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The cast of American Carnage stands in a library wearing yellow jumpsuits looking at someone above them Photo: Saban Films

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The new wave of exploitation cinema is all about the immigrant experience

American Carnage continues a growing trend of genre films about the American Nightmare 

Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

American Carnage wants to make one thing clear right away, so there’s no room for doubt: This is a film about the United States of America and its horrid treatment of immigrants. Opening with a montage of real-world news clips of detention camps and right-wing pundits’ dehumanizing invectives, American Carnage’s opening minutes swell in a crescendo of Latin misery. It all climaxes with an excerpt from Donald Trump’s inauguration speech, from which the film takes its name. Then, having set the stage with its Fox News Greek chorus, the story begins at a burger joint where all of this hatred is grilled up into horror-comedy metaphor.

Directed by Diego Hallivis with a script by Hallivis and his brother Julio, American Carnage takes place after an unspecified state’s governor enacts an extreme enforcement of immigration law that declares family members of undocumented immigrants — even their U.S.-born children — are aiding and abetting a felon and should be incarcerated in detainment centers.

This is how first-generation American teen JP (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) has his life upended when ICE raids his family’s home during a party for his sister, Lily (Yumarie Morales), who’s just been accepted to Columbia University. Separated from their family and each other, JP and Lily are incarcerated in a detainment center and, along with a number of other young prisoners now getting arrested thanks to the new law, given a choice. They can either ride out their detainment and try to get their lives back via the slow and arduous legal system, or they can volunteer at a new government-run elder care facility and live in something closer to comfort.

JP and his friends sit at lunch in the detention center in American Carnage Photo: Saban Films

From the very start, American Carnage wants viewers to know that something is amiss at this nursing home. The residents are kept sedated, they warn JP and others to flee during moments of frightening lucidity, and they seem afflicted with a condition that causes them to die from their bodies uncontrollably contorting in a horrific death spiral. (Kind of like in Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, but less gross.) With the help of new friends Big Mac (Allen Maldonado), Camila (Jenna Ortega), Chris (Jorge Diaz) and Micah (Bella Ortiz), JP races to figure out what’s going on before whatever secret the home is hiding consumes them.

Taken on its own, American Carnage is fine, a direct-to-video comedy-thriller with OK jokes and a blunt genre allegory delivered by a cast of charming and talented young Latin American actors. The Hallivis Brothers have their sights so squarely set on one problem — the casual depravity of the United States’ immigration policy — but that approach inadvertently elides others to make its point (like the elderly that it notes the U.S. similarly neglects, while never bothering to make them more than a prop in its satire).

But in conjunction with recent films, like last year’s The Forever Purge, or low-budget thrillers like 2019’s Beneath Us and last year’s Netflix release No One Gets Out Alive, American Carnage fits into a new wave of immigrant-sploitation, a subset of films rooted in the injustices of being an immigrant in America, where the American Dream is always inverted to be a nightmare. The horror of the American immigrant experience is so apparent, these films argue, that subtlety is for suckers and genre farce is the only way to depict this systemic cruelty.

Rarely are these films good, but perhaps they serve a function as a vital corrective to the cloyingly inspirational “good immigrant” narrative that ignores sociopolitical realities in order to make viewers feel good. Maybe instead, the cheap B-movie thrills of immigrant-spolitation are closer to the truth: stories about homegrown horror so depraved, there is no polishing them up.

American Carnage is available to rent or purchase digitally on iTunes, Google Play, and other on-demand platforms.