The 13th Floor

Interview: Brian Yuzna Comes Clean On SOCIETY!

As a video store kid of the 80’s, I was always on the hunt for something that would blow my mind and shock my friends. This wasn’t that hard to do in the golden VHS era of the fantastic but at a certain point it felt like I’d seen it all. That was until I stumbled upon Brian Yuzna’s SOCIETY. I probably only rented it because Billy Warlock was on Baywatch at the time and it had some scantily clad girls on the back cover but nothing could prepare me for the sheer visceral madness I was about to unleash.

Growing up in New Zealand, the title was as common to see in video stores as RE-ANIMATOR, so I was shocked to discover upon moving to America that the film was far less known and all but impossible to get your hands on. Thankfully that all changed this year due to the gorgeous Arrow Films Blu ray release that delivers the “Gooeiest” film of all time in sickeningly crisp HD.

Spurred on to learn more about why the film was so obscure in America and where the inspiration to make such a splashy debut came from we sat down with the films director Brian Yuzna.

BEAUTY_SHOT_3 How did SOCIETY become your directorial debut ?

Brian Yuzna: A friend of mine had gotten this funding from Japan to make a bunch of movies and said “let’s make one” and I thought, well I want to direct but you know, if the first one is no good I really need a second chance, so I figured what I had to dangle was the RE-ANIMATOR sequel so I said well you can have the sequel if i can direct it , you finance it but it’s the second movie I’ll direct, cause I knew then I’d get two chances. And so for the first one, Rick Fry came up to me with the script called SOCIETY and I read it and liked the paranoia a lot and it’s really crazy but it was kind of a blood cult kind of thing and I thought that’s not for me, I need something really weird, you know and so I worked with them. Then you know, I saw Woody Keith, it’s almost like a fantasist autobiography of Woody Keith [laughter ensues] just the fear of everything, it’s this paranoia that you know, Society is kind of predatorial.


So then I thought, well what is the effect I want to see? And I thought of flesh melding together which I’ve had nightmares about and I thought ‘well that’s what I’d like to see’ so, I want to change it to being something fantastical and then Screaming Mad George was presented to me and the movie was being financed by Japan, Screaming Mad George is Japanese and he’s this kind of surrealist artist FX guy and we hit it off really fast and then we just started looking through dolly pictures and pulling out images for the shunting, which was Woody Keith’s name for it. So the script I would say, it kind of basically stayed the same except that it had all this fantastical stuff and I tried to bring out a whole lot more of this which wasn’t quite in it. I mean there was a class issue, of course, but I just tried to bring the politics out just for the fun of it.


BH: So were you consciously satirizing anything about America at that time?

BY: When I was in college it was the radical march in the street, shut down the university time and I dropped out went to the commune did all that kind of stuff and at that time politics was like what you lived and breathed and it was fun, politics is what got everybody together, that’s what you did. The idea of ‘eat the rich’ – a friend of mine made that t-shirt called eat the rich and I remember I put it in the movie but you can’t see it well enough, but the whole idea of making these, I told George this isn’t a horror movie, we’re just “psycho-fictioning” this idea which is that you just take kind of psychological ideas and make them visual, similar to the RE-ANIMATOR head giving head as a visual pun, the rich do feed off the poor- let’s do it, they are different, the blue bloods are different, they’re real different. That’s a different species so just taking those ideas and pushing them within the context of a paranoid teenager who is afraid of incest taboo is certainly one of the main running themes in horror movies and we just tried to bring it a little closer to the surface and all the crazy characters that was Woody Keith and I don’t think we really capture in the movie, I think his ideas maybe were a little better than I could do.


BH: In the midst of filming the “Shunting”, did anyone just stick up their hand and say “uh what’s going on?”

BY: No, but I think we shot it for three days and I remember going to work every day thinking this is great! Wow! It’s like sometimes on movies I’m like I can’t believe I’m getting to do this, because people just do what you say and when you get a lot of extras it’s really amazing what people will do, you get a whole bunch of people in front of a camera and a lot of those people in the shunt were from the crew, they were friends, journalists, so I can pick out people in the shunt I know which, most of them are extras who would bring their own dress, their tuxedos and stuff and I liked getting sort of the more older more dignified ones and then fill out all the other people with neighbors or friends and people loved to get into it.


BH: What was the critical reaction when the film came out?

BY: Well the first day of shooting for BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR we got the Variety review and Woody Keith brought it to me and opened it and it called it “Rough trade gay porno” or something and I was like what!? But, everyone just focuses on one event in the movie. In England it was a big hit, it was a big deal in the UK and it was pretty big in Italy, as a matter of fact I had somebody send me their dissertation on SOCIETY in Italian, all bound and everything.


BH: Do you think maybe it had more trouble here due to the satire rather than just the gore?

BY: Yeah, I think people here didn’t get it and I think also sometimes if my movies are sometimes a little clumsily directed with the actors etcetera, in other cultures they work better, just like I think we watch a Japanese movie and we think oh it’s so cultural and a Japanese might tell you that’s really bad acting, you know, that’s really terrible. But I think in the UK, they really understand class and I think in this country we have this idea that there is none, there’s this kind of myth that we live that “Hey, we’re all middle class around here and there is no upper class.” We don’t really accept that there is a class system.


BH: And yet it seems more alive today than ever?

BY: I thought the SOCIETY sequel should be called the revenge of the 1%. I think now there’s a little more acceptance of that, but I still think we don’t really… people think that upper class is money, if you have a lot of money you’re in the upper class, and that’s an American idea, but that’s not true, it’s not that. It’s are you part of one of those big families and the people who really own a lot. You don’t know their names you don’t know what they look like and you don’t cross paths with them and they’re not in the paper and why would they be? So I think that shouldn’t take away from the enjoyment of a movie, it’s just a fun movie I never intended it to be anything more than fun.

BH: But you found a more visual way to represent those ideas?

BY: That’s one of the things I tend to do anyway when I make movies. I just try to find an original inspiration, anything original please! Then you have to figure out a way to make it make sense. So for example, with the shunting, my inspiration was this body parts melding together but then you need an excuse to have them in the movie and have them put in the architecture so that the mythology of the movie actually allows for that and I think that’s the way it is with story and for everything else. What I try not to do is get rid of the inspiration just because it’s crazy and doesn’t make sense. I figure there’s always a way to make it make sense, so, you mentioned the sister hair eating scene, that’s something I’ve often told people “you know I just didn’t solve all of them” but I didn’t take them out because sometimes you’re shooting and it starts making sense, you can’t expect that it can be reduced to logic. Not everything can be reduced to logic which is one reason why today maybe, at least for people like me, so many movies that come out are just so boring, because everybody’s internalized this kind of logic of movie structure. We all do it and it’s just become so clear that any kid can tell you how a movie is going to end by the beginning.

BH: You also said the inspiration with imagery was surrealism, the whole point of which was to counteract logic. Right?

BY: Yeah, you want a stream of consciousness, and there should be some kind of logic if you can call it that, aesthetic logic within that and of course, if you go too heavy in that direction you end up with ambiguity and “art” in the negative sense, the bad parts of an art movie, which is sometimes just willful ambiguity and a way of covering up the lack of any real content. If it just doesn’t make sense, well, it’s pretty deep.


BH: Why has the film been so difficult in America to see for the last 15 years since the DVD has been out of print and the VHS is worth $150 on eBay or something!

BY: Well I think because it didn’t really make a splash here, you know it’s funny around LA, people who saw the film would say to me “That’s OK Brian”, like they felt bad for me. But BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR was seen as being more respectable in the horror crowd and in England it was the opposite, BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR was like “God, how could you do that junk when you did SOCIETY?” SOCIETY was in ‘Sight & Sound’ magazine, it was treated as a real movie, but here, I just think it didn’t resonate, the audience didn’t like it and so then it just wasn’t paid attention to and the people that owned it didn’t do much with it.


When you make a movie, or it used to be like this, you made it, you licensed it to a company you could get to release it and if that company released it and just dumped it into their catalogue well it’ll never get seen. They control it, the people that make it can’t just say, oh I want to put it out again. You can’t do that, it’s owned by somebody, in this case I think it was Artisan or somebody owned it. But now I own it so I’m having a new HD transfer and all that done so it’ll be brought up to date. In the last couple years I’ve gotten a lot of requests to go to screenings in different parts of the country and overseas, and you kind of wonder why now? I think now there’s an idea of the 80’s in some weird way that with the 80’s there’s a tone to it, there’s an interest to it, the style of it.


BH: Well, also people like me have grown up and we’re the ones demanding it- we were kids then, the VHS generation and now we’re the consumers.

BY: But, I think SOCIETY is definitely a movie of the 80s. If I was going to make a triple bill from that era with SOCIETY, I would put PARENTS and HEATHERS and SOCIETY and then you’d say that’s what was happening – that’s the same kind of idea in those three movies. There weren’t a lot of movies like that, but if you look at those three you go “well they’re not like SOCIETY, because SOCIETY is a kind of exploitative FX thing. But I think that you would see a lot of the same tone and the same treatment of Americana.


BH: If you were to make a modern sequel where would it take place?

BY: I would like to do a new one that takes place at the after-hours clubs on Hollywood Blvd that you can’t get into. There’s the red carpet, then you can’t get into the VIP,  then you can’t get into the after party, then you can’t get into the second door. So I’ve been talking to people who put on these things cause I think it’s a great kind of setting for a new SOCIETY, so it’s more dealing directly with how we just want to be a part of on the list and when we are, we think the list is very cool and it just doesn’t matter, but then when you get in and find there’s another list and there’s just something about it we just can’t stand and I think that’s part of the SOCIETY idea.

BH: So long as you stick to the practical effects, I’m in.

BY: Well there is something about puppets that we respond to. Even when we know they’re puppets, there’s something about puppetry and that is the people that are inside the puppet costume. I think when you see puppets they have a reality, which is very different from animation and the CGI stuff. Like when you go “that’s a CGI zombie” it just doesn’t feel authentic but it seems acceptable in Hollywood now to have any amount of gore in CGI but if you just pour some red syrup on a rubber face it’s not acceptable, and yet, there’s something visceral about it.


BH: I’m sure when the film came out there must have been a lot of people that thought the film went “too far”. Have you ever seen a film that you thought went too far?

BY: I’m not sure about “too far” but NECROMANTIK and NEKROMANTIK 2 – those are like, Wow.