“When you look at the world today, it’s a nightmare… At the same time, you look at the government, and it’s a joke.”
So says Diego Hallivis, director and co-writer of American Carnage, a new horror-comedy exploring what it is to be Latinx in the U.S. today. With an ensemble cast starring Jenna Ortega, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., and Allen Maldonado, the film takes place in a fictional present in which the government starts rounding up U.S.-born kids for “aiding and abetting” the illegal immigration of their parents. They’re offered community service—but the old folks’ home where they end up is not what it seems.
Hallivis finds the horror-comedy genre perfect for today’s political moment, telling Latino Rebels that it and the film’s indie financing gave him the ability “to be more experimental [and] take bigger risks.” American Carnage takes plenty of big swings, the most obvious being the shots at former President Donald Trump. The title of the film comes from a line in one of 45’s speeches, he appears in the opening montage, and one of the villains is a Trump stand-in as an anti-immigrant governor running for reelection.
But Hallivis doesn’t limit his targets to Trump. “Sometimes people like simple answers to complex problems,” he said, and Trump is more of a symptom than a cause of the anti-immigrant, anti-Latinx attitudes and policies that fill our culture. That’s why he was sure to include both President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala “Do not come” Harris in his opening montage too. Hallivis says both parties are to blame, and that while Republicans “wear hate as a badge of honor,” Democrats are just more “tricky.”
With politics using “the Latin community as a pawn to manipulate the masses,” Hallivis felt he had to do something. He couldn’t look back 10 years from now, having recognized what was happening, and knowing that he said nothing. “I’m not a lawmaker, so I cannot pass the law,” he said. But he is a filmmaker, and so he began work on American Carnage.
The film finds its horror in anti-immigrant and anti-Latinx sentiment, policies, and power grabs, but the frights are only half of it. American Carnage is as much a comedy as it is a scary movie, and the laughs mostly come from intra-Latinx racial politics.
Hallivis put together a “rainbow of an ensemble cast that represents not only just different races but different nationalities, different accents, different attitudes, even [different] hair.” And he plays with the differences between his characters to intertwine his serious points with the jokes.
For example, at one point Allen Maldonado’s Big Mac is asking why he’s in detention: “Am I in here because I’m Latino or Black? Or both?” His interrogators are silent, and we are left to fill in the answer. There’s also a plot twist with Chilean-American Bella Ortiz’s Micah, which I will refrain from spoiling, other than to say her dancing on the sides of the frame with Eric Dane (Euphoria, Grey’s Anatomy) makes for one of the best shots of the film.
Clearly, American Carnage is on the we-are-not-a-monolith side of Latinx representation, looking at folks who have a lot of similarities —same age, same undocumented parents, same ethnicity— and showing there’s still a huge diversity inside the Latinx experience. Hallivis adds that Hollywood “has said that we’re only allowed to tell specific types of stories, whether it’s a border crossing story or something related to drug trafficking.” With American Carnage, he wanted to go somewhere “completely different,” even or particularly as he created a story that is deeply rooted in the “Latin world.” His hope is to prove that Latinos have other things to say than the handful of topics the entertainment industry seems interested in hearing about from us.
He also hopes you hate the film. Well, actually, he hopes as many people hate the film as love it, saying, “If I piss off one group and the other group is really happy about it, that would be the best-case scenario because then [I’d know I] nailed it.”
American Carnage is in theaters, on demand, and on digital July 15.
A writer and activist, Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of latinamedia.co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. She’s a member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture. Twitter: @cescobarandrade