Gay Zombies, Prosthetic Cocks, and Bloody Orgies: Bruce LaBruce’s Death Book
Bruce LaBruce is no stranger to smut. In fact, he practically invented it. The Canadian artist and filmmaker has made a career of films with titles such as No Skin Off My Ass, Hustler White, and L.A. Zombie, marrying independent film and gay porn. His latest tome, Death Book II, is a collection of rare photos from his storied career, most of which are decidedly not-so-SFW. The book builds on themes that have long concerned LaBruce: good, evil, sex, death, and the lines that blur them all. Below, LaBruce caught up with Mel Ottenberg, Interview‘s creative director and his old friend, to discuss gay zombies, prosthetic cocks, and death in 2020.
MEL OTTENBERG: Hi, Bruce! I love your book.
BRUCE LABRUCE: Oh, thanks.
OTTENBERG: I was gonna help you with this book but 2020 happened and shit went off the rails. Can I help you with another book someday?
LABRUCE: Yeah, yeah, of course. I have another book coming out early next year, Fixations, which is more of a retrospective of my work in general.
OTTENBERG: I can’t wait to see it. We were talking about the Death Book in January, and by March I thought, “Oh god, Bruce can’t do a book about death now, it’s just not the right thing and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah because people are dying and COVID is taking over the world.” And now I’m looking at the book and I was so wrong. It’s a fine time for a tome on death. We’re in the dystopian present and death is everywhere and we are numb to it. Apocalypse now is NOW. There’s just so much pain and so much ignoring it. So looking at this book now feels really interesting.
LABRUCE: Yeah. But a main part of the book is the sort of catharsis of it. A lot of the images are from these performances that I’ve done over the last 20 years with people at my art gallery opening and at certain art events and galleries. I do these live Polaroid and photographic performances where I have models dressed up as revolutionaries, terrorists, zombie terrorists, what have you, and acting out these scenarios of abduction and torture and sexual torture. And you would expect that it’s a negative thing, but if you’ve ever been to one of these performances, it’s quite the opposite. It’s a very playful environment. There’s a certain element of fun and play to it, and it’s also very cathartic. There are all these images of death that are being forced upon us like never before. Like, you go online to any New York paper and there’s scenes of people getting literally killed, gunned down in the street, which didn’t happen 20 years ago or even 15 years ago.
And then there was all the ISIS beheading videos that were produced like slick Hollywood commercials. It’s almost as if all that stuff has been packaged as entertainment now. And so, to have people in real life at an event participate in these orgies of sex and violence and with buckets of gore and blood, it kind of takes the piss out of it and relieves people’s anxieties somewhat. It really is kind of a carnival atmosphere when I do these performances. I often get people to make it look as real as possible, which makes it even more fun. And that’s what makes some of the images very disturbing—people really do look like they’re dead. But that’s part of the fun of it, because they’re performing. It’s a dramatic performance of death.
OTTENBERG: “A symphony of death!” as Peggy Gravel exclaimed in “Desperate Living.” One of my favorite lines of John Waters, and one of my favorite lines of anything really. Wait, I have never seen L.A. Zombie, I’m such trash and a bad friend and also a loser. Where can I see it? I want to watch it now. The images taken on the set of L.A. Zombie are the real stars of this book.
LABRUCE: There’s two versions. There’s the kind of version I did for the festival circuit and for theatrical release. And then there’s the full-length hardcore porn movie, which is called L.A. Zombie Hardcore. You can find it online. My American distributor has the softcore version. I mean, the softcore version is still hard, but it only has his big, fake alien penis—
OTTENBERG: Yes, it’s incredible, the prosthetic. Francois Sagat’s prosthetic cock is the demon star of this book to me. It’s so hot and so major.
LABRUCE: It was an amazing shoot. I won’t get into the details because it’s insane, but we were running around L.A. doing a no-budget film with blood splattered cars. In the final scene, Francois is walking through this cemetery and we had to go all the way to Pasadena to shoot it, to find a place that would allow us to shoot. And then there was a funeral going on when he was walking through, when we arrived and he got out of the car and everyone was freaked out. Because you don’t want this blood-splattered zombie to show up at a funeral. That film is a kind of a response to the way that AIDS pathologized gay sex. It made it this tainted kind of thing that’s associated with disease. And it’s kind of an attempt to reverse that because the zombie fucks dead people back to life. They’re dead and he fucks them and they’re resurrected. So it’s kind of just a metaphor for this reversal of the pathology.
OTTENBERG: The PrEP zombie, bringing gay sex back, because gay sex is back, baby. L.A. Zombie is a mood and a feeling that has really materialized in the culture. L.A. is also really scary and weird right now. COVID has been really spooky there. You would be really fascinated by it because it’s a really strange vibe. I love L.A., but it’s a really creepy time to be there.
LABRUCE: L.A., to me, always seems close to apocalyptic, so I can imagine how it could even be more post-apocalyptic now.
OTTENBERG: Why do you think we obsess over the dead so much? Like, you’ve got a Brad Renfro obsession that I share. RIP. I was always really obsessed with Leo Ford and Lance, who filmed my favorite porn together and died two weeks apart—one of AIDs and one of a motorcycle crash. And Arpad Miklos. He killed himself. Erik Rhodes died.
LABRUCE: Well, I have that photo of Erik, yeah. He was such a lovely guy and he was like a gentle giant. And I think I mentioned to you, a few years before he died he was in all the front row of all the fashion shows during New York fashion week. He was dating—
OTTENBERG: Marc Jacobs.
LABRUCE: Marc Jacobs, apparently. But Erik was smart and he was tapped into that world. He was a victim of meth and steroid abuse. But that’s part of the death thing, there’s a lot of people that get involved in porn who are already damaged before they even get into that world in terms of sexual abuse and stuff. Not all, but there’s a significant number. So you hear about the deaths of porn stars and the bad ends that they come to. It’s not an easy world to negotiate because it’s like, there are no laws in the arena. It’s an intense kind of sexual militancy. It’s a world that you need a moral compass more than anywhere else because you have to figure out your own boundaries and how to survive in it. So I often think about that. I try to work with people that are stable and professional in that sense. But I don’t know if you read his last entry on his Tumblr blog. It’s so heartbreaking. It’s in the introductory interview of the book.
OTTENBERG: Thinking about the amazing sex stars that you’re obsessed with and have featured so much in your work, who are the new stars? Who are you dying for?
LABRUCE: Everyone’s a porn star with OnlyFans.
OTTENBERG: I like Reno Gold. Do you know who that is? He seems like a real star. I’m going to send him to you.
LABRUCE: The weird thing is, there’s so many now it’s hard to even think of individual. I made that Tom of Finland porn—it’s the last porn I made and I worked with Matthew Camp, who is one of the last big porn guys as well, kind of more old school.
OTTENBERG: Well yeah, Matthew Camp is old school in that he’s hotter than everybody else, hotter than normal humans. He’s got chromosomes for some Adonis thing that most people don’t have.
LABRUCE: Yes, for sure. He has that man-boy sort of quality. I also worked with Sean Ford. He’s amazing.
OTTENBERG: Yes, he’s a true star.
LABRUCE: I worked with him on Fleapit. I have some people lined up that I want to work with that I meet on Instagram, but there’s just so many of them it’s almost overwhelming because everyone on Instagram is so free and open with their sexuality. Of course, you can’t show porn on Instagram, but people slide into my DMs all the time saying hello with a cock pic and saying they want to work with me, which to me seems totally normal because I am a pornographer and I express solidarity with pornographers and sex trade workers. It just seems like a normal conversation now, to be very frank and open with your sexuality.
But also, it becomes so democratized. And there’s such a diversity of style and body types and kind of the new kids, a much more kind of nontraditional very genderiffic kind of revolution. So you have all those kids to consider as well and a new type of porn. That’s something that I would want to get into more. I did make a porn a long time ago with two trans men called Offing Jack, which was very interesting, with very unorthodox kind of body types.
OTTENBERG: I guess the star thing is over and there really are so many hot real people. The kids are so cool. They’re so much cooler than most people were when I was a kid.
LABRUCE: Yeah. However, there’s still a lot of pitfalls. I mean, someone may have a million followers on Instagram, but so do a million other people. They have to be careful that they don’t live in any delusional world where they’re actually these huge celebrities. They’re a new style of celebrity, but it’s more in a Warholian sense that everyone is a celebrity. I just made a film called Saint-Narcisse about narcissism and twincest. And there is a kind of narcissism now that is almost absurd, the kind of self-absorption and solipsism of some people. And that can lead to problems like lack of empathy. I mean, in terms of activism and political radicalism, on a certain level you have to leave your ego behind and kind of participate on a more communal level. So there are some pitfalls to that. And also the extreme materialism. 10 years ago, it was considered tacky to wear designer logos. Now you see some kids who will have a Birkin bag and they worship the Birkin bag. It’s like a golden calf.
OTTENBERG: Oh, yeah. The world they’re inheriting is shit. But still, I have faith in the children. I don’t know if I have faith in the world, but I somehow have faith in the kids. Oh my gosh, I found a lot of your negatives in a box. I found a whole shoot of original negatives of yours from 2001 of a porn kid, like a naked kid with a big dick in a McDonald’s uniform. I have no idea why I have these pictures, but it looks like I found a lost Bruce LaBruce shoot and I have no idea where it’s from.
LABRUCE: That was part of the process of making this book, going through all my archives. I mean, I still have stuff where I run into negatives that I didn’t know existed. I’m a really bad archivist so I’ve lost a lot of stuff as well. For Death Book, it’s like a treasure hunt. There’s a lot of previously unpublished photographs in the book.
OTTENBERG: Hot. I remember hanging out with you and you were like, “Oh, you’ve got to meet this kid Ryan McGinley, he’s really interesting. He’s a photographer. These kids are really insane and they’re living like there’s no tomorrow and it’s insane, come with me.” And then we went to their apartment and then we were hanging out with them and they were all really in their thing. And then like an hour later Dan Colen rolled out of bed and I still remember seeing him for the first time that day 20 years ago, because I knew him when he was a freshman and I was a senior at college. The other seniors thought he was awful and I loved him and knew he was great.
LABRUCE: Yeah. I have those two photos of Dash [Snow] in the book.
OTTENBERG: He’s so young and beautiful in those pictures. Wow.
LABRUCE: I think I met him when he was 17 and I used to stay with him when he lived in Avenue C. He’d never let anyone stay with him except me. Like, when I came to New York I would stay with him. I used to stay with Ryan on 7th Street as well. So it’s cool that some of those photos are in there. Yeah. But I remember us sitting once with Rebecca [Godfrey] in some gay bar in the Lower East Side.
OTTENBERG: We went to The Cock. It was you, me, Aaron Rose, and Rebecca Godfrey, and I think it might have been this Cheap Date party and Ashton Kutcher was there and you and I were screaming. We were so excited that Ashton Kutcher was there.
LABRUCE: We were stanning him.
OTTENBERG: We brought them there, Aaron and Rebecca. We brought them to The Cock and they left together.
LABRUCE: Oh, that’s right. They dated. You don’t know how many couples I’ve introduced, it’s crazy.
OTTENBERG: Matchmaker, matchmaker. I’m single, you can match me up with somebody. Alright, well, I adore you. Thanks for doing this and I’m excited to see your book IRL. Can I buy it in New York City now, is it in the stores?
LABRUCE: It just shipped, so it should be soon.
OTTENBERG: Well, I’m glad we’re doing this today then. Bye, Bruce. I’ll see you soon.
LABRUCE: Bye. Love you.