Animal House, the 1978 smash hit comedy which ushered in a new genre at the time in Hollywood known as the “gross-out picture,” was instrumental in making the magazine and brand name National Lampoon more prominent to the mainstream, and made a superstar out of last-of-the-rebels comedic kamikaze pilot, John Belushi, celebrated its 35th Anniversary late last month.
Produced on a small budget, shot up in Oregon for the most part, directed by John Landis, and written by Lampoon stalwarts as Chris Miller, Harold Ramis, and the late Douglas Kenney (who was the first editor of Lampoon and who has a role in the film as “Stork”), Animal House was originally released in the teeming summer of 1978 and surprised everybody by going on to make over $120 million and making a total and complete template of the juvenile delinquents taking on the school system which represents authority kind of comedic narrative that has been going on since The Marx Brothers’ Horsefeathers and probably even earlier.
But what it set (at the time), with the taste level solely depending on the viewer, was a kind of shock comedy, borderlining on being downright offensive to some. That was precisely the kind of bottlenecked attitudes that made it such a smash hit. It also spawned certain kinds of lifestyles with the youth climate, which by 1978 was a generation more weaned on Star Wars, disco, and John Travolta, a far cry from the generation just ten years earlier, which had cut its creative teeth on subjects like The Beatles, The Doors, turbulence in the community, and a polarization and separation of many opinions, ideals, cliques, which created a jarring geographical landscape in which to inhabit. By 1978, the country was sort of spent from the prior pressure cooker events, sort of collectively on a natural Prozac high, and a leave your brain at the door, sophomoric comedy such as Animal House, replete with gags that range from juvenile to high brow juvenile and a raw unabashed sense of lunacy and oft-kilter sensibility throughout, was a perfect tourniquet of sorts to the masses, just like Star Wars had been as the picture of choice and then some the summer earlier in 1977.
Animal House took place in the early 1960s at fictional Faber College, but really, it could have been set at any time. The film avoids any trappings of having its narrative locked within its timeframe, save for some Peter, Paul, and Mary tunes and some great R&B like Sam Cooke; beatnik personification played by Donald Sutherland; and some hair styles. The story and the zany cast of characters are able to mostly flow freely about in the picture, and it’s that sense of abandon that contributes an extra pep to the gags and even gives them lift, enhancement. Led by John Belushi, the behemoth in many ways who already was prepping his cherubic, arrow-to-the-gut comedy on Saturday Night Live, brings it to full force crystallization here in the picture. He doesn’t have much to say; all his dialogue in the film probably wouldn’t even have filled three pages, but he speaks with his physicality, much like his legendary predecessors did on screen (Curly, Lou Costello, WC Fields), but he does it with a kind of R-rated grossness, a brutality belabored by the fact of his zestfulness in the most possible dangerous extreme. His “Bluto” character is sloppy, slovenly, overweight, careless, curious, rebellious, and most of it is manifested by simply an arched eyebrow (a Belushi trademark), a belch, or a vocal utterance which blusters up some sort of gas burner of a line, and it becomes like sawdust-filled confections thrown in the face of the viewer in the most aerodynamic comedy.
The film spawned so many imitations in its wake, it’s mindboggling. Arguably, the genre it spawned has to still remain the most prolific in its output as a claim could be made that any film that came after it that was Rated R and had a sort of immature raunchiness to it can owe a nod to Animal House. Animal House also sported national crazes like emulations of the Toga Parties in the movie, which were virtually an unknown collegiate extra-curricular pastime before they were introduced via the film. Viewed today, the movie still has a fresh vibrancy, a lunatic fringe of a fringe and a not too much, not too little irreverence and balls-out feel to the whole picture. The jokes still work, the frenzied climax is still over the top and bombastic, just like it felt then and just like it ought to be, and it solidifies the reason why the movie is still considered one of Hollywood’s great funny films of its era.
So pop on the film, don your toga, spin a little Otis Day and the Knights doing that rousing, raucous version of The Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” start some food fights in the local cafeteria, or just relive those great funny set pieces and scenes again and again, all elements which indeed are what keeps the rabid fan passion for Animal House still on top and what keeps it there for what is sure to be another 35 years and onward. Happy Anniversary, Animal House!