Animal magnetism

Dennis Cozzalio has declared July to be “Double Secret Probation Month” in observance of the 30th anniversary of the release of Animal House, which was unleashed upon the world on July 28, 1978. I never was one for food fights, but I may just go out and throw some breadcrumbs at the backyard birds — you know, just because.

It’s been years — decades! — since I saw Animal House, but two things about it (well, three, counting Karen Allen’s nude scene) stick in my mind: it is a reminder of those long-ago days when the words National and Lampoon above a title were an enticement instead of a warning, and it is one of the vanishingly small number of films with parties that actually look like fun.

Let me put it this way: if I had to choose between going to the party in The Party, with or without Peter Sellers, or getting poked in the eye with a flaming stick, I’d have to think it over for a bit. But if I could be magically transported into that Animal House frat party? I am so there. It’s no mean trick to show a roomful of people coming alive, convincingly, because as Tolstoy once observed, bad parties are all alike, but a great party is great in its own way.

John Landis, the director, had the sense to hire serious R&B players to perform the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” The story is that future blues great Robert Cray, a mere puppy at the time, helped get the musicians together (you can see him in the clip above, pretending to play the bass), and the results were so delightful that DeWayne Jessie, the actor playing Otis Day, eventually changed his name and started touring under the fictional band’s moniker.

Animal House is frequently cited as the godfather of gross-out comedies, but it also had some smarts, and the early Sixties setting was used for more than just nostalgia: Think of the scene in which the Delta House boys and their dates spot a roadhouse where Otis is playing and go barreling in without even thinking of the scene they’re about to invade, and just barely comprehending the hostility that instantly curdles around them. Nobody gives a damn about the white kids and their cool taste in music — Otis himself, who can hardly afford to be seen buddying up with a bunch of oblivious ofays, gives them frost instead of a greeting. Conventional comedy rules would have had the Deltas rallying and out-macking the Scary Black Guys; Animal House makes it clear they’re in over their heads the minute they step inside the joint, and they escape with their hides intact only by the sufferance of the customers. And the fact that the Deltas risk being thrown out of college at a time when Vietnam cannon fodder was at peak demand raises at least the possibility of real consequences — something Ferris Bueller and subsequent teen smartasses never had to worry about.

I remember first seeing Animal House some divey North Jersey theater with a few friends, and midway through the show the heavens cut loose with a downpour so intense we could hear it drumming on the theater’s roof. We emerged from the movie to find most of the parking lot flooded nearly doorhandle-deep, with scores of guys pushing their rides out of the water to dry out while their dates huddled beneath the awning. Our car was high and dry, but such was the spirit of the movie — “This calls for a really stupid, futile gesture!” as Otter put it — that we decided to drive through the water, whooping all the way, until the vehicle stalled and we had to do our own drying out period. We’d intended to head over to the bowling alley bar to “quaff a few,” as the owner of the car kept bellowing, but the bar was closing down and we spent the better part of an hour fending off bloodthirsty mosquitoes. What a wild bunch, eh?

Such, such were the joys of Animal House style white adolescent rebellion: pointless, meaningless and, most importantly, temporary in its consequences. When college resumed a month later, there was a flurry of toga parties. Maybe the release of the 30th anniversary DVD will inspire a revival. And why the hell not, I ask you.    

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5 thoughts on “Animal magnetism

  1. Scott Stiefel says:

    That clip is pure joy.

  2. […] Steven Hart has some thoughts on avoiding scam literary agents and waxes nostalgic on the 30th anniversary of Animal House. […]

  3. Fred Kiesche says:

    Oh Lord, I recall that viewing and the “swim” afterwards…

  4. Steven Hart says:

    Ha! If memory serves, Hank B was driving the car. Was the theater up around Kinnelon somewhere? I seem to recall an adjacent bowling alley, but that may be a hallucinated memory.

  5. Fred Kiesche says:

    I think Wayne, NJ. Route 23? Probably about a half hour from my parent’s house in Kinnelon.

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