Corporate Ownership of the Body in Repo! The Genetic Opera

Trigger warning: this article contains images and descriptions of gore, references to child abuse, medical abuse, self-injury, and murder.

Darren Lynn Bousman’s 2008 sci-fi gothic rock opera body horror, Repo! The Genetic Opera, is (as I’m sure you can gather from that very description) a bloody, chaotic, indulgent mess of a film. Written and composed by Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich (who also plays Graverobber), Repo! is truly an aesthetic experience. But beneath all the guts, gore, and eroticism is a rather touching tale of a complex father-daughter relationship alongside a cutting commentary on the exploitation of people under capitalism and consumerism.

The premise of the film is that in 2056, organ failures are extremely widespread. GeneCo is an extensive corporation that provides organ transplants to supply this demand. As Graverobber sings in “21st Century Cure,” “you can finance your bones and your kidneys / For every market a submarket grows,” highlighting the commodification of the body. Surgery has also become a fashion statement as people strive towards “genetic perfection.” Graverobber acknowledges the elitism and hypocrisy here: “Your designer heart still beats with common blood.” Putting a ‘designer’ label on organs creates a toxic kind of consumerism that affects the body, and buying into this will ultimately not change your social status. All people participating in this system are still merely cogs in the machine, being exploited.

Additionally, if clients don’t pay for their surgery on time, a Repo Man will hunt them down and ‘repossess’ the organs, i.e. take them back, killing the person. This man is Nathan Wallace (Anthony Stewart Head), who is being blackmailed by head of GeneCo, Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino). Nathan is thought to have accidentally killed his wife Marni (Sarah Power) by administering a self-made treatment to cure her illness, and so Rotti promises to keep him out of prison if he works as GeneCo’s head Repo Man. In actual fact, Rotti poisoned Marni because she left him for Nathan, and he is framing him.

Nathan and Marni’s 17-year-old daughter, Shilo (Alexa Vega), is the main protagonist of the film. Her father has told her she inherited a blood disease from her mother, and so she is confined to her room. Although Shilo obeys Nathan, she becomes more rebellious throughout, venturing outside with both Graverobber and Rotti in secret. In addition to the unknown family drama, further tension is created from the fact that she is unaware that her father is a Repo Man.

The Repo Man (Nathan) in his leather garb, glowing blue eyes, holding up some intestines

In the song “Legal Assassin,” Nathan expresses self-loathing concerning his job—“I’m the monster! I’m the villain!” He also justifies why he does it (aside from being blackmailed) in “Thankless Job,” singing “somebody’s got to do it!” The latter number is performed while cutting open a client and removing his intestines, the first direct insight into what Nathan must do on the daily. He complains that “no one ever thanks me when I’m done,” but despite hating his job, Nathan is clearly having a blast when repossessing this man’s organs judging by his exaggerated facial expressions and dancing. Hell, he even puppeteers the man to sing along! This is really quite comedic, but it also portrays the disgust and gore that Nathan is wading knee-deep in as a Repo Man and the lack of regard for his (most likely working-class) victims.

In another scene later on, we see Nathan cut out a man’s spine to repossess it. It’s extremely brutal, but what hammers the point home even more so is a metal plate with GeneCo’s logo on it drilled into the spine. A literal stamp of ownership is on the GeneCo body parts, visually representing how people’s bodies are not their own under corporate rule. During “Night Surgeon,” Nathan is forced to disembowel a man in front of Rotti and the other Largos. The Repo Man is therefore a tool for perpetuating oppression against those lower on the social hierarchy so that the upper class doesn’t have to get their hands dirty. 

Obviously Nathan has a choice whether or not to participate in the system (though he would be imprisoned or likely killed if he chose not to, which he eventually is), but he is used as a scapegoat for violence against those in debt, when GeneCo, the wealthy megacorporation in control, is ultimately to blame. To emphasise this, “remember what you did to Marni” is repeated throughout the song; Nathan’s guilt and grief are being used against him to make him harm others. Bearing in mind he is a child abuser, Nathan of course isn’t a good person, but he’s still one of GeneCo’s tools. Plus, the fact that Rotti actually killed Marni makes this manipulation all the more insidious.

The Repo Man (Nathan) surrounded by Genterns and the Largos pointing knives at him

Rotti Largo’s three children are also central to the anti-corporation, anti-capitalist commentary. Luigi Largo (Bill Moseley) is the eldest child, an aggressive and violent man who carries a knife at all times to stab anyone who causes him the slightest inconvenience or irritation. Middle child Pavi Largo (Nivek Ogre) is a flirtatious narcissist who wears a skinned woman’s face over his own. Having renamed herself as Amber Sweet (Paris Hilton), the youngest Largo child is a singer addicted to surgery and Zydrate, a painkiller extracted from corpses by Graverobber.

In the siblings’ introductory number, “Mark It Up,” the three argue about who Rotti will leave GeneCo to in his will. The song is incredibly crass, littered with swearing, crude sex references, and casual violence as Luigi stabs a Gentern (GeneCo employee) to death and plays catch with a bloodied brain. Once again, this depravity conveys the utter lack of respect for human bodies and life. GeneCo employees are already dehumanised by being nameless, but their expendability is emphasised via meaningless murder as well.

Pavi’s face-wearing is another disturbing aspect of body horror. His character is easy to laugh at with his light-hearted intonation and the way he’s being done up like a Hollywood star by Genterns before the opera, but this juxtaposition against him constantly having human skin stapled to his face makes it creepier. The idea of body parts as fashion trends is apparent here, as Pavi considers himself attractive for this. Rather than having an internal organ transplant for necessity, he’s stolen another person’s face to display proudly. Being the son of the GeneCo head, Pavi represents further corporate theft of people’s bodies.

Pavi Largo admiring his new face stapled on in a hand mirror, Genterns behind him

“Zydrate Anatomy” focuses on Amber’s addiction to surgery and Zydrate; the eroticism of the performance ties into the seduction of advertising that appeals to the desire for perfection as well as drugs. If corporations create a market based on convincing people they are lacking something, they can easily manipulate consumers and bank off people’s insecurities. Inevitably, Amber’s addiction culminates in a botched surgery. Rotti, already insulted that she dropped her family name, disowns her and says, “your genes are not worthy of mine.”

The attention here is on biological features not being up to scratch, although it’s ironic that Rotti created the fashion surgery market yet is repulsed by his daughter for participating in it. Inherent classism is at play here. Amber ends up pasting another face onto her own during her performance at the opera, which falls off, revealing bloodied skin. The epilogue informs us that she auctions off her fallen face, which Pavi wins and wears with pride. This is intended as a comedic note, which it is, but Amber’s performance is quite horrifying, and Pavi’s theft of her face is uncomfortable, to say the least. He is again taking ownership of the body, and this particular stunt feels like a way of undermining and controlling his sister. 

Perhaps the most blatant example of GeneCo’s corporate ownership of the body is via the character of Blind Mag (Sarah Brightman). Mag is an opera singer and has been blind since birth. Given surgically enhanced eyes by GeneCo, she is trapped in a contract to work for GeneCo forever as their celebrity spokeswoman. Her adverts about “taking control of your life” with GeneCo are broadcast widely; in one of them, she says “because it’s what’s on the inside that counts,” ironically using the well-known phrase to appeal to consumers’ desire to be considered beautiful. In line with this, a man exclaims during the opera, “GeneCo helped me upgrade my second-class heredity.” The corporation has succeeded in making consumers feel lesser and lower class, a trait considered undesirable under capitalism, by not having GeneCo surgery.

When our Repo Man refuses to repossess Mag’s eyes because she was Marni’s best friend, he seals both their tragic fates. In her final performance (involving an outstanding operatic number, might I add), Mag sings “Come take these eyes / I would rather be blind” right before stabbing out her GeneCo eyes. Rotti then cuts the rope suspending her, dropping her down to get impaled on a prop fence. The only way Mag can reclaim ownership of her body is via an extremely gory display of self-injury. Most likely, she also knew she’d be killed for her actions, so her only true ownership of her body is in death. So long as GeneCo clients are alive, their bodies do not belong to them.

To placate the audience, the host of the opera reassures them: “Stay in your seats, it’s all part of the show.” Blurring the lines between reality and performance trivialises Mag’s death by making it a voyeuristic event. By having an audience that applauds and reacts as they would to any piece of fiction, people’s pain is romanticised and fetishised. It’s like a super extreme version of reality television, exploiting suffering people for the sake of entertainment to keep audiences preoccupied and redirect their attention away from flaws in the system.

Blind Mag immediately following stabbing out her eyes, blood streaming like tears down her face

This idea of death and body horror as spectacle continues when Nathan is brought on stage, shot in the leg, tasered, and eventually murdered by Rotti. Everyone has risen out of their seats at this point, utterly hooked on what they see as the dramatic performance of a lifetime. Nathan is writhing on the stage in a pool of blood, literally pleading with the audience to help his daughter, while they all laugh and cheer and simply watch on. Luigi is even seen eating popcorn as he consumes the ‘act.’ Mag and Nathan’s blood mingles with the fake snow on the stage, making it appear congealed—the whole floor is slick with it, and the lighting is also red at times. Horror, death, and tragedy are communicated with this gory set-up, but the rich red also emphasises the decadence of the theatrics. The theatre is often considered classy and high art, so this concept is contrasted against the gnarly, gruesome violence and mob antics of the people attending. 

In this final act, Rotti reveals to Shilo that Nathan has fabricated her blood disease and has been poisoning her ‘medicine’ to hide her away from the world due to grief for Marni. This situation is known as Munchausen’s by proxy and is a form of child abuse. The horror here stems from parental control and abuse via the body; she has been medically violated by the person she trusted most. Rotti’s intention isn’t to help Shilo by telling her this truth, but to turn her (and the audience) against her father by promising to leave GeneCo to her if she kills him, which she is very aware of: “You used my mother’s death to use my father / You use my father’s death to use me too.” The cycle of violence is encouraged by the person at the very top of the hierarchy since he knows it will never affect him personally.

The Largos attempt to convince Shilo that she could be a murderer by sharing her father’s genetics as further manipulation. It’s worth noting that they keep calling attention to Nathan’s monstrosity and the fact that he’s a murderer when Rotti was the one blackmailing him and orchestrating who he killed. What comes to mind for me is the Eric Andre ‘who killed Hannibal’ meme, but with Rotti/GeneCo shooting the person, then turning to the camera (or Shilo) saying “Why would Nathan do this?” It’s a classic scapegoat technique.

When Shilo refuses to submit to her “genes,” Rotti shoots Nathan instead before collapsing and dying himself from his terminal illness. Meanwhile, the audience is of course still watching. Although Shilo could easily take GeneCo for herself, she elects not to. It would have made her the top dog in a cruelly oppressive system, so she admirably turns her back on it and flees the scene. With GeneCo up for grabs, Amber takes up the reins and replaces her father as the corporation head. One of Graverobber’s concluding statements is “GeneCo may survive if it undergoes surgery”; even though a whole bunch of people witnessed GeneCo murder multiple people on stage, the corporation will not be punished for it. Instead, the cycle continues as GeneCo will never really be defeated, only rebranded.

Shilo holding her father's dying body, the stage slick with blood

The ending of Repo! is therefore bittersweet. Shilo has escaped an abusive father and murderous corporation head, free to follow her own path, but no one is truly free under GeneCo’s seemingly eternal rule.

Bousman’s film may often be perceived as an edgy, horny mess, but beyond that is a genuinely astute commentary on the evils of capitalism and corporations communicated via sci-fi body horror that still holds up today.

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  1. amazing analysis. there’s a whole book to be written about Repo! and how its extreme vulgarity, sexuality, and violence may seem outlandish but actually represent the reality of corporate greed in the US today.

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Written by Robin Moon

Robin writes for 25YL and Horror Obsessive as much as their scattered brain will allow. They love dark fantasy, sci fi, and most things horror-related, with a huge soft spot for vampires. Don't make the mistake of mentioning Buffy around them or they won't shut up about it. Seriously. They're also a fiction writer and aspiring filmmaker; in other words, they much prefer spending time in made-up places and far-off universes than in the real world.

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