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This simple line has the capacity to find itself a nest in one’s head and remain there for years on end.

It is a simple line, concerning something called Zydrate, which, apparently, comes in a little glass vial.  For all its simplicity however, it is an integral part of the unique body of work known as “Repo! The Genetic Opera.” (henceforth Repo!)

“Zydrate comes in a little glass vial…”

Repo! is a magnum opus written by Terrance Zdunich (whose thickest work is in art department, mainly illustrations) and directed by Darren Lynn Boussman (Saw II-IV.) It stars an impressive cast that includes Alexa Vega, Paul Sorvino, Anthony Stewart Head, Kevin Ogilvie (credited as Nivek Ogre, the moniker he uses for OhGr and Skinny Puppy), Sarah Brightman, Bill Moseley, Paris Hilton and Zdunich himself.  What these names come together to forge, can perhaps best be summed up as a gothic/industrial biopunk rock opera.  And if that’s too vague, let’s observe the setting and the plot.

21st Century Cure

Repo! takes place in Crucifixus, a metropolis that stands, drenched in dark colors, beset on all sides by long stretches of graveyards.  Apparently, a string of incurable organ failures near the end of the twentieth century ended up in an epidemic.  Rotti Largo, former of GeneCo, the genetics company, managed to engineer a solution: artificial organs to replace the failing ones.  Hailed as the world’s savior, Rotti’s less-than-pure intentions as a cutthroat businessmen became clear when “repossession” clauses in organ transplant contracts brought forth the Repo Men: masked figures who track down the offenders and repossess their organs by cutting them up alive (“there’s no anesthetic.”)

By contrast, surgery has also become a form of fashion statement, like an extreme body-mod, where people who can afford to do so choose to change their cosmetic features or their organs quite often.  Of course, this is still surgery, and there is a considerable amount of pain, hence, a super-painkiller, Zydrate, was also developed by GeneCo.  Effective and addictive, Zydrate quickly went black market, with grave-robbers sucking up a low-grade version from corpses to sell on the streets.

The story begins two-fold: one, as Rotti Largo learns that he has terminal lung cancer, he boldly decides, in his words “to go out with a bang,” in which he intends to stir up some of his past.  On the other side of Crucifixus, Shilo Wallace, having inherited a blood disease from her late mother, is confined to her room by her father, Nathan.  Angry at being this weak, being infected, she does sometimes sneak out, mainly to collect bugs.  She meets Grave-Robber one night, and fails to make it back, only to wake up in her bed.  It is then revealed that Nathan is a Repo Man, perhaps the most efficient and feared one around, a secret he’s kept from his daughter all these years.


a still from Repo! The Genetic Opera ©

Goth Opera

To reveal any more would do Repo! a disservice, as the plot itself takes many twists and turns.  It is here we can take a look at what makes it so unique.  The first is the visual style.  The entire movie is an industrial-gothic-fest: gas masks, fishnets, hair extensions, Velcro boots, neon colors mixing with the black, a general rivet-and-brass mingling with latex-PVC-leather while balancing itself with quasi-Victorian outfits, especially for the gentlemen.  The world of Repo! is alive and vibrant with these sights, as well as its own, indigenous texture.  The hovering advertisement board, flyers regarding Zydrate or repossessions lining the walls, the “genterns” (genetic interns) that strut around in sexy nurse outfits… it’s a feast to the eyes, especially if you enjoy the gothic aesthetic.

But Repo! is primarily a musical, and what a musical needs is killer songs.  Composed mostly by Terrance Zdunich (who plays Grave-Robber and has one of the best songs, of course) the soundtrack heavily leans towards industrial rock and metal.  This isn’t absolute, for some songs, such as “Gold,” or the break-out punk rock number (that features the appearance of Joan Jett!) “Seventeen” there are different flavors to be found.  But one thing that does not exist is that in the movie, is dialogue outside of songs.  There is virtually none of that: all conversations take place within one song or another, often segueing into different moods by virtue of one song ending and the other one starting.  This is a bit off-putting at first, as dialogue-songs rarely follow some sort of stable verse-chorus structure, but after the first song or two, Repo! eases the audience into this routine and before long, one finds oneself awed at the lines being thrown.  As such, Repo! has 38 songs in its deluxe-edition soundtrack (including two that were cut from the movie.)


a still from Repo! The Genetic Opera ©

The characters are at the center of Repo! The main plot revolves around a few of the main characters’ common past, how it made them who they are how it now threatens to destroy them, one and all.  Some might be identified by their most prevalent traits: Grave-Robber is the narrator and the street-smart, shady, yet well-intentioned drug dealer; Shilo is the shy, inexperienced girl who is trying to navigate a world she knows nothing of; Rotti is the cold-hearted, ruthless businessman who was swallowed by his own malevolence; Nathan is a self-loathing, contradictive (one of his songs have him switching from mourning to vicious violence in between of two lines) and slightly unhinged Repo Man.  On the more (black) comedy side of things, the three Largo siblings, Luigi, Pavi and Amber mark a different sort of characterization, with the short-fused Luigi constantly stabbing people left and right, the womanizer Pavi surrounded by doting genterns and the “scalpel slut” Amber changing her appearance top to bottom from day to day.

Surgery, Surgery

A common theme in Repo!, however is surgery as metaphor.  This is clear in several aspects central to the movie.  The first is Shilo’s plight.  She’s isolated, cut off from the world and sick.  The metaphor of surgery for self-alteration mentally is thus used in her storyline to show her changing from an unsure, jittery little girl to a rather (even if ill-advisedly) confident young woman without having one single scalpel on her skin.  On the other hand, Marni, Nathan’s wife, is another aspect of this: Nathan’s inability to save her life, while locking him into his current “night surgeon” profession, also puts him in a position where he can take from others what he couldn’t give to Marni.  Amber Sweet is “addicted to the knife” and Pavi is known for constantly changing his face by stealing that of others’ – neither is able to change anything other than their appearances.  At the end of the day, Amber is a disgruntled, surgery-addicted heiress and Pavi is a misfit psychopath who has a way with the ladies.

Even Rotti Largo marks his helplessness despite the amount of physical alterations can be made by once stating, “It seems the man who cured the globe cannot stop his own extinction!” Helplessness in the face of who one truly is, and vain attempts to change it via invasive surgery is observed beautifully throughout the film.  In another vein, Repo!s final act takes place in the opera where some of the more satisfied GeneCo customers come forth to testify to how much GeneCo has given them.  One woman expresses that her liver was ruined, and thanks to GeneCo, she can now drink whatever she wants (complete with drink in her hand.) GeneCo allowed her to bypass some of the more fatal aspects of her alcoholism, but ultimately couldn’t change the fact that she was an alcoholic.  Thus, when put against Shilo’s act, it is subtly expressed that one is free to change oneself cosmetically all one wants, but one can only truly change if one acts instead of changes the wallpaper.


When it comes down to it, Repo! the Genetic Opera is an outlier.  It’s Boussman and Zdunich’s unique vision, and as such, conforms to as little of the “rules” as possible.  It’s visceral setting and content, its choice of mainstay musical genres, its general air of nonchalant body horror makes it a bit distant to most.  As a musical, it hits on all the right notes with memorable lines, catchy songs, a distinctive style (be it visual or musical) and a unique vision.

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