Animal House, one of the most beloved comedies of the last half century, was released on July 28, 1978. I happened to have been born on the very same day, meaning that the film’s recent 40th anniversary doubled as my 40th birthday.
My Life as an Animal House Baby
I’m not exactly sure when it was that I realized this, but at some point it occurred to my parents that due to having a baby in the house, they probably missed the film in its original theatrical run.
Animal House is, of course, one of the more beloved comedies of all time. Directed by John Landis and written by National Lampoon stalwarts Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney, and Chris Miller, the film’s values were in favor of fun, partying, and anti-authority, as the frat did battle with Dean Wormer and his stooge fraternity, the Omegas.
The film helped kick off the prevalence of gross-out comedy, as well as the slobs vs. snobs genre that reigned in cinema comedy of the 1980s. Its cast was full of prominent actors, led by SNL legend John Belushi, as well as Tim Matheson, Peter Reigert, Tom Hulce, Bruce McGill, Karen Allen and in his first movie role, 20-year-old Kevin Bacon.
As an Animal House baby my relationship with the film has been varied over the years. I don’t remember the first time I saw it, but I assumed I must have been in high school (in the mid-1990s); otherwise, there’s no way I would have gotten the joke when Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick shouted “Neidermayer! Dead!” over every hockey highlight of Scott or Rob Neidermayer on ESPN’s SportsCenter.
There was a not-so-short time when I would have considered it my favorite movie. Having only known about John Belushi from old SNL highlights, I couldn’t stop laughing at his iconic performance.
…Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick shouted “Neidermayer! Dead!” over every hockey highlight…
By the time I got to college I suppose I felt some pangs of jealousy that my university days were never quite so debaucherous or fun as they were for the Deltas. Then again, I never joined a fraternity, and back then I was never much of a down-with-the-dean, “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” type of guy.
For most of my adult life, the whole coincidence of my birthdate and the film was a funny factoid to whip out in order to make a point to people of various ages (or, perhaps, myself) about exactly how old I was. In my late 20s, I once interviewed Kevin Bacon, and I think I weirded him out when I told him that the very first movie he’d ever appeared in had came out the same day I was born.
Of course, as time went on it became clear that there were various things about Animal House that were, in modern parlance, “problematic.”
The New Becomes Old
I had never felt especially at ease with that nakedly racist “mind if we dance with your dates” scene. The part about the underaged girl, or Belushi peeping on the sorority house? That’s the kind of thing that would never fly in a movie today, and for good reason.
There have been some negative think pieces about the film, but none have led to its banishment, or even much of a reduction in its historical stature.
But I look at that the way I do most things of this nature: To recognize that one can point out wildly anachronistic stuff in art of the past and place it in its proper context even in a harsh or critical way, and that doing so does not in any way add up to censorship or anything resembling a ban or suppression of the film. There have been some negative think pieces about the film, but none have led to its banishment, or even much of a reduction in its historical stature.
Other aspects of the film are more timeless. Like, of course, the food fight:
Animal House remains available in most home video formats, and can stream on Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, iTunes, and HBO. It even had some screenings to mark the anniversary.
Of course, another strange thing about Animal House and the passage of time is that it’s a seminal work of the late-period youthful counterculture, except that it came out a long time ago, and the surviving principals of the film are all older than you think. Belushi, Ramis, Kenney, and Stephen Furst are dead. And Kevin Bacon, the young guy in the cast, is 60. The movie came out 40 years ago but its 1962 setting is even further back than that – 56 years.
…the story of counterculture, something which was all about the primacy of youth, being told through the eyes of men who are now in their 60s. The new becomes old.
There’s been a resurgence in National Lampoon interest in recent years, with both a documentary (Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead) and a Netflix feature (A Futile and Stupid Gesture) releasing recently. Both were quite good, but in them we see the story of counterculture, something which was all about the primacy of youth, being told through the eyes of men who are now in their 60s. The new becomes old.
So happy birthday to Animal House, and to me. There are worse imaginable movies for one to be the same age as.