Brian Yuzna’s “Society”: Beverly Hills’ rich have always fed off the poor, but this time it’s for real

By on October 27, 2017

It’s Horror Month on Night Flight Plus where we’ve added a bunch of great B-movie, cult and strange Horror flicks for you to check out, and trust us, they don’t come any stranger than Brian Yuzna’s directorial debut, 1989’s Society, which, without a doubt, has one of the most disgusting, grotesque finales you’ll ever see.

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Born in the Philippines and raised in Panama, Yuzna had moved to L.A. to break into the film business in his thirties, where he became a very hands-on producer of horror features directed by filmmaker Stuart Gordon (they met through a mutual friend, special effects technician Bob Greenberg).

Yuzna produced three of Gordon’s films — Re-Animator (1985), From Beyond (1986), and Dolls (1989) — the first two of which were re-imagined adaptations of stories penned by supernatural writer H.P. Lovecraft, whose work would continue to have an influence on Yuzna’s own films.

Stephen King once called Lovecraft “the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.”

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Re-Animator was based on Lovecraft’s episodic novella Herbert West, Re-Animator, and Gordon had taken a TV pilot script based on it and turned into a low-budget feature for Charles Band‘s Empire Pictures.

Re-Animator earned more than $2 million at the box office, but Yuzna says that he none of the film’s profits ever trickled down to him (he ended up having to sue both Band and Empire).

Yuzna and Gordon then developed another project, this one for Disney, a successful sci-fi fantasy kids movie called Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, but Gordon had to leave the project due to health reasons.

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Yuzna also developed a film project with writer/director Dan O’Bannon, The Men, about a paranoid woman who comes to realize that all men are aliens. O’Bannon eventually pulled out of directing the film.

After these two setbacks, Yuzna decided that for his next film project, he needed to attach himself as its director in order to see it through to completion.

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Since he owned the rights to a Re-Animator sequel, he decided to use that as leverage for a two-picture deal with the L.A.-based independent Wild Street Pictures, who were making low-budget horror films backed by Japanese financiers.

Yuzna decided to direct Bride of Re-Animator as his second film, knowing that he would have little trouble procuring financing for a Re-Animator sequel regardless, and he began looking for the right project for his directorial debut.

Read more about Brian Yuzna and Society below.

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Yuzna eventually decided to direct Society — from a screenplay written by Rick Fry and Woody Keith — which, in Yuzna’s own words, was “about a Beverly Hills kid [Billy Warlock as Billy Whitney] who was very suspicious that his parents belonged to a secret organization who ran the world.

The dark, black comedy-rich horror story appealed to him because it was thematically similar to his failed O’Bannon project.

Society was also a satirical indictment of America’s great class divide, and a snarky critique of success-oriented snobbish society, in addition to being a campy send-up of melodramatic ’80s teen flicks (much of the film actually looks like that decade’s typical teen/sex comedies).

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No one (not even his shrink) seems to want to believe Billy’s story that his Reaganite parents — oh, and he suspects he may have been adopted — and his beautiful sister Jenny (Patrice Jennings) are actually parasitic shape-shifting, flesh-eating creatures who indulge in incestuous sexual threesomes.

They also consider him beneath their kind, and suitable only as “food.”

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The film also features the very lovely former Playboy centerfold Devin DeVasquez as Clarissa Carlyn, the girl of his dreams — occasionally seen here in all her naked glory — who asks Billy on their first date, “How do you like your tea? Cream, sugar — or do you want me to pee in it?”

Yuzna suggested changes to their screenplay, particularly to the script’s graphic finale, was which originally given a typical macabre slasher film ending where the teenager learns that Beverly Hills rich folks literally devour the poor in a twisted blood sacrifice.

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Brian Yuzna and Screaming Mad George on the set of Society

Instead, Yuzna — who says he was inspired by a painting called “The Great Masturbator” by Surrealist icon Salvador Dalí — devised a highly-sexualized physical contortion known as “shunting,” where we see characters flesh melting into one another.

The gore-filled effect was created by SFX wiz Screaming Mad George, who hails from Osaka, Japan.

Prior to Society, he had worked on A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988), among other films.

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Although Society was completed in 1989, and premiered at the Shock Around the Clock Film Festival in London that same year, it was shelved for three years before getting theatrical distribution in the U.S. in 1992 (it was rated “R,” for bizarre sexuality, violence, language).

Nonetheless, it earned a small cult following despite initial horrid reviews (Michael Wilmington of the L.A. Times wrote, “No one who sees the last half-hour of this movie will ever forget it — though quite a few may want to.”).

Overseas, however, Society was a huge hit, particularly in France, who probably enjoyed the film’s twisted anti-American Dream ending (the French certainly understand revolting against aristocracy too).

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Yuzna now says that his perverse and often visually-appalling film — re-released on DVD/Blu-ray by Arrow Video in 2015 — should have had a sequel with the tagline “the revenge of the 1%” (Stephen Biro’s script for Society 2: Body Modification is reportedly in development).

Watch Brian Yuzna’s Society, and his second film as a director, Bride of Re-animator (1990) — we’ll be telling you about that film in a separate Night Flight blog post, and they make a great double-feature! — over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.