In Society, a group of drooling, upper-crust aristocrats proclaim that “the rich have always fed on the poor”—and then they go on to prove it by literally feasting on their unsuspecting, “low class” victims. This is how the underprivileged make a great contribution to society, it would seem, and you can begin to understand how Brian Yuzna’s directorial debut spooked U.S. distributors from releasing the film for nearly three years. After all, by 1989, Reagan’s “Morning in America” had been fully dawned, and with election of George Bush came the assurance that the sun would never set on an era of American prosperity. Few people wanted to confront a film that dared to suggest otherwise.
But once Society finally bowed in the twilight of the Reagan-Bush era in 1992, maybe more people were willing to admit that they’d been fed a considerable amount of bullshit during the previous decade. And while the film arrived in an edited form, it did so with a righteous indignation that feels downright prophetic 20 years later, now that we’ve had all that time to soak in what’s actually trickled down into the maw that is America’s disturbing income disparity.
All of this is to say that Society has only become more relevant with age. I’m tempted to say it’s done so despite its obvious 80s trappings, but, really, maybe it’s done so because of them. Excess has defined the era in a way that somehow seems harmless now that time has calcified it in pop culture signifiers: big hair, loud clothing, a fucking Cola War. It’s no wonder so many people look on it fondly, and this is why Yuzna’s takedown is so brilliant: he sifts through the gaudy surface to find the garbage rotting beneath, and he accomplishes it with what appears to be a stereotypical teen film of the era.
Society initially looks like it could be a brat pack movie: we have a kid, Brian Whitney (Billy Warlock, with big, bad hair), whose Beverly Hills upbringing has gifted him with all of the privilege in the world, including a starting position on the school basketball team and a shot at the class presidency. He’s got the girl (Heidi Kozak), the car, and a loving family. And yet, he begins to suspect that he doesn’t belong. Perhaps like any teenager, he has anxieties about his future, especially when everyone around him continues to harp on his future contributions to society. Maybe they really come off as White People Problems here, but it’s driven by the same universal teenage angst.
Unlike most teens, however, Brian has to contend with some actual weird shit when his anxieties magnified to conspiratorial heights. Suddenly, his family seems a little too close, and there’s evidence that his sister (Patrice Jennings) just participated in the most fucked-up debutante’s ball imaginable, one that apparently climaxed with a gangbang as her parents watched on (and perhaps participated). Those who help him to unravel the mystery wind up in mysterious car accidents. Another girl from school (Devin DeVasquez) acts as a temptress. Much like a dark woman in a film noir, Clarissa leads Brian into a tangled web that begins to warp around him with each new discovery.
Yuzna has fun with this formula. It feels an awful lot like Blue Velvet as we watch a kid dive into the shadows surrounding his otherwise idyllic existence. Here, though, Yuzna is playful as strings both Brian and the audience along—is he trapped in a pod movie? Is he hallucinating the entire ordeal? What if his family really just is a bunch of sick fucks? There are obscure hints strewn throughout: a blurred glimpse of his sister’s impossibly contorted body in the shower, the incestuous undertones rumbling beneath his parents’ interactions, Clarissa’s weirdo mom who looks to have wandered in from the set of a John Waters flick.
None of the hints adequately prepare viewers for the grotesque climax: a Bacchanalian orgy of Screaming Mad George special effects that offers a peak into an alternate reality where David Cronenberg directed Caligula. 80s excess has rarely felt more gauche as a gilded Beverly Hills mansion is transformed into the staging ground for the disgusting, otherworldly debauchery of mutated and gnawed flesh. Posh, made-up faces of the aristocracy begin to melt into monstrous forms, their preening veneers having completely peeled back to reveal predators in our midst. We aren’t told where they originally came from, only that they’ve always been here, waiting to devour the souls of the poor and the damned. 25 years later, they’re still here wearing the same facades to hide the fact that they’re just talking out of their own asses.
Society’s release woes put it directly on the path to becoming a cult favorite. Even when it was finally graced with a solid, uncut DVD, the edition went out-of-print for several years, once again consigning the film to obscurity. Arrow Video, however, has rescued it from those depths with a stellar Blu-ray release that finally does it justice with both a fine presentation and a horde of extras.
Whereas the previous DVD release only featured a trailer and a commentary by Yuzna, this one adds a brand new commentary with the director, plus much more. Yuzna also provides a 16-minute interview in “Governor of Society” and participates in a 40-minute Q&A session recorded last year. Other members of the cast and crew contribute to “The Masters of the Hunt,” a 22-minute discussion, while effects masters Screaming Mad George, David Grasso, and Nick Benson hold court for their own feature. A Screaming Mad George video, a trailer, and another short conversation with Yuzna fill out the disc, which is also accompanied by a collector’s booklet with writing by critic Alan Jones.
Society is a disgusting, depraved movie, but it’s also a sharp, biting satire—which is exactly what makes it so dangerous. Obviously, studios had few qualms about releasing films that were as graphically violent and gross as this one; to release one that dared to bite the hand that feeds, however, was a terrifying proposition. That’s transgression. Millions of Brian Whitneys still persist among those 99%ers who are told that they can have everything the 1% can have--so long as they're content to chew on lies while the latter feast on their souls.
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