OTTO: AN INTRODUCTION
Otto; or, Up with Dead People is a movie that was partly inspired by my ex-boyfriend, a Shiite Muslim, and partly by my current husband, a Santeria priest. The Shia are a lugubrious bunch who spend the first six weeks of their new year in mourning for the death of the prophet Mohammed’s grandson. They wear black and self-flagellate a lot. My ex-boyfriend lives life very intensely and joyfully, but he also often used to tell me that he felt like he was dead already or that he was one of the walking dead. He believes in genies and spirits of the dead, so he would always be seeing and communicating with them. My husband is a Santeria priest, so he also sees the dead all the time and communes with them. My relationship with him inspired me to reinvestigate the life and work of Maya Deren, the great American avant-garde filmmaker of the forties and fifties, who devoted much of her life to Haitian Voodoo, a syncretic religion exported to the Caribbean from Africa during slavery with strong similarities to Santeria. Her great book, Divine Horsemen: the Living Gods of Haiti, was considered so pure and accurate an account of Haitian Voodoo that the Haitians believed it was visited upon her. They considered her a Voodoo goddess. Of course Haitian Voodoo also has a connection with zombies and zombie mythology, a subject beautifully realized in the great Val Lewton horror film, I Walked With A Zombie. I decided to make a movie with a character inspired by Maya Deren (her name, Medea Yarn, is an anagram), and which addresses the idea of zombies, the walking dead, and spirits of the dead.
While writing the script for Otto I looked at the work of cartoonists such as Charles Addams and Edward Gorey, both of whom have a kind of macabre and morbid, almost romantic view of death. (To enhance the romantic, Gothic feel, I enlisted the wonderful American designer Rick Owens to contribute the costumes to the film.) I also watched certain American independent horror films from the past with a more whimsical, eccentric quality: Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls, Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide, and George A. Romero’s Martin. Each film is about a kind of monstrous or mythical creature (a ghost, a mermaid, and a vampire, respectively) with an identity crisis. Neither they nor the audience is sure whether or not they are real monsters or simply lost, lonely characters that have been marginalized or exiled from normal society. Otto follows in the tradition of these monsters: is he a real zombie, or just a sad, despondent homeless kid with an eating disorder who doesn’t fit in?
I’ve always loved the horror genre, so making a zombie movie was a real pleasure for me. Horror movies really allow you to tap into all the fears and anxieties that float around in our culture, and they are also often about homosexual panic, so the idea of making a movie about a gay zombie made perfect sense to me. The zombie has emerged as the most prevalent modern horror trope, but I didn’t want to make a conventional zombie picture. Zombies are the ultimate conformists – they all act alike, look alike, and are all drawn to the same locations. Zombies are also the ultimate consumers, so they constitute the perfect metaphor for modern consumer capitalist society. But I decided I wanted to invert the paradigm and make a zombie who is a non-conformist, who is, as the movie says, “conducting his own one man revolution against reality.” Otto the zombie is a return to previous horror figures like the werewolf and the vampire: eccentric, stylish individuals at the fringes of society with split personalities. As Medea Yarn points out, Otto is the logical product of a materialist society that has become soulless and deadening. He (dis)embodies modern alienation and spiritual malaise.
Most of my films have sexually explicit content, and Otto; or, Up with Dead People is no exception. The idea of a zombie porn movie interested me greatly because it makes perfect sense: the zombie body is porous, rotting – you can create your own orifice! I predict that zombie porn will be the wave of the future! I also considered the idea that the homosexual experience is conducive to the zombie treatment. If you’ve ever cruised a park or the halls of a bathhouse, you know that it can be just like Night of the Living Dead! (I say this not necessarily in a bad way: the anonymity of the dead, the interchangeable body parts, the sexual trance – all of it can be quite fun and exciting!) There is also the plague metaphor to consider, as zombies are often depicted as viral and contagious. Although I chose not to articulate it too literally, there is a definite AIDS subtext to Otto, who can be interpreted as the horrific outward manifestation of a modern, political disease. As a vulnerable, homeless gay youth, he also draws out the hostility and homophobia still evident in modern culture.
As I often make both softcore and hardcore versions of my films, and considering some of the actors in Otto, including Marcel Schlutt and Christophe Chemin, have acted in porn, we actually did shoot quite a lot of pornographic material for Otto that didn’t make it into the final film. This will probably turn up in the future as DVD extras, hopefully ushering in a new era of gay zombie porn!
Music is always important in my films. I was looking for a particular kind of music for Otto, a certain blend of modern, avant-garde, electronic, noise, neo-Goth, and romantic pop. I started to research the music on MySpace, and word got out that I was looking for music for a melancholy gay zombie movie. I was subsequently deluged with hundreds of submissions, most of who generously donated the music for free in return for credit. I wanted to use as much of the material as possible, so I got the idea to treat the music as if it were a score, almost as if by a single composer. The soundtrack for the movie has been released by Crippled Dick Hot Wax! Records, features the following amazing artists, among others:
01. Mikael Karlsson – Descent
02. Jean-Louis Huhta – Halfway Between The World And Death
03. 4th Sign Of The Apocalypse – Ascending The River
04. All My Friends – Theme From All My Friends
05. Pandas Of Black Metal – Kill Your Gods
06. Misty Roses – Mario And Dario
07. The Living Dead Boys – We Are The Living Dead Boys
08. No Bra – Doherfuckher
09. Brittle Stars – On The Cusp Of Infinity
10. Eyes And Teeth – Sonicize
11. Othon Mataragas with Ernesto Tomasini – Metalipsis
12. La Jovenc – Going Home
13. Ultra Milkmaids + V – Load
14. The Homophones – Everyone’s Dead
My editor, Joern Hartmann, and I also came up with the idea of using some of the music and noise as a way of expressing Otto’s subjectivity, his inner monologue outwardly exposed, much like his rotting body is an outward manifestation of his inner turmoil. Finally, I thought it would be cool to include music from some more high profile artists whose work I admire and which fit the atmosphere of the film. My friend the artist and band member Kembra Pfahler, who has a cameo in Otto, generously introduced me to Antony and the Johnsons and CocoRosie, both of whom she had toured with. Their contributions greatly enhance the musical pedigree of the film. I also asked permission of my friends Genesis P. Orridge and Peter Christopherson of Throbbing Gristle fame to use one of their songs, which memorably serves as the mini-soundtrack for Medea’s film-within-the-film, Duet for Somnambulists.
Shooting Otto in Berlin was a great pleasure. It is still one of the best cities in the world in which to make a film, owing to its spectacular locations, many of which are available either for free or at quite reasonable rates. I also shot my last film, The Raspberry Reich, in Berlin, which featured the great Berlin stage actress Susanne Sachsse as the very verbose and grandiose Gudrun, a character partly inspired by Gudrun Ensslin of the RAF. In Otto, I cast Susanne as Hella Bent, the girlfriend of Medea Yarn (played by the amazing Berlin filmmaker Katharina Klewinghaus, who considers Maya Deren one of her great idols) as a completely silent film star whom has no dialogue. It was a role she took on with great gusto and flair. We were fortunate enough to shoot in some stunning Berlin locations, such as the almost mythic abandoned amusement park near Treptow Park by the Spree. The amusement park, which sits on several acres of land by the river, was owned by a South American man who got caught importing cocaine in some of the carnival rides, and he has been in jail ever since. It was difficult at first to get permission to shoot there for insurance reasons as many of the rides and buildings are in an advanced state of decay. But after a little intervention from the mayor’s office, we were allowed a full night and day of shooting. (They even said we could shoot porn there if we wished!) Otto was probably the last production allowed to shoot at the amusement park before it will be razed to the ground. Another one of our locations, the garbage processing facility on Kopernickerstrasse by the Spree, was also recently closed down and relocated. Several cemeteries allowed us to shoot on their grounds, including one that allowed us to dig our own grave to bury Otto! We buried Jey Crisfar, the young art student from Brussels I cast as Otto (also through MySpace!), in a very Gothic-looking graveyard on his nineteenth birthday. It was only one of many ordeals the poor young actor had to deal with during the shooting of Otto, including eating roadkill (a rabbit from a farmer’s market which our art department, headed by Stephan Dickfeld, stuffed with raw tuna and strawberry syrup!), walking through a bee-infested field of rapps, and chewing on raw chicken in a meat processing plant!
Otto was shot in the spring of 2007 during an unusually sunny three-week period in Berlin. My cinematographer James Carman, who has shot my last four films, used both super 16mm and HD formats to accommodate the concept of the film and the films-within-the-film. (We used the same camera, the Panasonic HDX 900, George Romero used to shoot his latest zombie movie, Diary of the Dead!). As HD is sometimes quite unforgiving in broad daylight, I would always try to stall the production and make excuses to delay shooting so that we could shoot instead during magic hour as the sun is going down. Eventually, near the end of the shoot, I was awarded by the appearance of a beautiful double rainbow, which hovers behind Otto in the final shot of the film. (It’s real, not a CGI rainbow!) It was the perfect end to a remarkable shoot.