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Society, the Cult Horror Film Where the Monster Is Class Conflict

The 1989 cult horror classic Society is remembered for its sensational effects and disturbing undertones. But it's the movie's grisly portrayal of the rich exploiting the poor that's the scariest thing of all.

Society feels like it was meant for our era of Jeffrey Epstein, QAnon, and oligarchic scheming. (Wild Street Pictures)

The rich are not like you and me. Studies have shown again and again that the wealthier you are, the less stressed, empathetic, and morally scrupulous you’re likely to be. The psychological effect of money can be so powerful, the rich may as well be a different species.

In fact, what if they are?

This was the conceit of 1989’s Society, one of the more fantastically deranged cinematic artifacts from the era of low-budget body horror. This kind of thing wasn’t unusual for cinema in the decade of Ronald Reagan, when movies like Trading Places and Wall Street called attention to the class divide that had become more visible than seemingly ever in American society. But Society stands out not just for the sensational physical effects that solidified it as a cult classic for horror fans, but the directness and savagery of its class critique. For all the pastel colors, poofy hair, and teen sex antics that date it firmly to the 1980s, Society oddly feels like it was meant for our era of Jeffrey Epstein, QAnon, and oligarchic scheming.

The film follows Billy (Billy Warlock), a paranoid, seemingly mentally unwell teenager who starts to suspect there’s something sinister going on with his well-to-do California family. In between the usual teen-movie hijinks — parties, girls, an election for student body president — Billy uncovers evidence his parents, sister, and apparently almost the entire world of the Beverly Hills elite that he moves in are part of some kind of twisted sex cult. Incest, conspiracy, murder, a cover-up — all of it culminates in the movie’s notorious climax, which can probably best be described as Bob Guccione’s Caligula filtered through an Eli Valley cartoon.

Tonally, Society treads an uneasy line between laughs and outright nausea. Director Brian Yuzna has said that he played up the camp elements of the story on purpose, to emphasize the movie as a piece of satire.

“It was my first time directing,” he says. “When it came out, it was seen as awkward, but a generation later, it just looks like that’s what the 1980s were.”

Inadvertently, that unaffected, ’80s-teen-movie style, all bright colors and loopy sound effects, gives a booster shot to the story’s horror, the movie’s goofiness making the incestuous undertones and paranoia of the film somehow more disturbing. It feels, to both Billy and the viewer, like they’re in a typical teen sex comedy from the era, but something’s just . . . off. It’s safe to say that by the time you find out what exactly that is and the credits are rolling, you’re left feeling deeply unclean, both for the sights you witnessed on screen and for the movie’s reminder of the very real way those at the top use and abuse those at the bottom of society.

Up One Day

As Yuzna tells it, he had been a student radical in the 1960s with all that it entails: taking drugs, marching in the streets, and eventually dropping out of college and joining a commune in the country, where he waited for the revolution. But the revolution never came, so he had to go back to work.

He spent the next while working a variety of jobs and running different businesses, saving some money. It wasn’t until his thirties that he decided he’d try his hand at making movies, moving to LA with a couple of kids in tow. With the money he’d saved up, he produced the classic Re-Animator and developed several more projects, including Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, which he’d pitched and wrote the story for before being taken off the project.

Around that time, screenwriter Zeph Daniel, then going by Woody Keith, was pursuing the same dream, signing up for a screenwriting course at the Hollywood Scriptwriting Institute. It was there that he wrote the screenplay for Society, and where he met Rick Fry, his cowriter who contributed what Daniel describes as his gift for dialogue. Daniel had come from a well-off Beverly Hills family similar to Billy’s, and has said that the movie is “about things in our society that shouldn’t be there but are.”

“Let’s just say I started writing it about things that happened a long time ago,” he told me. He points to the Nathaniel Hawthorne short story Young Goodman Brown as a key inspiration.

Yuzna had just had another project fall through, this one with Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon about a woman who finds out that all men are aliens, when he says Fry handed him the script for Society. He liked its sense of paranoia, which reminded him of his just scuttled movie with O’Bannon, and he felt “it would be a fun way to make a new monster, to make the monster class conflict.” With Re-Animator a big success, and Yuzna owning the rights, he struck a deal to direct two pictures: Society and, as a backstop in case his first outing as director was a failure, the Re-Animator sequel.

Yuzna says the finished movie is basically just as it came to him, with one key difference: while in the original script the elite were part of a satanic blood cult, Yuzna wanted something more “fantastical” and, as a fan of effects, a climax that would let him put something on screen he’d never seen before. It was just as well he did. The Japanese company financing the movie introduced Yuzna to practical effects wizard Joji Tani, a.k.a. Screaming Mad George, maybe best known for the wild effects in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China. The two hit it off instantly, owing to their shared love of surrealism; Yuzna has said the infamous “shunting” scene — a portmanteau, says Daniel, of “shun” and “hunt” — was partly influenced by Salvador Dali’s The Great Masturbator.

Given the fickle, plodding nature of film production, both Yuzna and Daniel were exhilarated by the speed with which the movie got off the ground. Daniel recalls their first day of filming in Paradise Cove.

“Brian was sitting in a director’s chair, the big one, and he told me, ‘We’re making our movie!’” he says. “He was like a kid.”

But the giddy high of seeing their vision come to life — including the retch-inducing finale, which saw a troupe of extras that included Daniel and the filmmakers’ friends and family literally dive into their roles with gusto — was ended by its chilly reception. A Cannes critic called it “sodomy gore,” while Variety dismissed it as “rough trade porno.”

“I never had a review before,” says Daniel.

“I was incredibly disappointed, I thought it was going to be a box-office smash,” says Yuzna. “In the US, even my friends didn’t like it, they were embarrassed for me.”

Yuzna thinks that, at the height of the Reagan era, when many Americans still broadly thought of themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires, “it was the wrong kind of joke to tell at the time.” What saved the movie was a world market that didn’t have the same taboo. The film was a roaring success in France, Italy, and particularly the UK, where class is an inescapable fact of existence. Audiences there must’ve been especially amused by the movie’s theme, the “Eton Boating Song,” sung normally by aspiring English youth on the elite assembly line, but with new lyrics:

Oh how we all get richer
Playing the ruling game
Only the poor get poorer
We feed off them all the same

BBC critic Mark Kermode would later praise the movie as “a pseudo-Marxist assault on the inequities of the class system which depicts the privileged few feeding hungrily on the downtrodden masses.” But even years after, US critics would assail the movie for what they saw as its ill-fitting politics. “While the Brits may go ballistic over the notion that their class-heavy society is indeed a plot against the everyman, here in the States we tend to be more wary of the electorate than the greed-mongers who finance them,” wrote the Austin Chronicle’s Marc Savlov in 1992.

In Capitalist America, the Rich Eat You

It’s hardly surprising that Society came out of the 1980s, when class warfare became a fact of American life again, this time waged and won by the rich. “People were very materialistic back then,” says Daniel.

The movie eventually found its audience. It first made a lot of money on home video through the 1990s, and then, say Yuzna and Daniel, it had a mini-renaissance after 2000, partly thanks to a rising nostalgia for the 1980s. But it was after the global financial crisis, Yuzna says, that he started getting a lot more calls asking him to screen the movie.

For all the anger and fright Reagan’s policies inspired, the movie’s indictment of the rich and portrayal of class antagonism feel far more from this era than his. “If you don’t follow the rules, Billy, bad things happen,” Billy’s psychiatrist tells him. “Now some people make the rules, and some people follow the rules. It’s a question of what you’re born to.” By the end of the movie, it’s put to him more directly: “The rich have always sucked off low-class shit like you.”

We gradually realize that the sick ritual at the heart of the story is one that all of Beverly Hills high society is involved in: parents, police, the judicial system, even paramedics. It also stretches beyond, with the judge mentioning to one young Society member he’d be an ideal candidate for an internship under him in Washington.

The reveal that Billy is, in fact, adopted, was one Yuzna brought to the movie. In story terms, it explains why he’s been kept in the dark about the nature of Society, and why he’s targeted by it. But it also has a deeper significance. “You’re not one of us,” Billy’s told. It’s not enough to be nouveau riche, Yuzna explains. To be accepted into the upper crust, you have to have more than money; you need to join bloodlines.

The air of sexual predation throughout is another element that seems a better fit for a movie about class inequality today. We’ve now had several decades worth of scandals that at least purport a link between society’s powerful elite and human trafficking: both unproven episodes with allegations of something much larger, like the Franklin Credit Union scandal of the 1980s and Belgium’s Dutroux affair in the 1990s, and cases where this link is very real and proven, like the involvement of UK members of parliament in child abuse and its subsequent cover-up, and, of course, the Epstein scandal.

Fittingly, Society offers no real closure for the viewer, and the fact that its protagonists escape in the end doesn’t seem to make a difference to the movie’s villains or the world they operate in. “What are they going to do?” chuckles Yuzna. “Go to the police and say, ‘The rich are exploiting us’?” As Billy’s told at the end by one of Society’s elite: “We don’t lose. Ever.”

It’s bleak stuff. But as awful as it is, maybe it’s what people want to see in our neo-Gilded Age of massive inequality and hyperexploitation. There’s been an explosion of interest in anti-capitalist entertainment of late, with Western audiences, unable to find the systemic critiques they’re looking for in English-speaking cinema, turning to Korean projects like Parasite and Squid Game. Yuzna says he’s had interest from Korean filmmakers in securing the rights for a Society remake.

“Horror movies give you a chance to deal with uncomfortable topics in kind of an entertaining way, but you get a distance from it,” he says. “I don’t want to see a movie about someone dying of cancer. But if it’s not cancer but, say, an alien disease . . .”

And maybe this, beyond all its gross-out effects and taboo-breaking, is what continues to make Society such an uncomfortable watch, whether on Halloween or any other night. The world it presents is sickening, no doubt. But it’s the reality of class warfare waged by those at the top against the poor and working class that’s the scariest thing of all.