A year before “Philadelphia” went the respectable route in asking mainstream audiences to consider the AIDS crisis, provoc-auteur Gregg Araki unveiled what remains the single most confrontational film on the subject. In “The Living End,” a queer couple channels their HIV-positive outrage against the system, killing cops and gay-bashers who challenge their right to live as they wish. A full 16 years later, Araki’s in-your-face social manifesto finally gets a proper DVD release — perfect timing for the film, first unveiled in the last months of one Bush’s presidency, to witness the final stretch of a second, equally AIDS-oblivious Bush administration.
Of George Bush Sr., one of the nothing-to-lose young lovers proposes, “We could hold him at gunpoint, inject him with a syringe full of our blood. How much you want to bet they’d have a magic cure by tomorrow?” Such anger defines the explosive film, which remains quite raw today, thanks to its jarring low-budget production values. Araki has totally remastered the film’s audio for this DVD release, but there are no digital Jabbas or long plantation sequences to compromise his original vision: The edit itself remains unaltered.
In the commentary, Araki repeatedly refers to the film as a “time capsule” of 1992 thinking, which diminishes somewhat just how controversial the film was at the time. Imagine how “The Bucket List” might have gone over if Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman had grabbed shotguns and hit the road, stopping only for bouts of passionate sex (with each other) along the way. That says nothing for its unapologetically arty compositions and Godardian jump cuts (early experiments in style from one of the most sensual directors working today).
As a portrait of late-millennial nihilism, “The Living End” rejects the sympathetic bent of every afflicted-by-AIDS portrayal before or since. Rather than pitying themselves, the doomed duo simply decides to hate the world. And though they do so in gestures that will strike most viewers as juvenile, the characters should be viewed not as ignorant but ignored — overlooked and left to die by a society that considers itself better off without them. Thanks to Strand’s definitive DVD release, their rebel cry not only outlives them but sounds sharper than ever.