Animal House – Still Fresh After All These Years

Looking back the more than twenty years [this was written in June, 1999] since Animal House was first released, it’s hard to realize how chancy a movie it seemed at the time – especially to those who were making it. To begin with, the movie was producer Matty Simmons’ first – his entrée to Hollywood.   Simmons was the publisher of National Lampoon, a lucky stroke for him (the creators of National Lampoon knew Matty from his publication of several national editions of the Harvard Lampoon, didn’t like him, and turned to him only as a last resort) and he’d already exercised a clause in his contract with the editors which allowed him to buy them out and wholly own the magazine. The consequences had been predictable: National Lampoon, originally a cutting-edge satire magazine, began accepting advertising and watered its contents down to a predictable formula.   And sales had, by 1978, fallen to one quarter of their early-Seventies peak.

Simmons saw Animal House – its official title was National Lampoon’s Animal House – as a way to restore sales to his failing magazine, and as a ticket for him out of magazine publishing and into movie production.   In this he was wholly successful.   Animal House not only made a lot of money and established Simmons as a viable producer, it also helped National Lampoon regain a substantial portion of its sales for the short term.   (Subsequently Simmons sold the publishing company and produced the National Lampoon Vacation movies with Chevy Chase.)

The movie itself was the product of the former National Lampoon editors, working with cast-members of Saturday Night Live and alums of the Second City comedy troop.   This loose-knit group of improv actors and writers had originally formed (before Saturday Night Live) to produce the National Lampoon Radio Hour. (You see how it all ties together.)

Harold (Stripes, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day) Ramis, Doug (Caddyshack) Kinney and Chris (Multiplicity, Club Paradise) Miller had been working on the script for two years before John Landis was hired to direct it. As he recalls it, “Their original idea was something like ‘Laser Girls in Something.’ I can't remember what it was called, but it was Charles Manson in high school. They had this brilliant joke in it, which is still one of my favorites. The movie begins with this ominous long tracking shot toward the prison and down the rows of cells into where Charles Manson is sitting. He looks in the camera and says, ‘Is it hot in here, or am I just crazy?’”

It was Landis’s first major film. He’d been working on the low-budget Kentucky Fried Movie in Los Angeles when a friend of one of the people also working on that movie recommended him to producers Simmons and Ivan Reitman. “It was an indication of how little the studio thought of the movie that I got the job,” he says in a recent interview. Expectations for Animal House were low.

When Simmons read the first draft of that early script he reportedly said, “Jesus Christ, guys. You’ve got people taking drugs and having sex and killing in high school. You can't do that.” The writers’ response was, “All right, let's make it college.” Landis picks up the story: “That’s where Chris Miller came in, because he had been working on a series of stories based on his college days at Dartmouth. That’s when the script became National Lampoon’s Animal House.”

Landis says, “When I was given the script, it was the funniest thing I had ever read up to that time. But it was really offensive. There was a great deal of projectile vomiting and rape and all these things. And I just felt that to make this kind of movie you had to have clear-cut villains and good guys, even though the good guys were different. When I first met the writers, there was real hostility there. Mainly because I was young, I had long hair, I was a high school dropout – these guys all went to college, some to Harvard. I think the big thing though was that I came from Hollywood – they saw me as the guy from The Coast. 

“But it worked out. It was fine. I don't think the script has ever been given the credit it deserved. It really was a literate and sophisticated piece of work. People still quote dialog from it twenty years later. It’s a really smart piece of work, and those are very smart and funny guys. Doug Kenney unfortunately passed away before I think his potential was realized. Harold Ramis, obviously, has gone on to great success. He’s never forgiven me because he wanted to play Boon [eventually played by Peter Riegart] and had written the part for himself. And I thought that, at the time, he looked too old to fit in with the other members of the cast. So he’s never forgiven me, and whenever he talks about it there is sort of an edge in his voice. He did an extraordinary job there, and he's a great director and actor it turns out.”

Landis’s instincts were proven right: National Lampoon’s Animal House created a national sensation on its release in 1978 and has since become a part of the American college culture. One of the highest grossing comedies of all time, Animal House grossed over $141 million in the United States alone. The film was one of the most profitable pictures of the year. Sweet vindication indeed!

The film follows the adventures of Faber College's Delta fraternity. Saturday Night Live alumnus John Belushi became an international superstar after his role as the guitar-bashing, beer-can-smashing, garbage-eating Bluto Blutarsky. The cast includes head skirt-chaser Tim Matheson, innocent freshman Tom Hulce, frat brat packers Peter Riegert, Stephen Furst, and Kevin Bacon, menacing college dean John Vernon, and Donald Sutherland as the bored young professor who smokes pot
with Riegert and his pretty but fed-up girlfriend, Karen Allen. Otis Day and The Knights put in a show-stopping performance of “Shout.”

A new and completely retransferred video of the movie was released last October 13th. This special video includes bonus interviews and behind-the scenes footage, packaged with a collectible specially-shaped Animal House music CD sampler, priced at $14.98 suggested retail price. The CD sampler contains the “Faber College Theme,” “Animal House,” “Louie Louie” and “Shama Lama Ding Dong.” This video is also available in widescreen letterbox format for $19.98 SRP. 

The 20th Anniversary DVD Collector's Edition video was also released October 13th. It contains an original documentary on the making of the film with extensive interviews with director John Landis, writers Chris Miller and Harold Ramis and cast members Kevin Bacon, Tom Hulce, Tim Matheson, Peter Riegert and Karen Allen. Exclusive behind-the-scenes footage and production photos are also included, priced at $34.98 SRP.

As Bluto might have put it, “Animal House rules!” (29638 bytes)