Based in part on a 1981 incident in California, the story begins with a teenage boy sitting beside the corpse of his girlfriend whom he has strangled. He tells his friends, and they come out to see the body. The leader of the group wants to cover up the crime. The rest — except for one — show little or no emotion. Numbed by drugs, booze, and heavy metal music, they cannot even shed any tears over the death of the girl whom they have known for years. The riveting screenplay by Neal Jimenez depicts these middle class teenagers as the walking dead. Neither the disciplinary efforts of their parents nor the exhortations of their teachers can bring their consciences to life. They are afflicted with what theologian Soren Kierkegaard called " the sickness unto death."

River's Edge is a frightening film because it is so unrelenting in its portrait of dehumanization, the process whereby individuals ignore the sanctity of life and are unable to show compassion or sympathy for other people. This film doesn't flinch from the dark world of these teenagers nor does it offer a happy ending. Instead, it brings us face-to-face with concrete examples of the ethical erosion which is eating away at the roots of our society.