Lost & Found #25: Society

Art & Culture

Temporarily taking over Lee's Lost & Found column to sing the praises of a vile 80s shocker is Ian McQuaid…

Society is a gleefully grotesque horror satire on 80's yuppie culture. In turns silly, seething and shocking, it’s central premise- that America’s upper class families are part of a vampiric shape-shifting sex cult who consume the poor in hideous body morphing orgies- is as depressingly apposite today as it was when first shot over quarter of a century back.

The film follows the descent into horror of rich kid Bill, played, with a neat bit of casting, by the clean cut Billy Warlock, at that point just emerging into mainstream stardom as a Baywatch mainstay. Bill is trying to cope with his increasing paranoia, convinced that despite his rich family and high-school-hunk status, he just doesn’t fit in. He starts to suspect that his parents are having an incestuous relationship with his sister, his own relationship with his girlfriend is falling apart, and he’s finding himself taken with the high school bad girl. At first the film appears to be setting up a low rent family drama, the kind of ludicrously plotted pot boiler that made Sunset Beach a cult favourite in the UK. This impression is given more weight by the knowing clichés running throughout the production; the flimsy set of Bill’s rich kid mansion looks like it’s been borrowed directly from a daytime soap opera, the colour palette is (at least for the most part) shot in the pastel hues of banal, wealthy suburbia, and Bill’s school is full of cardboard parodies of jocks, weirdos and nerds. Having set up this stilted pastiche of Beverly Hills 90210, it slowly becomes apparent that Society is building to a far more bizarre place. Bill’s ‘family’, and indeed almost everyone in upper class society, are, in fact, mushy bodied freaks who like to eat and fuck poor people while melting together into Cronenberg-esque nightmares of degraded flesh and dubious liquids. The final 15 minutes of the film jettison all pretence of reality, and descend into a notorious gross out fest. There are fistings, cannibalism, and disembodied heads appearing out of bumholes. As you might imagine, it’s not for everyone.

Society was Brian Yuzna’s first film as a director. Yuzna was already a rising star in horror having produced Re-Animator and Dolls. Deciding that he wanted to move into directing, he used his ownership of the Re-Animator franchise as leverage to secure funding to direct two movies, reasoning that this would give him double the chance of making a hit. The agreement he formed with a Japanese backing company had him agreeing to deliver them a sequel to Re-Animator, and another project of his choicethis other project was to be Society. The original Society script he received from Woody Keith was a linear slasher horror set amongst the wealthy of Beverly Hills. Whilst Yuzna was impressed with Keith’s themes of paranoia and the rotten core of American society, he wanted to make something far more insane- he wanted to make a film that was as surreal as a nightmare (and had in fact been having his own nightmares about body melding). When his Japanese backers introduced Yuzna to special effects maestro Screaming Mad George he knew he’d found the man to realise his vision. George was known for producing gooey, fluid spattered effects – and while he’d done fine work in Big Trouble in Little China and Predator, it’s most likely that it was his gloriously icky cockroach scene in Nightmare on Elm Street 4 that proved the biggest inspiration to Yuzna:

Having decided that George could help realise his dream of making a surreal gorefeast, Yuzna worked with Keith and co-writer Rick Fry to add an entire new dimension to the script. In later interviews he’s noted that he doesn’t care if elements don’t necessarily add up – Yuzna is far more interested in striking ideas than cohesive plotting, and as a result there are some hanging ends in Society (like how and why is Bill even living with these shapeshifting freaks?) that remain unexplained.  

“I just try to find an original inspiration, anything original please!” Yuzna told Blumhouse last year “Then you have to figure out a way to make it make sense… What I try not to do is get rid of the inspiration just because it’s crazy and doesn’t make sense. I figure there’s always a way to make it make sense, so, you mentioned the sister hair eating scene, that’s something I’ve often told people “you know I just didn’t solve all of them” but I didn’t take them out because sometimes you’re shooting and it starts making sense, you can’t expect that it can be reduced to logic. Not everything can be reduced to logic which is one reason why today maybe, at least for people like me, so many movies that come out are just so boring, because everybody’s internalized this kind of logic of movie structure. We all do it and it’s just become so clear that any kid can tell you how a movie is going to end by the beginning.”

This, in contrast, is how Yuzna likes to finish a film. Warning! This clip is insanely NSFW. Like, really, don't play it in your office unless you're trying to find creative ways to get fired. 

This laissez-faire approach to plotting had an inevitable side effect – Society was a flop in America. It was held back for US release until 1993, and when it finally did hit cinemas, it was condemned as a confused, unpleasant and generally despicable failure. Outside of America it was a different story – the UK in particular lapped up Yuzna’s gruesome satire. The 80s UK horror audience were made up of the kind of people who’d been reading 2000AD for years; they were ready for satire to come masked with extreme fantasy violence, and had little problem laughing at scenes that could be misconstrued as entirely serious (“much of it was just a result of giggling while we were making it… I’m not always sure what we intended to be a joke and what just turned out accidentally funny” Yuzna confirmed to Fangoria in 2015). With critics such as Mark Kermode praising the film it became a cult classic – something Yuzna also attributes to British sensitivities towards class – “I think in the UK, they really understand class and I think in this country [America] we have this idea that there is none, there’s this kind of myth that we live that “Hey, we’re all middle class around here and there is no upper class.” We don’t really accept that there is a class system.”

Now, over a quarter of a century on, Yuzna is talking about making a sequel to Society. The film has finally received a reissue on Blu-Ray, and it's cult is growing. And seeing as the rich have had a jolly time getting immeasurably richer in the intervening years, he’s got plenty of material to work with – until that time the original still stands as a true classic of 80s horror; as relevant as it is disgusting, as playful as it is raging.  


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