There’s been a serious miscommunication. Some of the porn stars hired for supporting roles in writer-director Bruce LaBruce’s gay-porn zombie film, L.A. Zombie, haven’t been told by producers that they are expected to actually have sex on film. Enticed by the prospect of working with LaBruce (Hustler White; No Skin off My Ass), they’ve signed on for what they thought would be art-house fare with soft-core overtones. The crossed wires come to light when the director, with cameras rolling, calls for a scantily clad, muscle-bound foursome (porn stars Matthew Rush, Erik Rhodes, Francesco D’Macho and Adam Killian) to segue out of their choreographed action scene and begin screwing. Instead, all action momentarily stops and the actors fall silent.
“Uh, we gotta douche and everything,” says Killian finally.
“You haven’t done that yet?” asks LaBruce quietly.
“No,” answers Killian. “I didn’t think we’d be getting fucked in this scene.”
“Okay,” replies LaBruce. “Let’s take a break and take care of that.”
The cameras stop rolling. One of L.A. Zombie’s co-producers, Robert Felt — a co-founder of the porn studio Dark Alley Media, who is better known to gay-porn fans as actor Owen Hawk — looks like he’s about to have a heart attack. It’s the last day of filming on an eight-day shoot, much of which has been conducted guerrilla-style at 14 locations (including downtown L.A., the L.A. River and Topanga Canyon) with a 25-person crew. The sweltering mid-August day has already been a long one and it’s barely past noon.
The crew slowly disperses and the actors head off to “take care of that.” Felt is consoled by François Sagat, the film’s French leading man, who plays the title character, and whose huge dick, perfect melon ass and trademark scalp tattoo (modeled after New York Puerto Rican b-boy haircuts) have made him an international gay-porn icon. He’s also something of a crossover star, having become a darling of artsy photographers (he has a one-page profile in last month’s Italian Vanity Fair, shot by French photographers Pierre et Gilles) and assorted fashion designers (he’s served as muse and model for German designer Bernhard Wilhelm, who donated costumes for Zombie). He also appeared fleetingly in Saw VI.
“They asked me to be in it,” he says in charmingly accented, soft-spoken English when asked how he scored the Saw gig. “I wouldn’t be the one who’s gonna ask for a role in a mainstream film because I don’t consider myself as an actor — yet.”
L.A. Zombie started as an installation for the Peres Projects art gallery, which represents LaBruce’s photographic work. For the film shoot, the gallery’s Culver City location was converted into a meticulously art-designed homeless encampment on one side, and what LaBruce describes as “a white Kubrickian dungeon” on the other, which is where the aforementioned sex scene takes place.
“It was time for me to have a solo show here,” says LaBruce. “I thought I’d do this kind of modest project. Initially, it wasn’t even going to be a real movie. It was going to be an exhibit of artifacts from a zombie horror movie, as if I had made one. We were only going to show the by-products of it. But once I had François attached, [the gallery] suggested other porn stars I could use, and a lot of high-profile porn stars wanted to do it.” Then LaBruce got longtime collaborator Jurgen Bruning and his German-based porn company, Wurstfilms, involved, “and it just kinda snowballed.”
The critical success of the installation, which was mounted last May, only fueled the desire of his backers for an actual film. Though LaBruce — who sings the praises of ’70s gay-porn directors Wakefield Poole, Peter de Rome, Curt McDowell and Fred Halsted — has woven elements of porn into his work since the start of his career and has two full-on hard-core films on his résumé (The Revolution Is My Boyfriend, the hard-core version of his film Raspberry Reich; and Skin Gang, the hard-core version of Skin Flick), he admits he’s actually not a fan of contemporary triple-X fare.
“I’m interested in porn partly because I hate porn,” he says. “I get frustrated that there isn’t more interesting stuff going on in it. I feel like I have to at least try to make something that’s a little more interesting. Also, for me, it’s kind of a statement about gay representation and the state of the gay movement, which has become so preposterously conservative that porn really is one of the last places where you can have radical expression on a certain level, in terms of really explicit homosexual material, in terms of extremes in representation and not just holding anything back. A Mexican Web site asked me recently, ‘Is porn art? Or can it be? What’s the relationship between porn and art?’ Those are all very old questions. I do think it’s a form of artistic expression. The problem is that it’s sort of gotten so far away from that. It really is just fixated on the sexual moment. There’s no context, no story, no politics.”
Inspired in part by Agnès Varda’s documentary The Gleaners and I, L.A. Zombie is LaBruce’s attempt to serve a side of politics with the money-shot main course. The title character rises mysteriously from the sea and then takes viewers on a sex-fueled guide of Los Angeles as seen and experienced by outsiders — the poor, the homeless, society’s unofficial undead. The premise is very much in keeping with themes the writer-director explored in his last film, the 2008 zombie flick Otto; Or, Up With Dead People.
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In an e-mail exchange in the spring of last year, LaBruce said it was his disgust over the shallow recent cycle of “torture porn” that first got him thinking back to an earlier generation of independently produced American horror films “that were more complex, more philosophical, and more idiosyncratic, specifically Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide, Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls and George A. Romero’s Martin. Each one is about a mythic creature that could be either a real monster or merely a social outcast that is perceived as monstrous. This gave me the idea to graft this more thoughtful and gentle treatment of horror onto the zombie concept, which has become so popular and overwrought — more or less an excuse to discriminate against the homeless.
“I wanted to make a zombie who was a misfit, a sissy and a plague-ridden faggot. I deliberately leave it open to interpretation whether Otto is supposed to be a ‘real’ zombie or merely a screwed-up, homeless, mentally ill kid with an eating disorder, who believes that he’s dead. I had been running into a lot of young people who told me they felt kind of like the walking dead already, owing to the alarming, apocalyptic state of the world, or the deadening effects of technology, or whatever. Otto is my dead valentine to the youth of today.”
Back on the set, the actors are prepped and ready to go. “Action” is called and the air is filled with moans, the sound of flesh slapping flesh, and commands to “take that dick!” It all unfolds without a hitch, but even after LaBruce yells “Cut,” producer Felt is still visibly unsettled by the narrowly averted catastrophe. A laughing Sagat walks up to him and places a hand on each shoulder. “It’s okay,” the leading man assures. “It’s wonderful.”
A soft-core version of L.A. Zombie will play the film-festival circuit later this year. Dark Alley Media plans to release the hard-core DVD in the spring.