[We're celebrating some of the most memorable horror and sci-fi movies of 1989 this month in Daily Dead's Class of 89 retrospective series! Check back on Daily Dead throughout the rest of August for more special features celebrating the 30th anniversaries of a wide range of horror and sci-fi films!]
It wasn’t until the first few years of the ’90s that the 1989 film Society found its way onto my radar because of the twenty-something video store clerk, who carried a copy of the latest Fangoria magazine rolled into his back pocket, who would slip rated-R films my way without my parents’ consent. It was always in his “Employee Picks” section, most often already rented with only the lone slipcase left for my young mind to try and piece together what this film could be about. But the video store guru, who introduced me to horror films like Don’t Look Now and The Changeling, loaned me his personal copy of the film and, after getting a large pizza and a one-liter of Dr. Pepper, I took it straight home.
I still remember that evening as vividly as I remember my first kiss, the horror movie I snuck into after buying an admission for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, even the day that I graduated college… that’s how much of an impact/trauma this film had on me. The film confused me from the very start, and things progressed with wild phantasmagoric sequences of bizarre special effects that all led to an ending so slimy, so repulsive that my brittle pre-teen mind felt grossed out enough to turn it off! That never happened before, or since, my viewing of Society. I would eventually finish the film and return the videocassette, the visual joy seen on the face of the video store clerk would be something that I would strive to achieve with crazy movie recommendations of my own ever since.
Looking back at 1989 and watching films, some that I’ve seen seemingly hundreds of times, it’s interesting to analyze how these wild and outrageous movies from the beloved ’80s have aged. Society was created during a time in history when some still believe America was functioning at its greatest and most influential, during a time when America found a president who had ties to the entertainment industry before the political podium, during a time beyond and before defining wars for the United States. Society functions with the theme of the “have and the have-nots,” “the rich versus the poor,” that aspect of “us against them.” It’s influenced by the past, the ever-changing dynamics of the ’70s and the indulgence of the ’80s, and continues to help push the narrative forward in terms of how stories are crafted in regards to the socioeconomic dilemma throughout the world, the political party paradigm parody, and most abundantly the topic of consuming “greed.” Look no further in 2019 than recent films like Us and Ready or Not as prime examples of what Society was exploring in 1989.
“Paranoid? I’m not paranoid. All my fears are real.” - Bill Whitney
Bill (Billy Warlock) is a curious teenager living in an affluent Beverly Hills neighborhood. He thinks that something strange is going on with the people around him, especially his parents (Connie Danese and Charles Lucia) and sister, Jenny (Patrice Jennings), who he believes are all hiding some terrible secret. Bill has strange visions of people transforming in grotesque ways, though his therapist tries to convince him that these hallucinations are all in his head. But Bill persists after hearing a recording of his parents and sister participating in some sort of horrible, deadly orgy. He enlists the help of some friends to uncover the terrible truth of what the high society elite are doing to those less than them.
Director Brian Yuzna started as the producer for Stuart Gordon on films like Re-Animator and From Beyond before wanting a position on a film with more creative control. After his directorial debut, Self Portrait in Brains, Yuzna’s second film was Society. From here, the director would make the sequel Bride of Re-Animator, also in 1989, and then proceed to create some interesting genre films throughout the ’90s such as the underrated Return of the Living Dead III, a few stories in the exceptional anthology Necronomicon: Book of Dead, and the goofy yet gory The Dentist.
The script for Society was written by Woody Keith and Rick Fry and leans heavily on the topic of secret societies and cult fascinations. Yuzna has explained that the primary influence for Society is Rosemary’s Baby, both films handling the narrative unraveling from the perspective of the protagonist and both having some truly shocking endings.
The shocking ending in question was much tamer in the original script, but Yuzna wanted a metaphor that was far more surreal for his elitist monsters. There was no greater joy while watching this film as a youngster than seeing the name “Screaming Mad George” scroll across the screen, primarily because it’s just an awesome name, but also because you just knew that a guy with a name like that absolutely loved horror movies. Mad George was highly influenced by the artistic works of Salvador Dali in the design of the final full-tilt shunting. The ending in question is a goopy, slimy, messy melding of bodies that are sucking the nutrients from the poor… if you have not seen this film, stop here and watch it immediately because no combination of adjectives can prepare you for the final 15 minutes of this film.
While some of the dialogue may come off as clunky after all these years and more than a few of the plot transitions just don’t connect as effectively as they should, Society still functions as an interesting allegory specific to the ’80s, but also extending far beyond that point in time. Stories about the “have and have-nots” will never go away, in fact, in today’s society they just continue to get more pertinent and relevant amongst the current social and political atmosphere invading our world. The narrative of Society, whether a direct influence or simply a stepping stone, has continued to become a stronger theme for genre film throughout changing times. As each decade moves forward, the themes change and modify slightly to fit the time, but the core conflict of the elitist nature of our society, the political, the social, or the familial entity, is still completely intact.
“You’re going to make a wonderful contribution to society.” – Dr. Cleveland
The past decade, the age of social media influence, has found direct/downloadable links to real-life social conflicts videotaped and recorded for the consuming public to watch in all its brutal and vicious trauma. Material found now is more detestable than anything Screaming Mad George could create with his hands, more disgusting than anything Brian Yuzna could direct on screen. The clear divide between races, genders, sexual orientations, and political boundaries create substance for stories to connect fictional horror directly to the horror found and developed within humanity.
Jordan Peele’s two films, Get Out and Us, take themes from the past, mixed into encounters seen in the present, and directly craft them into visions of the not-too-distant fictional future: abuse of authority, the hidden horrors of America’s past, the underserved and disenfranchised people whose voices have been crushed by boot heels, treaties, policies, and decisions from people far detached from the actual problem.
Even something as recent as Ready or Not, a fun and humorous take on high society family traditions, looks at the concept of acceptance explored in Society. In Ready or Not, a young, newly married woman must continue to prove her worth for her ultra-wealthy family by surviving a deadly game of hide-and-seek. Marriage is not enough, the approval of her loving husband to her family is not enough. The outsider, just like Bill in Society, will never fit the mold.
The “have and have-nots” will never go away. As the world continues to grow more diverse, more socially aware, more vigilante on shining light on the injustices of the past, headlining the inequalities of the present, and watching the horizon for the prejudices bound to develop in the future, stories of the imbalance of freedoms set on humanity will grow more and more predominant and so much more essential. In 1989, Society was exploring these parallels and molding visions of horror as pure, slimy, disgusting social commentary.
Check here throughout the rest of August for more special features celebrating the Class of 89!