Color, 1989, 99m.
Directed by Brian Yuzna
Starring Billy Warlock, Devin DeVasquez, Evan Richards, Ben Meyerson, Charles Lucia, Concetta D'Agnese, Patrice Jennings, Tim Bartell
Arrow (Blu-ray & DVD) (US, UK R0 HD/NTSC/PAL), Capelight (Blu-ray & DVD) (Germany RB/R2 HD/PAL), Anchor Bay (DVD) (US R0 NTSC), Tartan (UK R0 PAL) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
If ever a potential cult film suffered from bad timing, it has to be this twisted horror/black comedy released in the waning days of the 1980s. The film marked the directorial debut of Brian Yuzna, who made a splash in the horror community by producing Stuart Gordon's first three features starting off with Re-Animator in 1985, and it was intended to ride the wave of outrageous horror films populating movie screens and home video shelves around the world. The independent production was mounted with heavy Japanese financing as part of a deal ensuring the delivery of Bride of Re-Animator to be directed by Yuzna immediately afterwards, and wildly inventive Japanese makeup artist Screaming Mad George was brought on board both features to deliver an eye-popping array of squishy creations.
Despite heavy magazine and fanzine coverage, Society had extreme difficulty reaching screens outside of Japan, where its video release resulted in widely pirated copies around the globe. On top of that it ran into major problems with the MPAA in the United States, who insisted on damaging cuts to the film's big show stopper, a lengthy climax in which the visual effects were allowed to run completely wild with a perverse abandon rarely seen in English-speaking genre films at the time. On top of that, John Carpenter's They Live beat this one into the theaters and also delivered a blistering satirical take down of the predatory upper class, which took some of the wind out of the sails of distributor Republic Pictures. By the time a truncated R-rated version limped onto VHS and laserdisc in the '90s, the film's small cult had already been established but any more potential viewers had to look very hard to see it at all. After that the film enjoyed a hit-and-miss history on video, most notably with a DVD from Anchor Bay in 2002; word of mouth continued to spread and a fan following continued to develop. Seen today, it's aged remarkably well with its targets still sadly far too relevant.
Beverly Hills teen Bill Whitney (Warlock, son of Dick "The Shape" Warlock from Halloween II) seems to have it all including wealthy parents and a sexy sister (Jennings), whose body seems to do some unnatural things in the shower out of the corner of his eye. The fact that he's adopted makes his sexual confusion slightly more understandable, but that's just the tip of the iceberg as he gradually comes to realize that all of the rich society folks around him seem a bit more... different than they may initially appear. Meanwhile Bill is distracted by the disturbing loss of his virginity to Clarissa (DeVasquez), who seems nice but anatomically questionable in the bedroom, and the bullying tactics of Ferguson (Meyerson), a preppy trust fund kid with an axe to grind. On top of that, outcast classmate David (Bartell) is trying to convince Bill that something is really, really wrong, especially when he produces an audio recording of something grotesque and possibly violent happening to one of their friends. However, even in his worst nightmares our hero couldn't imagine what's really happening when the very rich and very elite all get together for a big private party behind closed doors...
It isn't hard to tell this is a first feature for Yuzna as the film features a few moments of iffy acting, odd pacing and wild tonal shifts, but those qualities are actually endearing now as it feels like an alien's interpretation of what the Reagan/Bush era felt like to anyone looking a little bit past the sitcoms on TV. Of course any flaws can also be cast aside due to that big finale, which remains a totally unique and squirm-inducing nightmare of perverse body horror and sick visual gags. Thank God this was made in the days before CGI; there's no way it would work without the tactile elements of latex and goo turning the cast into something we'll probably never see on a screen again. The young actors also give it their all as the film feels like a dark teen comedy at times, only becoming gradually more paranoid as it hums along in what feels like the closest '80s equivalent to The Stepford Wives.
In 2013, a German Blu-ray of Society emerged complete with a gorgeous 2K scan of the film that finally did justice to its gaudy, very period-appropriate color schemes; those pinks and flesh tones at the end are now almost blinding. That disc (with English and German audio) also included the trailer and a Yuzna commentary. A more extensive edition was announced at the same time from the UK label Second Sight, but it was quickly canceled.
However, in 2015 Arrow Films came to the rescue with the fully-stacked edition the film has been crying out for; the already stellar transfer looks similar here but benefits from a more generous bit rate, with a very modest but healthy level of film grain intact and all of its textures looking quite natural. The PCM two-channel stereo audio sounds very nice given the undemanding nature of the source, which is mainly dialogue, electronic music, and lots of squishing; optional English subtitles are also included. Released in both the US and UK, the limited edition (3000 units) features Blu-ray and DVD discs with identical extras, including the trailer and Yuzna's fine audio commentary moderated by Severin's David Gregory. In fact, Gregory and Carl Daft were also responsible for the new featurettes here as well, which cover multiple aspects of the production in great detail.
In the 16-minute "Governor of Society," Yuzna offers a more thorough look at his overall career from his start in Hollywood working on Re-Animator through an early potential collaboration with Dan O'Bannon and his wild run of fantastic cinema. Adding on to comments elsewhere on the disc, he also covers how the film was originally written with the rich villains turning out to be a blood cult, an aspect he jettisoned in favor of the more grotesque and unexpected direction the story takes now. He also cites some of his major sources of inspiration including the early horror classic Doctor X and Salvador Dali. The 22-minute "The Masters of the Hunt" looks at the actors with Warlock, DeVasquez, Meyerson and Bartell talking about how they got started in their acting careers (including soap opera experience and Meatballs II), reactions to first reading the script, the fun of shooting the bullying scenes, the challenges of shooting the Warlock/DeVasquez sex scene, and the surreal nature of getting covered in latex. The 20-minute "Champion of the Shunt" features Screaming Mad George, David Grasso and Nick Benson, loaded with production photos and detailed stories about the creation of the big finale. George also talks quite a bit about getting his start, the origins of his name, and his artistic influences; he also gets to show off some of his wild creations (like a "foot dog") sitting on his desk. In a 2014 Q&A with Yuzna at a 2014 screening at the UK's Celluloid Screams Festival, he talks for 38 minutes about how his own personal politics and their influence on the story, the censorship issues and chilly reception in America, the Japanese financing situation, and how joyous his first day was on the set of the shunting scene. In much rougher condition is footage of Yuzna at the film's 1989 UK premiere at London's Scala Cinema, speaking for just under two minutes about the importance of horror films and the difficult nature of this particular title. Also not to be overlooked is a 6-minute Screaming Mad George music video, "Persecution Mania," loaded with nutty effects including a giant eyeball in a TV set. The eye-catching limited edition packaging includes a comic book sequel to the film entitled Society: Party Animal, which presumably won't be in any future pressings, while the liner notes booklet has an essay by Alan Jones. Highly recommended.