself somewhere between pornography and art-house cinema. Many of his recent films have been released in two different versions: a hard-core edition for porn markets, and a soft edition for the film fest circuit and for the purposes of wider distribution. LaBruce has challenged what he sees as the fascistic, conformist nature of most gay pornography and has worked to infuse it with political themes. His Skin Flick (1999) had a mixed-race, middle-class gay couple being raped by Nazi skinheads. In The Raspberry Reich (2004), LaBruce had the notorious Baader-Meinhof gang of glamorous German terrorists planning bombings in between sexual adventures.

With his two most recent films, LaBruce has turned his attention to the horror genre, in particular to zombie films. In Otto; or, Up with Dead People (2008), LaBruce consciously tried to steer away from recent trends in zombie resurrections like 28 Days Later and I Am Legend, where the zombies are decidedly unsympathetic. Otto was a misunderstood outsider, a zombie but a romantic one nonetheless. (The film is widely regarded as the first gay zombie film.) His most recent undertaking, L.A. Zombie, stars a number of actual porn actors (including François Sagat), who play an assortment of zombies and uninfected people. In his mash-up of sex and horror, LaBruce imagines a universe where zombies can bring corpses back to life by having sex with them. Perhaps not surprisingly, this high concept didn’t sit well with everyone, including an Australian censor board, that insisted the film be dropped by the Melbourne International Film Festival last summer. LaBruce sensibly relished the accompanying publicity, which meant packed houses at every subsequent festival screening, from Locarno to TIFF.

At the very moment when so much of gay culture has been mainstreamed and made palatable, when gays and lesbians are now finally able to serve openly in the U.S. military, LaBruce has defiantly maintained a radical stance in his ultra-low-budget features, which in itself is a feat. His films are refreshing and exhilarating exercises in abandon and excess, marrying a John Waters-esque take-no-prisoners esthetic approach to an instinct to offend and challenge both mainstream audiences and a queer audience LaBruce sees as increasingly boring, lethargic, and complacent. L.A. Zombie continues along in that pleasingly odd tradition, a film that defies easy categorization or genre classification.

Cineaste spoke to LaBruce about the methodology behind his madness, the politics of pornography, and Camille Paglia’s advice to him about navigating his way through his most recent controversy.

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Cineaste: The go-to metaphor for AIDS during the early years of the epidemic was vampires. Your last two films have been about zombies. Why zombies now?

Bruce LaBruce: It’s the more contemporary monster and genre. Now you have a triumvirate of monsters, with the zombie, vampire, and werewolf, all competing for supremacy. The horror genre is so overdetermined now, all of these monsters are constantly getting recycled continuously. But the really most contemporary one is the zombie. It’s partly because they’re viral, which is the most apt allegory for modern culture, not just disease, but information. They’re viral, they’re contagious, which feeds into all those paranoias—not only sexual viruses and sexually transmitted diseases, but also the contagion of homosexuality itself. In a way, it’s a very conventional genre, the monsters are conformists, they’re very monolithic. They all behave the same way, they all congregate in the same places, they all eat the same thing, so it’s very hard to have any sympathy for the zombie, or to relate to the characters. My interest was to make a zombie who was nonconformist, who was a misfit, someone with an individual character.

Cineaste: Yet you’ve also talked about the zombie as a critique of contemporary gay culture.

Bruce LaBruce: That’s the other aspect of it. Running parallel to the conformity of mainstream culture—consumer capitalism being the most obvious example—is the new gay conservatism, the new gay conformity. In a way you’ve always had that, because even when the gay movement was far more militant in the Seventies, you had the emergence of the clone look and style. It was very militant and militaristic, but it was also very conformist. Everyone dressed and acted the same—there were interchangeable sex partners and a kind of narcissism happening. Now it’s more about a different kind of conformity, which is a bourgeois monogamy. There are aspects of cruising that remind me of zombies. If you’ve ever cruised a public park or washroom or bathhouse for sex, it’s pretty much like Night of the Living Dead. It’s people walking around in a sexual trance, there’s a complete anonymity and no individuality. It’s almost like a willful disengagement with your own individuality—you blend into this sexual miasma. It can be stimulating but it can also be quite scary and depressing as well.

Cineaste: You’ve said that to engage radically with gay culture, you have to do it through pornography.

Bruce LaBruce: There was a turning point in the early 2000s, where you had Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Will and Grace, and it kind of legitimized these gay stereotypes for mass consumption. You had the flamboyant homosexual, the clichés of the gay lifestyle, the gym bunnies, the guppies, the bourgeois queen, the hairdresser, the interior decorator. These stereotypes in the Eighties were almost offensive but they became acceptable—gay men were being domesticated. That was a turning point for tolerance of homosexuality. It was making gays palatable to the masses, that we were funny and not that scary, and that we were looking for love. Pornography almost by default becomes the last refuge of radicalism. It’s carrying on that tradition in the gay movement of having sex become the conductor, the essence of the movement. The last vestige of all of the radical movements is porn.

Cineaste: An Australian censor board banned the screening of L.A. Zombie. But the zombie makeup in the film was over the top and the fake penis in the film is clearly fake—it’s like a Brechtian penis. It seemed strange that they would censor the film.

Bruce LaBruce: The necrophilia is what sent the film over the top. The surprising thing is that my previous film, Otto, played at the festival and was voted the third most popular film at the same festival. It also has a zombie sex scene in it. But it’s done in kind of a Brechtian style—it has a distance that I would think make it more palatable. Otto had more of an art-film vibe to it though. That’s often the distinction they’re looking for. This idea of prurience—they don’t want a film to have a defiantly pornographic tone. I think what people don’t understand about L.A. Zombie is that it is a critique of L.A. and America as well, in particular the homeless situation. I think it annoys people when you try to mix that kind of politics with porn. It’s doubly alienating to them somehow. They feel you shouldn’t be able to make those kinds of statements within porn. I think it was a perfect storm of circumstances. The government in Australia was in election mode at the time and the government suggested they could stop porn from coming into the country. Laptops were being checked for porn at the border. The film happened to correspond with that.

Cineaste: Camille Paglia had some advice for you in terms of handling the controversy surrounding L.A. Zombie. What did she tell you?

Bruce LaBruce: I was trying to defend the film on moral grounds. The film is in a way a comment on the new cycle of torture porn, those films that cynically exploit violence and the anxiety audiences feel about those issues. In my film the zombie regenerates life through sex, he fucks dead bodies back to life. In a way you could read the film as a regenerative metaphor, despite the necrophilia overtones. But Camille said you’d be crazy to try to defend this film on moral grounds, because it does contain imagery that will fundamentally offend the majority of the population, and people would find it preposterous for me to try to defend it on moral grounds when you have corpses getting fucked. She said it was entirely defensible, but on the grounds of artistic expression and the tradition of necrophilia in art and literature. She pointed out that Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe wrote about necrophilia and necromantic attachment. She also pointed to the surrealists. The imagery of the alien cock, the teeth, and the makeup, that’s in the tradition of the surrealists.

Jey Crisfar at the titular Otto.

Jey Crisfar at the titular Otto.

Cineaste: Do you think she was right?

Bruce LaBruce: Yes, in many respects. I get in trouble though, because for me, my films are just an expression of a gay mentality from the Seventies and Eighties when I was developing as an artist. This kind of imagery was just normal, something that you encountered, and something I depicted in Hustler White and even Skin Flick. I would go to bars in the mid-Nineties, where there were 500 skinheads. There was this really overdetermined subculture that I was referencing—but it was very normal to me. It’s just the backdrop that I used, it’s my normal. I feel like I have a moral compass and am expressing myself morally in my universe. But I lose sight of the fact that ninety-five percent of the population would probably look at some of the imagery in horror. Many would see the amputated leg stump being used as a dildo [in Hustler White] as morally reprehensible. But in my universe someone doing that can be moral and even romantic and normal.

Cineaste: Given that L.A. Zombie has played around the world on the festival circuit, was there any one response to it that particularly surprised you?

Bruce LaBruce: It played in competition at Locarno, which in itself was surprising, considering how pornographic it is. I showed it in this enormous venue at Locarno, and was expecting much more outrage and walkouts and boos. But it got a good reception. It was almost a little disappointing. The Italian press was almost uniformly positive. You do learn when you’re an exploitation filmmaker to love the hatred. But when unexpected love comes your way, you have to learn to embrace it. That was an interesting experience.

Then I got all the hatred I needed in Toronto. NOW magazine gave it zero. The Torontoist [a Toronto Website] also gave it zero stars. Really interesting reviews that said the film should not exist. It offended them so deeply that they wanted to erase it.

Cineaste: Is that a Canadian thing? The worst reviews came in your hometown.

Bruce LaBruce: I think there’s a bit of provincialism involved. Just the idea of making an avant-garde art film that’s nonnarrative and pornographic is just a bit outside of their capacity to look at it critically or just consider in a civil way. I run into that a lot, where people just look at the basic, outward signifiers of what is offensive and their critical faculties turn off, and they can’t process it. Then it becomes a defensive, knee-jerk, usually homophobic response.

Matthew Hays teaches courses in Film Studies at Concordia University and is the author of The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers (Arsenal Pulp).

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.