Eat the Rich: Body Horror and Capitalist Consumption in ‘Society’

Society (1989). A grotesque scene illuminated in red light, what appears to be tangle of bodies, some of which look like masses of flesh and organs, slick with blood.
Zecca Films

Utilising extreme body horror, Brian Yuzna’s Society peels apart the evil layers of middle-class, capitalist, 80s America. Set amongst the backdrop of Beverly Hills, teenager Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock) works to confirm his suspicions about his seemingly normal, wealthy family and Yuzna uses him as a vessel for critique. In this film, carnal consumption is representative of the capitalist, consumerist-led society of the 1980s. Sex and money lead this ‘greed is good’ era and the human body is seen as commodity and something to be consumed (by the elite). Society presents the elite as one, homogeneous, monstrous being, feeding off each other – testifying to the incestuous nature of capitalism that works to keep the rich rich. Capitalism is a physically cannibalistic culture by way of extreme consumption, and this is something the film works hard to express through its surreal use of gore. 

In his book RICH: The Rise and Fall of American Wealth Culture, Larry Samuel states that in 1986, Americans were thinking more about money than sex. He goes on to say that “the 1980s would become one of the most conspicuous decades for American wealth culture” and that “the gears of capitalism had never before run so smoothly.” This was a decade of excess; the 80s saw proud (and somewhat vulgar) displays of wealth, a rise in socialites and exclusive parties for the elite, and those with money earned celebrity-like statuses with frequent features in Forbes magazine or appearances on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

In the same book, Samuel quotes president of the time, Ronald Reagan (a man who often epitomised the aesthetic of the elite of that era), who proudly stated that he wanted America to “[remain] a country where someone can always get rich.” Greed was instilled into every mindset during the 80s, with the country’s most powerful man being this ideology’s biggest advocate. Society makes an aesthetic nod to this specific instance of power and wealth in its opening shots; the film begins with an establishing shot of a grand, Beverly Hills mansion that draws a striking resemblance to the White House. Within the film’s first few moments, money and power are inextricably aligned, but they’re also given a sinister quality due to the nightmarish tone established via the eerie score. 

Society (1989). An on-screen credit in red text that says "surrealistic makeup effects by SCREAMING MAD GEORGE"
Zecca Films

The 1980s were also a defining period for the body horror film (with the most notable works coming from David Cronenberg). These films had a primary focus on the human body and its relation to technology or machinery, often featuring a hybridised body of man and tech. It’s fair to argue that Society can find itself a place within this pairing due to the industrial qualities of mass production and the viewpoint of capitalism as a machine in itself. Additionally, this decade also saw a significant rise of literature concerned with the ‘abject body’, such as Barbara Creed’s famed concept of the monstrous feminine. 

Society takes the incestuous nature of capitalism very literally. The film parallels the culture of socialites and close-knit groups of the elite with actual instances of incest to make a bold critique of the upper-class. A central point in the film is Jenny’s (Patrice Jennings) ‘coming out’ party, in which she formally enters into society as a mature woman. Writer Larry Samuel testifies to the exclusive nature of high society, noting that children of the wealthy were reared to mingle with the Right People (often the children of others in the social circle) in order to uphold a certain level of notoriety that could continue down the ancestral line. Samuel singles out New York as a breeding ground for the social elite, pointing out that the city in the 80s saw Old and New Money utilising the ‘incestuous’ art world in order to ‘move up the food chain’. The elite all shared relationships with the top “dealers, artists, critics, gallery owners, museum curators, and other collectors”, so the wealth circled round and round the same group of choice people and the rich stayed rich. It’s a method of cultish self-survival and as Don DeLillo states in White Noise, “to become a crowd is to keep out death”.

Epitomising capitalism, particularly in the 1980s, is the prevalence of conspicuous consumption. Society utilises extreme body horror and the notion of the abject body to vouch for the downright absurdity of consumer culture. Yes, we see the upper-class characters surrounded by visual signifiers of wealth, but the most explicit instances of consumption come from the grisly orgy scenes. Theories of sexual fetishism have been applied to commodity theory to interpret types of sexually-charged economic relationships. Lines are often blurred between person and product, specifically in advertising, and sex is used to sell (one can hardly ignore the sexual implications of the phrase ‘blowing money’). 

Society (1989). A bedroom scene in which two women in silk robes are lounging on a bed, a man kneels on the bed beside one of the women and massages her shoulders.
Zecca Films

In the climactic final scenes of Society, when the ‘shunting’ is shown in all its horrific glory, we see the full extent of the absurdity of consumption. Exposed to the true nature of these upper-class soirées, Bill witnesses the cultish group frantically undress as they grapple with one of his fellow classmates, devouring him in the middle of the expensively adorned living room. Not only do the rich feed off of each other, but they consume those lesser than them to gain more power, with one of the guests viciously spewing, “Didn’t you know Billy boy? The rich have always sucked off low-class shit like you”. The film adopts a deep red colour grading as the shunting begins, imbuing every frame with a sense of fleshiness and blood. Close up shots detail bodies writhing, slick with sweat and otherworldly goo. The orchestral soundtrack is drowned out my moans and sickly sounds of suckling and bodies sliding together. Frames are full of body parts and it becomes difficult to distinguish one person from another. As the shunting escalates, the participating members start to become fused to each other, physically morphing into one being. Horrific carnal consumption becomes a way to represent the monstrous nature of the elite who will cannibalise their own kind for more power – and take immense pleasure from it. The vile use of extreme body horror makes it clear that these creatures are the enemy. 

In Society, the ‘shuntings’ always take place after a grandiose, formal party, perhaps making a comment on the self-gratifying nature of flashing your wealth and status at exclusive events for the elite. First, the upper-class derive pleasure from flaunting their gilded wares, expertly tailored clothes and fancy estates as they mingle amongst each other for champagne and canapés. Then they revel in carnal pleasure of the body, literally and physically mingling amongst each other in an otherworldly form of copulation. Society conflates sex, money and pleasure and visually presents the combination of all three as something disgusting. Through becoming one, giant, combined monster of capitalist ideologies, the elite becomes a visual signifier of the loss of individuation that capitalist regimes encourage. 

In the November 1984 issue of Life magazine, Loudon Wainwright classified the obsession with wealth and the wealthy as a “contagion”, affording money with a parasitic quality that insinuates disease or illness. Positioning wealth in this way – one that sounds cellular and bodily – almost alienates it from humanity. This is something Society also does via its use of extreme body horror. By presenting the elite as one, homogeneous, monstrous being, not only does the film attest to the vicious violence of capitalism but it also turns it into something diseased that moves and grows, infecting and perhaps killing anything in its way. Gross wealth becomes fleshy and visually abhorrent, its nightmarish characteristics fully exposed via exaggerated special effects and film technique. 

Society (1989). A grotesque body horror close-up of a man's face, bathed in bright red lights and soaked with blood. A human hand is protruding from his mouth as if reaching out from his throat, the man's face is contorted with pain.
Zecca Films

One can categorise Society as a postmodernist film as it effaces the boundaries between intelligent cultural criticism and what can be considered ‘low art’ (body horror and science fiction). Frederic Jameson notably claimed that one of the main features of postmodernism is the erosion of strict boundaries and Yuzna’s film does this by combining themes of high-culture with a genre that is most commonly found in popular or low culture. In Dirty Bodies and Clean Technologies: The Absent Abject Body in Media Arts Culture, Ian Haig acknowledges art as something that is ‘academic’ and ‘intellectual’, stating that ‘the association of the abject body, gore, horror and science fiction films [fall] into the category of low art’. The outright absurdity of Society’s visuals are ironic in a way, truly dismissing the claim that horror has no place in high-brow discussions of wealth. Moreover, the film turns one of the most praised elements of 80s wealth culture – the aspect of ‘too much much’ and the idolisation of excess – against itself, utilising the postmodern quality of recycling in order to form searing critique. 

In 2020, the sight of a horrifically cannibalistic consumer culture is perhaps not unfamiliar. Fast-fashion, mass consumption and unfair distribution of wealth plague the every day — a washed-up ‘business man’ and reality TV star has even reigned in the White House for the past 4 years. During truly gruesome times, one often turns to art to try and compartmentalise a diseased and distorted reality by way of immersing yourself in the fantastical. The genre of horror and themes of social anxiety have often gone hand in hand, and recent years have seen a new wave of culturally conscious horror (see: Get Out (2017), His House (2020), Under the Shadow (2016) to name a few). What I found in the all-too-real horror of Society was perhaps not the escapism I was hoping for, but it did encourage interesting comparisons with today’s socioeconomic climate. Perhaps when one global pandemic is dealt with, we must work on finding a vaccine for our current world’s second most deadly virus – the rich. 

by Lilia Pavin-Franks

Lilia Pavin-Franks is a Film and Literature graduate from the University of Warwick. Currently she’s working in film festivals, having been a part of the Events Team at LFF 2019 (where she met and gave Robert De Niro a coffee), and she’ll soon be starting at BFI Flare 2020. She loves films that explore gender and identity, the human psyche and have cats in them (not necessarily all at once). Follow her on Twitter @Lilia_PF and Instagram @liliamayaa

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