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Unlike most zombies, Otto is a vegan.

Stumbling about the streets in army boots, skinny jeans and a ragged cotton shirt, he will not ravage yet another scream queen. Rather, he will adopt a diet of strictly roses and sulk in the graveyard over a long-lost love.

Otto is a sensitive zombie.

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Glaring from behind his guyliner, he says, "It's not easy being undead."

Yes, in Otto; or, Up with Dead People, the latest experimental feature written and directed by cult Canadian filmmaker Bruce LaBruce, zombies have feelings too.

The film, which made its debut at Sundance last January, will make its unofficial Canadian premiere in Toronto tonight. It heads off next to the Atlantic Film Festival in Halifax and then the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

"I'm tired of zombies being treated like they're homeless and beat up, it's like they're this underclass; it's really disgusting," said LaBruce (whose real name is Justin Stewart) over a cup of coffee on a recent afternoon. "I wanted to create a zombie as a sympathetic character. It's a tender, gay love story."

But it does have its dark moments.

Otto is played by Brussels-based art student Jey Crisfar, a first-time actor (he is one of LaBruce's 11,326 friends on MySpace - which is how they met). The quiet, sombre Otto, who returns from the dead flat broke, realizes he can't roam the streets forever; too often he is the target of bullying and bashing by gangs on the streets of Berlin.

Desperate to find a room of his own, he scores the lead role in a low-budget zombie flick - playing a zombie, no less - spearheaded by a pair of grant-grubbing, artsy-fartsy directors who prance around in funeral garb as if characters from an Edward Gorey book.

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The director Medea Yarn (played by Katharina Klewinghaus, an actual filmmaker off-screen), speaks in academic tongues about her film, Up With Dead People (a macabre twist on the optimistic musical Up With People). "It is a dissertation on death," she explains ever so eloquently.

But her plot changes after she crosses paths with Otto, who fascinates her to no end. "He actually believes he's dead, a walking corpse," she whispers to her lover, Hella Bent, and soon enough the film becomes a documentary dedicated to uncovering Otto's strange ways.

The shooting of Yarn's art film goes splendidly - the black-clad pack trots around town shooting butchers deboning chicken while moody opera music blares in the background - until Otto's murky past catches up with him. While putting cash away in his dusty wallet, he finds a set of photo-booth snapshots of him with his old beau. From thereon in, he is compelled to raise the stormy relationship from the dead.

While events eventually turn bloody, Otto's character is meant to shed light on melancholia, not gore, LaBruce said. The moody, introspective zombie is modelled after monsters of the 1960s, found in indie cult classics like Carnival of Souls and Night Tide. "In all of them, there's this monstrous figure, you don't know if they're a monster or just an outsider."

An outsider like today's reclusive Goth kids, whom LaBruce can understand. "There's almost this romantic thing about death, it's a form of rebellion, an alienation from the rest of the world," he said. "I appreciate them. They are always in mourning."

Today, 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. $15. Skyy Cinema, 126 John St. 416-979-0044.

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