Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Cavalcade of Zombies

There has been a preponderance of zombies, a confluence of zombie themes circling about my last few days. I mentioned this to current houseguest Hamilton Morris, and he supported my assertion emphatically--"There's definitely a zombie zeitgeist," he agreed, making great, if unintentional, use of alliteration. Hamilton is not an expert per se, but is certainly better-versed in zombie lore than the average person. As part of his Vice TV program, Hamilton's Pharmacopeia, in which he journeys to far-flung destinations in search of rare drugs, Hamilton made a 3-week trip to pre-quake Haiti, seeking out the elusive, ethnobotanical underpinnings of Haitian Vodou--specifically, the potions and poisons used in the creation of zombies.

Exotic stuff, if not entirely uncharted--Harvard ethnobotanist Wade Davis made similar investigations in the 1980s, concluding that Vodou sorcerers zombified their living victims with a brew derived from pufferfish poison and other island ephemera. Davis' findings were controversial--nothing about Haitian Vodou, seemingly, is conducive to clear-cut answers. Forged out of slave uprisings in the 18th century, the religion is a witches' brew of West African pantheism, beliefs borrowed from the Arawakian Indians native to Haiti and Roman Catholic flotsam. Hamilton characterizes it as a religion centered largely around poison. The Vodou conception of zombies bears only passing resemblance to the brain-eaters of modern pop; here the zombie is a person purportedly brought back from death by magical means, who serves as a slave to his or her wizard master, laboring willessly in a state of suspended animation. Zombies are not themselves fearsome creatures to Vodou practitioners, Hamilton explains--the fear is of becoming a zombie. The magical thinking so central to Vodou is omnipresent and very real among Haitian followers, he says. The only way to dispel unruly throngs of villagers who'd swarm Hamilton's film crew every time they went out in public--some of them glimpsing their first white face--was for their Haitian bodyguard to pose as a sorcerer and threaten to turn the people into goats.

There is also a major exhibition of Vodou art and artifacts currently at the Ethnologisches Museum here in Berlin, which I visited this last week. The contents of the exhibit are quite beautiful and sometimes deliriously creepy--one dimly-lit room featured row upon row of black-clad warrior-dolls with little round mirrors sewn into their clothes.The exhibit, while stunning, does not much address zombies, noting only that the idea has been thoroughly perverted by Western popular imagination, and that reports of zombie sex slavery and the like misrepresent Haitian Vodou.

If the traditional zombie has been perverted by the Western imagination, however, it has sometimes been to spectacular effect. Outside of its Voudo context, the zombie has taken on a massive metaphorical and archetypal stature--"As of 2009, zombies are challenging vampires for their popularity," notes Wikipedia. As a symbol, the zombie is malleable enough to fit a whole range of styles and agendas. A recent twist is the gay zombie, brought into being by Canadian filmmaker Bruce LaBruce. "If you're gay before you become a zombie...," Labruce ponders--surely something as trifling as death wouldn't alter all-powerful Sexuality. His 2008 feature Otto; Or, Up With Dead People tells the story of Otto, a gay zombie who hitchhikes to Berlin and takes up residence in an abandoned amusement park. Labruce is a part-time Berliner, and this weekend hosted a special preview screening of his new zombie film, LA Zombie at the Arsenal Kino in Mitte.

Shot in LA over a mere eight days, with a relatively paltry budget of $70,000, LA Zombie is nonetheless slicker, and lusher, than Labruce's earlier films. It certainly registers more as agit-prop art piece than midnight movie, though the gore is abundant. Almost purely visual, shot with no script and very little dialogue, the film follows a muscle-bound zombie who, dressed in rags and airbrushed a grotesque green-blue, wanders around the seedier parts of LA, pushing a shopping cart and seeking out fresh male corpses. Pulling out his monstrous, malformed member, which more resembles some awful sea creature than any human sex organ, the zombie fucks each fresh kill in their fatal wound, climaxing with a fountain of blood-black semen as the corpse returns miraculously to life. Shock value aside, the gore-porn is at times transcendently beautiful, even tender. There's no plot to speak of--the zombie merely stumbles from one blood-drenched gutter-boudoir to the next, upping the raunchiness with each encounter, until a final scene where a bunch of coked-up leather daddies are slaughtered in a drug deal gone awry, their playroom becoming host to what is surely the bloodiest sex-scene, gallon for gallon, in modern cinema, as the zombie enters and re-animates the whole bunch in a resplendently gnarly gang-bang. 

The film, while probably not for everyone, does have surprising depth for a gay zombie porno, and a viewer can, if he pleases, find all kinds of allusions to the AIDS epidemic, homelessness and mental illness, religious iconography, and gay social critique. What any of this has to do with Vodou is unclear--if any sorcery is guiding this particular zombie, it's the simple black magic of Lust. LaBruce, after the film ended and he fielded some questions from the audience, certainly did not have the feel of a Vodou sorcerer--he was mildly witty and self-effacing. But who knows what black magic lurks in the hearts of men, what strange beasts or depraved deities they might be capable of conjuring? And is there not a bit of living dead in all of us?

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