August 23, 1985
The success of movies like FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH and SIXTEEN CANDLES kicked off a wave of teen films in the ‘80s, but the ones that came out in the Summer of ’85 were not typical of the genre. Most of the season’s movies about high school kids involved some sort of fantastical element (BACK TO THE FUTURE, THE HEAVENLY KID, WEIRD SCIENCE, MY SCIENCE PROJECT – and I guess the younger GOONIES and EXPLORERS count too). The most straight ahead, down to earth teen movies were THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN and REAL GENIUS, neither of which were exactly standard issue.
And BETTER OFF DEAD is an even odder one. It has a pretty normal premise (high school kid gets depressed when his girlfriend dumps him for the captain of the ski team, thinks he can get her back by defeating said captain in a ski race), but it’s filtered through the distinct humor of first time writer/director Savage Steve Holland. Though I don’t personally hold it in nearly the same reverence, I think it has a little bit in common with PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, in that it’s a comedy with its own distinct tone and deadpan presentation of absurdity brought to us by a rookie whose ignorance about how to make a normal movie works as a strength. On a more superficial level, it uses little bits of animation (including stop motion), and jokingly applies thriller film techniques to silly things (for example, using horror movie synths and atmosphere whenever the paperboy shows up looking for his $2). Burton and Holland are also the same age, both went to CalArts, and both worked as animators before becoming live action directors (in Holland’s case creating the famous “Whammy” animations for the game show Press Your Luck).
Lane Myer (John Cusack, who had just starred in THE SURE THING in the Spring) is kind of an oblivious doofus who has been dating Beth (Amanda Wyss, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) for six months and is so enamored with the idea of her that he has a stalker-quality collection of photos of her on his wall. His entire walk-in closet of clothes hang on cutouts of her face. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that she’s not as attached to him – in fact she’s literally taking his photo out of a frame and replacing it with one of Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier, whose only other IMDb credit is an episode of Hail to the Chief that had aired in April), who she thinks is cute but hasn’t even met yet.
But at ski team tryouts Stalin – who looks old and cartoonishly handsome enough to be president of the bad guy fraternity in any college sex comedy – shamelessly hits on Beth and humiliates Lane, who ends up with no girlfriend and no place on the team.
More evidence that MPAA ratings were different in those days: this is a PG-rated film that mentions losing one’s virginity, condom breakage, and – because of his heartbreak – suicide. After Lane is dumped he repeatedly considers killing himself. I believe there are four scenes where he almost does it, but is interrupted. In the first and most darkly hilarious one he’s about to hang himself in the garage, and just as he decides not to do it his mother (Kim Darby, TRUE GRIT) opens the door while vacuuming and doesn’t notice that she knocks him off the step and he’s dangling, struggling to free himself from the noose. So fucking grim, and the hardest I laughed in the movie.
In at least one interview, Holland has said that was inspired by something that happened to him. He was contemplating hanging himself from a pipe, the garbage can he was standing on broke, but so did the pipe, spraying water everywhere, and his mom came in and yelled at him for breaking the pipe. So that scene is a little more real than you’d hope, but it fits in with the movie’s overall approach of using exaggeration to capture the heightened sense of drama that life can take on at that age. Lane’s feeling of inadequacy about being dumped is underlined by
1) walking in on his little brother (Scooter Stevens, CHiPs, Pryor’s Place, Diff’rent Strokes) surrounded by five adult women in lingerie
2) his math teacher (Vincent Schiavelli, THE GONG SHOW MOVIE) taking his ex out on a date. Both of these things are totally inappropriate if taken literally, but make perfect sense as a reflection of him feeling like a loser.
Holland takes a similar approach to non-relationship things like Lane feeling out of his league in math class. Not only is he lost while every single other person is smiling and laughing at the teacher’s jokes, but his feeling of being unprepared is shown by everyone else pulling out increasingly ridiculous computers and filing systems while he produces a folded up and slightly crumpled piece of notebook paper that says “Do HOMEWORK” and has a piece of gum stuck to it.
Because Beth likes that obvious bad guy and we don’t really see much of her personality, we can assume Lane’s infatuation is stupid and not based on any real connection. The one scene that imbues her with humanity is the flashback of them first meeting on the beach. One of them touches their nose – Lane I think – and they get caught in a feedback loop where each of them thinks the other is trying to signal that there’s a booger or something on their nose. Relatable self consciousness.
This movie does a good job with the thing where there’s another character who’s better for him but he doesn’t realize it for a while. I didn’t see it coming, because she starts out as another reoccurring gag. The neighbor lady, Mrs. Smith (Laura Waterbury, later in MAC AND ME), is hosting a French exchange student named Monique Junet (Diane Franklin, AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION), who she and her nerd son Ricky (Dan Schneider, MAKING THE GRADE, HOT RESORT) treat as basically a mail order bride. The joke is that she doesn’t speak English and they think she’s in love with Ricky but we can see from her reactions (including bursting out in laughter at the Christmas gift of a framed portrait of Ricky) that she thinks they’re nuts.
But after she latches onto Lane outside of a school dance it’s revealed that of course she speaks English, but she thought pretending not to would prevent the Smiths from talking to her. She’s not the meek victim she initially appeared to be, and she has some unexpected character traits, including her delight at being involved in a drag race car crash, and her ability to repair the Camaro that Lane has given up on. I think “hot girl who can repair cars” has sort of become a cliche (or at least it’s in Michael Bay’s TRANSFORMERS), but I don’t think it was then, and her accomplishment is made better by him being stupid enough to ask, “What are you doing to my car? It’s already screwed up as it is.”
On the negative side, they get to know each other during a car repair montage set to a song called “Like To Get to Know You Well” by Howard Jones. On the positive side, we saw a saxophone in his room in the opening credits and then forgot about it by the time he pulled it out and started playing smooth jazz during a romantic dinner date. I consider that a win. She’s just cool because she’s so laid back about everything – asking him about his “dramatic death wish” with non-judgmental curiosity. She’s the one who pushes and coaches him into the ski race, even though in his mind it’s a way to “win back” his ex.
(Actually it works, too. Which reflects poorly on Beth.)
There are a few broad nerd caricatures, but I appreciate that most of the characters don’t exactly fit into your usual types. The alpha-jock is not a football player, but a fucking skiier? Lane and his friend Charles (Curtis Armstrong, REVENGE OF THE NERDS) are somewhere in between popular kids and outcasts. And they have these little unexplained quirks, like Lane is introduced showering with his (mismatched) socks on, then blow drying them. Is there a reason for that? If so, I’m okay with not getting it. Charles is obsessed with drugs, but can’t get any, so he’s always snorting non-drugs like Jello. And he often wears a top hat like he’s in a Charles Dickens adaptation.
I guess Charles is supposed to be a legit weirdo, but he carries it well by not caring what others think. One part that got me is when Stalin makes some homophobic joke about them at the dance and Charles laughs long and hard enough that it doesn’t even seem sarcastic anymore. And then finds him again later and continues laughing.
There’s a recurring gag about these two guys played by Seattle restauranteur/KARATE KID 2 villain Yuji Okimoto and Brian Imada (later a stuntman) who keep challenging Lane to drag race, and Okimoto taunts him over a loudspeaker by narrating in a Howard Cosell voice. I loved it when I thought it was just his weird way of fucking with him, but it’s still funny later when we hear that he learned English from watching Wide World of Sports.
The voice is dubbed by Rich Little. Okimoto had worked hard to do an accented version of a Howard Cosell imitation, and was disappointed they didn’t use his. I like that other than the unfortunate part where Lane refers to those two as “kamikaze pilots” they’re just treated us another couple of oddball characters in this town, not some racial stereotype I’m familiar with.
There are a bunch of good laugh out loud lines. The most famous is delivered by Steven Williams, the bounty hunter from JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY. But another one, to me, is when the paperboy (Demian Slade, RADIOACTIVE DREAMS) is holding onto the top the car and he heads for a car wash and the kid says “No, I can’t swim!” I couldn’t explain why that makes me laugh.
Reportedly the movie test screened extremely well, getting everybody’s hopes up for it to be a big hit, which it wasn’t. But I’m confused about the release, because according to both Box Office Mojo and The Numbers it opened on 13 screens and never went wider. At any rate, it was a low enough budget to be profitable even before it caught on on video, and today it’s definitely considered a cult classic and beloved growing-up favorite of many people of a certain age. I think it holds up well, and continues to stand out as a very funny and unique take on a teen breakup movie.
Summer of 1985 connections:
Amanda Wyss was in SILVERADO. David Ogden Stiers was in THE MAN WITH ONE RED SHOE. Yuji Okimoto was in REAL GENIUS. E.G. Daley was in PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE.
The climax involves Lane having to ski a steep slope with one ski missing, which also happened to James Bond in the opening of A VIEW TO A KILL. There’s a scene referencing the creation sequence from FRANKENSTEIN, as in WEIRD SCIENCE and THE BRIDE. Like in EXPLORERS, there’s a kid who builds his own working spaceship from junk (instead of instructions from aliens, he buys a book called How to Build Your Own Space Shuttle With Household Items).
Like BACK TO THE FUTURE, THE GOONIES and RETURN TO OZ, it has a poster painted by Drew Struzan.
Pop culture/time capsule stuff:
There are some era specific toys (Masters of the Universe Point Dread and the Talon Fighter, inflatable Twiggy from Buck Rogers, a Monchichi clown, a Cabbage Patch Kid). The Flintstones is on TV. A girl in the cafeteria is wearing a Thriller jacket. E.G. Daily plays herself, performing songs at the prom. Her debut album Wild Child came out that year, though I haven’t been able to find a specific date. She sings two original songs, “A Little Luck” and “One Way Love (Better Off Dead).”
Lane’s bedroom demonstrates only his obsession with Beth, not any sort of fandom. But he does have a Ferrari poster, which is very era-accurate.
In one of Lane’s daydreams a stop motion anthropomorphic hamburger lip syncs “Everybody Wants Some!!!” by Van Halen and plays a guitar modeled after Eddie Van Halen’s.
Also there’s alot of Tab soda seen in this one.
Dan Schneider (Ricky) became well known playing more likable nerd Dennis on the sitcom Head of the Class. He later started a production company that created many hit shows for Nickelodeon, including All That, and wrote its spin-off movie GOOD BURGER, eventually earning a lifetime achievement award at the Nickelodeon Kid’s Choice Awards. But in 2018 the channel abruptly ended their contract with him, it was alleged that many staff members had complained of temper tantrums, and there were intimations that his numerous social media postings of young actresses’ feet were, uh… not good.
Curtis Armstrong (Charles) continued to be known for the REVENGE OF THE NERDS movies, but also added Moonlighting to the portfolio.
John Cusack (Lane) was still playing a high school kid in love four years later in SAY ANYTHING. He became a huge movie star and producer and now appears in all the DTV thrillers that are released.
Cusack and Armstrong also starred in Savage Steve Holland’s second movie, ONE CRAZY SUMMER. The night before filming began, Holland says he screened BETTER OFF DEAD (which hadn’t come out yet) for the cast. Cusack stormed out after 20 minutes.
“He was just really upset. And I said, ‘What happened?! What’s wrong?!’ And he just said that I sucked, and it was the worst thing he had ever seen, and that I had used him, and made a fool out of him, and all this other stuff.”
Some of the cast have confirmed that Cusack was no fun to work with on that movie. Holland had made the movie about a girl who broke his heart in high school, and then the guy sort of playing him in the movie broke his heart too.
His third film HOW I GOT INTO COLLEGE (1989) was a for-hire gig, and after that his only feature length directing has been TV movies (MALIBU RESCUE) and DTV (LEGALLY BLONDES). But he’s directed many TV shows (V.I.P.) and was the creator and main writer of the sitcom The New Adventures of Beans Baxter (one season) and the cartoon Eek! The Cat (five seasons).