Wake Up Screaming: Seven Social Horror Films to Prep You For 'The First Purge'

The Purge movies are the unruly branch on the otherwise upright "social horror" filmic family tree. Exploitation movies to their very core, with each installment the futuristic franchise (that's built on the idea that, for one night in America, all crime is legal) has widened in scope, beginning with a home invasion on the titular devil's evening (The Purge), then taking us to the city streets amidst government sanctioned chaos (Anarchy), and finally letting us see the corrupt political mechanisms (Election Year) that believe it will be psychologically beneficial for the citizens who participate, but even more lucrative for the companies who try and exploit it for financial gain (insurance, medical, etc.).

It's an angry, ever-expanding pulp treatise on the crass customs of class and capitalism – "Wokesploitation" that beats you over the head with its sociological messaging without a hint of subtlety, and one of this writer's absolute favorite running series in modern schlock.

In order to properly prepare you for the next sequel – Gerard McMurray's prequel The First Purge (which will also be the first time writer/director James DeMonaco won't be stepping behind the camera) – I have assembled a list of the seedier "social horror" entries you could watch before your fourth trip back to the multiplex for the annual Purge Night. These seven selections (save for one slice of Canuxploitation) all own an urban bent to their storytelling, and work to represent the everyday anxieties that permeate the people who Purge Night would affect the most. They're photographic hand grenades; filtering the experiences of the underprivileged through a lurid, hyper-violent lens, whilst crudely commenting on the stresses that all their characters must endure in rather idiosyncratic ways. Some even act as the original building blocks of "Wokesploitation", ready to tear your head off before offering up a rather compelling lecture...

Blackenstein [1973] (d. William A. Levey, w. Frank R. Saletri) 

Unquestionably a superficial Blaxploitation horror movie, this shoddy, lo-fi Frankenstein riff delves into Vietnam era fears regarding returning soldiers' post war trauma, and notions that black men's bodies are merely tools for white bureaucrats to either use for war, or Guinea pigs to experiment upon. Blackenstein is a crudely made cash-in (on the previous year's urban horror hit Blacula ['72]) from Frank Saletri, who'd only produce this and another feature that's been lost to the sands of time, Black The Ripper ['74]) before being murdered in his home "gangland style" in '82. Yet that doesn't prevent the picture from owning social subtexts that wormed their way into the narrative, as the lawyer/writer/producer certainly knew what audience he was selling this junky 42nd Street programmer to in hopes of making a quick buck. The atrocities of war allow innocent Eddie Turner (Joe De Sue) to become the titular big-headed destroyer of men, a dim memory of the fiancée he left behind (Ivory Stone) still illuminating a darkened corner of his mind. It all ends with racially charged imagery that would give the ending of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead ('68) a run for its money in the shock department.

Blackenstein is available on Blu-ray from Severin Films

Deathdream (aka Dead of Night) [1974] (d. Bob Clark, w. Alan Ormsby)

The same year he directed the proto-slasher that helped (inadvertently or not) inspire John Carpenter's Halloween ('78), Bob Clark also helmed the incredibly melancholy pulp dissertation on 'Nam era drug addiction, Deathdream ('74). Sporting early SFX work from veteran Tom Savini (who always counted the war as his primary inspiration for countless gore gags), Dead of Night is crammed with upsetting imagery, as young undead grunt Andy (Richard Backus) returns home to his mom and dad (John Marley and Lynn Carlin) as a vampire who needs to inject the blood of the living to keep his body alive. Mirroring the scores of soldiers who returned to the country they just defended suffering from substance abuse problems, Deathdream's scenes of this patriotic bloodsucker shooting plasma into his arm (the same way numerous GIs booted black tar heroin through their veins) are difficult to watch. Just as Clark's sorority murder opus owns a distinctly grim tone, Deathdream is equally fatalistic, ending the way most of these poor boys' lives did: in a dirty hole, with parents crying.

Deathdream is available on Blu-ray from Blue Underground

Cruising [1980] (d. & w. William Friedkin)

William Friedkin's fleshy, sweaty descent into a heightened sexual underworld in NYC's late '70s/early '80s leather scene, Cruising is as much a problematic document of the Caligulan pre-AIDS gay love scene as it is a lurid, tense stalk and slash police procedural. Friedkin's ability to evoke place and time is on full display here, as undercover cop Steve Burns (Al Pacino, in one of his more undervalued performances) finds parts of himself coming alive that he never knew existed before, all while tracking a killer who's butchering homosexuals and leaving their body parts in the Hudson. It's difficult not to wonder how this movie would've looked under Steven Spielberg's direction (with a Brian De Palma script, to boot), as he was pursuing/heavily researching the picture immediately after his smash blockbuster, Jaws ('76). That project obviously never panned out, and it's probably for the better, as Friedkin brings Gerald Walker's controversial book to life with erotic flair; a portrait of often surreal debauchery that doubles as an intense, oppressively atmospheric horror movie.

Cruising is available on DVD from Warner Archive

Combat Shock [1984] (d. & w. Buddy Giovinazzo)

Combat Shock is truly unpleasant; bearing a striking narrative resemblance to Suicide's 1977 track "Frankie Teardrop", as it follows a returning Vietnam field grunt who just can't catch a break after coming home. Frankie Dunlan (Rick Giovinazzo) struggles to support his wife (Veronica Stork) and child, who's deformed thanks to the soldier's exposure to Agent Orange. The pressure becomes too much for Frankie to bear, as flashbacks of the torture he endured in a Viet Cong prison camp keep him up at night; a constant reminder that while his body still works, his mind is shattered. This is the Troma equivalent of Paul Schrader's Taxi Driver ('76), bubbling over with grimy detail, as writer/director Buddy Giovinazzo crafts a nightmarish portrait of existence with literally nothing hopeful to hang onto. Private Dunlan's ensuing rampage is savage enough to make Travis Bickle wince, as Giovinazzo has crafted an ugly epic tailormade for cult cinema lifers. Nothing about Combat Shock is pleasing or civil, because those are the realities of war, and Frankie Dunlan never stopped fighting his, as it was the only occupation he was ever qualified for in society's eyes.

Combat Shock is coming this month in a Limited Edition package from Severin Films

Brain Damage [1988] (d. & w. Frank Henelotter)

42nd Street trash auteur Frank Henenlotter's splatterpunk anti-drug monster movie Brain Damage uses addiction as the jumping off point for another one of his neon-slathered delves into The Deuce's scummy gutters. Just like Basket Case ('82) before and Frankenhooker ('90) after, Brain Damage ('88) is an icky, textured take on loneliness and social mores that uses a gnarly monster to create a hypnotic bit of genre magic, distracting us with creature feature magic that Henenlotter laces with a subversive response to First Lady Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign that pervaded pop culture during the late '80s.  An eye-poppingly grotesque story of a young slacker's (Rick Hearst) symbiotic relationship with a hallucinogen dispensing parasite was especially timely, but it's Henenlotter's ability to yet again place you inside those dingy apartments and dangerous back alleys that guarantees a sense of authenticity no politician could ever hope to achieve from their ivory houses in DC. The result is a pulpy polemic that never judges its wayward protagonist or the members of the audience who use drugs, taking an oddly empathetic stance toward the user even as its nightmarish cartoon carnivore devours the grey matter of innocent victims, just so our man can get his next fix.

Brain Damage is available on Blu-ray from Arrow Films

Maniac Cop [1988] (d. Bill Lustig, w. Larry Cohen)

Larry Cohen deals in subversion; not only of genre tropes, but also in how he smuggles radical ideas via pulp constructs. Yet none of his pictures are as bluntly insurrectionary as the Maniac Cop trilogy he penned for notorious scum cinema entity, Bill Lustig (Maniac ['80]). Much how John Carpenter took an American symbol synonymous with safety (the suburbs) and tore it asunder, Cohen morphs a badge and blue uniform into something no less terrifying than Michael Myers' Shatner mask or Jason Voorhees' goalie fetish. That which safeguards is suddenly spun, like a rabid dog biting the hand that feeds. While Maniac Cop ('88) may superficially appear to be another routine slasher, it is anything but repetitive. Cohen is working with a fear that had already been deeply seated in the public's brain by 1988 – that cops were killers and had no interest in protecting or serving. All they want to preserve is a code of silence that keeps their secrets from the general populous while minting a monster who will stop at nothing to take revenge on the men who made him the hulking murder machine he is now.

Maniac Cop is available on Blu-ray from Synapse Films

Tales From the Hood [1995] (d. Rusty Cundieff, w. Darin Scott & Rusty Cundieff)

It only makes sense that the racial repercussions of Rodney King would find their way to the big screen, courtesy of Executive Producer Spike Lee. Originally conceived as a stage play titled Black Horror Show, writer/director Rusty Cundieff (Fear of a Black Hat ['93]) took the EC Comics anthology format (think: most of the pictures Amicus Studios ever made) and rejiggered it into a socially conscious wrecking ball. Re-naming it Tales From the Hood ('95) and releasing the movie smack dab in the middle of the OJ Simpson Simpson murder trial (which would further divide the country), the end result is still one of the most important sociopolitical statements the horror genre has ever seen. Co-written with producer Darin Scott, Cundieff took an "issue first" approach to crafting each of the four strange segments contained within Tales From the Hood. The wrap-around concerns a gaggle of South Central gangbangers dropping in on bug-eyed mortician, Mr. Simms (Clarence Williams III, your new favorite crypt keeper), who takes them on a corpse tour. Each body has its own story, of course, and the boys are treated to these anecdotes while waiting for the old man to produce a load of drugs he accidentally stumbled upon while doing his dreadful daily duties. The allegorical vignettes are all incredibly angry and affecting, a hard-edged, necessary cousin to all the relatively tame British spook shows we've received over the years. In short, Tales From the Hood is essential.

Tales From the Hood is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.