The idea of the rich eating the poor (in a metaphorical sense, of course) has never been more on the nose than it is in Brian Yuzna’s Society. Stemming from a script by Rick Fry and Woody Keith, the film tells the story of a teenage boy who discovers that his wealthy family are part of something sinister — along with their friends, neighbors, judges, and psychiatrists, et al — and he is merely a pawn in their elitist game.
On the surface, Billy (Billy Warlock) is a privileged teenager with a seemingly perfect life. He lives in Beverly Hills, he’s quite popular among his classmates, and he has a beautiful girlfriend. But here’s the thing: Billy has never felt like he fits in. Something isn’t right. People are showing up dead. Dark secrets are being kept from him.
Billy isn’t unlike other teenagers in the sense that he distrusts authority, resents his parents, and believes that he isn’t part of the family. His mom and dad prefer his sister, and he has reason to believe that they’re all fucking each other. In his case, however, he has good reason to feel the way he does. As it turns out, he is adopted, and his folks want to use him as a sacrifice for their friends in The Society — an elitist alien cult that wants to make the boy their plaything.
When Yuzna took on the project, he wanted to make a movie that reflected his paranoid vision of the world at the time. A world of unfair class divisions and the exploitation of regular people. Fry and Keith’s script appealed to his sensibilities, but when Yuzna came aboard, the concept morphed into something more surreal, fantastical, disturbing, and grotesque.
The original story featured a sacrifice that involved religious cultists drinking people’s blood. However, Yuzna felt that the ritual wouldn’t make the film stand out from the crowd. After meeting Screaming Mad George — a Japanese special effects artist whose body horror creations are legendary — the pair developed a more memorable finale together. One that involved the blending of multiple dripping, gooey bodies in a ritualistic orgy known as ‘shunting.’
The ritual is effective for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s just so damn weird and disgusting that it’s impossible to forget about once seen. Faces appear on people’s butts; limbs conjoin, stretch, and bend; birthmarks are eaten, and Billy’s mother and sister become too close for comfort. The imagery alone is enough to make even the strongest stomach feel queasy. That said, while it’s all aesthetically vile, the orgy’s sexual and incestuous overtones only adds to the overall gross nature of proceedings.
According to Yuzna, Salvador Dali‘s “The Great Masturbator” painting informed the film’s memorable sequence. The painting is one of the artist’s most personal works, symbolic of his erotic desires and inner fears. The image depicts a naked female figure rising from a face, with grasshoppers and insects gripping on to the amalgamation to create a feeling of uneasiness.
Like the works of Dali, Society‘s ritual is pure anti-realism. It features no blood and there’s a dreamlike feel throughout that differentiates the madness from other horror film rituals. The decision to exclude blood and gore from the movie was made to get past censors, but the creators didn’t want the violent elements to reflect reality. As Yuzna told author Colin J. McCracken, they “wanted to make the audience feel like they were losing their equilibrium throughout the film.”
The shunting sequence is supposed to be the ultimate manifestation of Billy’s fears and paranoia. This is when he finally discovers that his feelings of displacement and outlandish suspicions are real. His family and their friends want to use people like him for their own nefarious purposes. If you aren’t a body-morphing alien who comes from wealth and class, your purpose is to serve their deviant desires.
Of course, the film’s repulsive final act wouldn’t be as effective without the build-up beforehand. Billy’s descent into madness is the focus of the story, as he sets out to expose bizarre cover-ups and a murderous, orgiastic social club. Warlock plays the role perfectly, and his character makes for a protagonist who’s worth rooting for. As disgusting as the shunting process is to watch, however, the ritual scenes contain the film’s funniest and most biting satire. Society’s scouring of unchecked elitism and classism is far from subtle, but its subversive commentary was justified back in 1989 and, unfortunately, it has been ever since.
Watching an orgy of the rich and powerful feasting on those they consider lesser than them will always feel topical. Class division and inequality still exists and it always will as long as our world is governed by self-serving politicians who do nothing to bridge the gaps. On top of that, when you consider the film’s incestuous elements and that time the current president referred to his daughter as “a fine piece of ass,” Yuzna’s movie doesn’t seem all that far removed from real life at all these days.