Animal House v. Revenge of the Nerds
ith respect to Bill Simmons, to whom this column is seriously indebted, we here at Stylus have started Vs. to bring you a series of battles between two similar items on the themes of music, movies, and television, breaking their merits down point by point and seeing which emerges victorious. Agree or disagree with the conclusions? You know the drill. But understand that our methods of empirical data analysis are in fact flawless and therefore should not be disputed.
Forget Old School. Yeah, Frank the Tank was funny. But I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that homicide’s your first instinct the next time you hear some overweight former frat boy in Abercrombie & Fitch (with the collar turned up, natch), belting out “beer…it just tastes so good when it hits your lips.” And quite frankly, wanting to murder someone might, in fact, be the most natural reaction. If Robespierre were alive today, you know he’d be breaking out the guillotine for soused dudes in pink polo shirts that still have a penchant for bellowing: “You’re My Boy, Blue.”
With that in mind, there are only two real options for the mantle of the best fraternity comedy ever made: National Lampoon’s Animal House and The Revenge of the Nerds, two films that have stood the test of the time thanks to clever scripts, iconic characters, and enough gratuitous nudity to push them to the top of every 13-year old boy’s Netflix queue. With American comedy currently at a nadir, it seems fitting to examine the merits of two of the finest pure comedies made in the last 30 years.
The crucial component of any good college movie is a killer party scene, brimming with aluminum barrels of beer, scantily clad females, a danceable soundtrack, and preferably a tub of Jello. Though both Revenge of the Nerds and Animal House are sadly gelatin-free (for that I recommend Teen Wolf), both the Delta House and Lambda Lambda Lambda deliver bacchanals for the ages.
It’s tricky to even choose the best party in Revenge of the Nerds. In many ways, it’s hard to deny the Alpha Betas’ party on the first day of school. Hot girls, Jaeger Shots (presumably), and the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” roaring from the hi-fi? Not bad. Sadly, the party’s momentum flags when one of the Alpha Beta’s talent for turning 200-proof liquor into fire literally burns down the house. David Byrne would’ve been proud.
On the other hand, if intelligent discourse and access to high-grade narcotics is your bag, your best bet isn’t hanging out with Stan Gable, Ogre, and the rest of the Adams College football squad. Sidle up next to Pointdexter, Wormser, and Booger, for unfettered access to the “good stuff.” But be forewarned, being a nerd is not conducive to snagging archetypal 80s blondes (at least in the first act). As Booger said: “The Omega Mu’s [are] a bunch of pigs.”
In contrast, neither party stands up to the Delta House’s Toga Party, one of the finest parties ever depicted in the history of cinema. Beautiful girls and liquor are everywhere. Otis Day & the Knights made everyone “wanna’ shout,” and Eric Stratton even pulled off the coup de grace of bedding Dean Wormer’s wife. How good was the party? Enough to get their fraternity charter revoked.
Advantage: Toga! (Animal House)
Before the twin evils of the War on Drugs and Political Correctness sapped the soul from of American comedic filmmaking, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a movie without marijuana jokes. Accordingly, both Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds are both very weed-friendly.
Animal House’s weed scene is fairly iconic: Donald Sutherland plays a Milton-teaching English professor getting his students stoned for the first time. The scene nails the first-time weed experience to a tee, with everyone having “deep” conversations (“Like….wow….it’s possible that one atom in our fingernail might be an entire universe”). Metaphysical. In the meantime, Sutherland uses the occasion to start seducing the comely Katy (Karen Allen). That suave bastard.
But this weed scene can’t compare with that of Nerds, where times were tough and sober at the first Lambda party of the year. The Omega Mu’s weren’t feeling it, U.N. Jefferson didn’t appreciate the “Hang Low Sweet Chariot” soundtrack, and Lamar dirty-dancing with his boyfriend wasn’t really working for anyone. Until…Booger produced his epic wonder-joints, forcing even U.N. Jefferson’s assistant to proclaim, “damn, this is some good shit.” The weed in question was so strong that it sent Pointdexter into a philosophizing tale spin so deep that one Mu couldn’t help but be bowled over enough to ask, “Pointdexter, when are we gonna’ fuck?” That’s some good shit.
This is a tough one, the two films in question are part of the holy trinity of misogynistic but damn right fantastic nude scenes of 80s-era comedy (along with Porky’s). In Nerds, the Lambas devise an ingenious strategy to break into the Pi Sorority House and drill holes into the walls while installing cameras to record their every move. While Nobel Prizes are rarely given for such under-handed schemes, if ever those wacky Swedes had wanted to thrown out a wild card, this would’ve been a good time.
Animal House takes a more decidedly lo-fi approach, with Bluto doing it the old fashioned way, peeping Tom-style, staring into a sorority house pajama party, in a move that probably inspired millions of arrests throughout the following decade. If you have to pick a side between the two films, Animal House edges out Nerds. The tie-breaker? The evil genius of Eric Stratton’s seduction of Fawn Leibowitz’s Emily Dickinson college roommate in the backseat of Flounder’s brothers’ car, outside of a seedy roadhouse. Inspired.
Advantage: Animal House
It’s hard to say anything bad about a group of antagonists featuring Ted “Jefferson D’arcy” McGinley as Stan Gable, two-time All-American quarterback and Greek Council President. Not to mention a guy named Ogre. (Needless to say, if you feature a guy named Ogre in a movie, chances are I will like it.) But the Alpha Betas are mere chums, ultimately unfit to even pose a real challenge for the industrious Nerds. Granted, the Tri-Lams probably had a collective mean IQ that would rival Einstein and Hawking (or, at the very least, Paul Allen), but it still seems rather pitiful that the Alpha Beta’s best recourse was merely beating them up and/or letting a group of swine loose in their house.
By contrast, the devious minds at the Omega House are well described in the film as “Hitler Youth.” Unlike the Alpha Betas in Nerds, the men of the Omega House aren’t stupid. They actually partially succeed in destroying their Delta rivals (they do help get them kicked out of school, after all). But what’s most notable about the unadulterated evil of the Omega House is the way in which they make the Delta House seem sympathetic and likeable by comparison. On paper, the Deltas are repulsive: crude, misogynistic, and ignorant. But if the cliché rings true that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, then most recognize the Omega House as the most dangerous party, in their racist, violent, and cruel tendencies.
Advantage: Animal House
Animal House’s soundtrack certainly captures the feel of the early ‘60s. And both Otis Day & The Knight’s performances (“Shout” and “Shamalama Ding Dong”) are very capable soul covers. In fact, the scene where the Delta Brothers catch Otis at the all-black roadhouse is one of the film’s best. But its tough to compete head-on with Nerds’ soundtrack, featuring “Burning Down the House” and “Thriller,” two of the 80’s best singles.
The tie-breaker comes in Nerds’ finale, when in the Talent Show portion of the Homecoming Carnival the Tri-Lam’s deliver a virtuoso performance, sealing a brilliant song and dance routine by supplementing it with an old-school TRS-80 Color Computer with an Audio Spectrum Analyzer cartridge for special effects. Which doesn’t even take into account Gilbert and Lewis’ Kraftwerk inspired DJ set and Poindexter’s fluttering violin licks. The capper? Lamar and Wormser dressed like Thriller-era MJ, performing some impossibly smooth moon-walking that would put Justin Timberlake to shame.
Nothing against Delta House President Robert Hoover. I’m sure he turned into a fine District Attorney in Rockport, Maryland as the film claimed he did upon graduating from Faber. But truth be told, he can’t match the unmistakable leadership of Lamba Lambda Lamba leader Lewis Skolnick. Single-minded and driven, Lewis spearheads the Nerds, a formerly apathetic and loose contingent of minds and turns them into the most formidable fraternity at Adams College. Once downtrodden and picked-on mercilessly, the Nerds end up taking over the school, winning the Presidency of the Greek Council and leaving the Alpha-Beta’s like the similarly-named supermarket: obsolete. Plus, Lewis manages to score Betty Childs, the school’s hottest female, converting her to the world of Nerd-love in the process. Schools have been named after people for less.
Granted realism and comedy are two things that rarely go hand and hand, but in general, a semblance to real life ensures sharper satire and thus, a better film. In that regard, Nerds seems particularly fantastic. While being geeky never helps one gain a spot in a prestigious fraternity, it’s practically impossible for rushes to not get asked into at least one fraternity (however, lame it might be). Furthermore, while I’ve encountered some serious Nerds in my day, the Nerds in Revenge of the Nerds take the cake. You’d have to have been locked in a basement for 14 years with nothing but Dungeons and Dragons and a TI-83 to come out as geeky as Pointdexter. That said, the moral at the end of Nerds rings true. We live in a Nerd’s world. Just ask Bill Gates or Mark Cuban.
Yet ultimately, the true timeless brilliance of Animal House comes in how directly the filmmakers nail the frat-house archetypes. Every fraternity in America has a skeezy but charming ladies man like Eric Stratton, a fat louse like Flounder, a weird older non-enrolled student like D-Day. Let alone the Bluto Blutarski’s, who are a staple in any college fraternity. Head to a frat Halloween Party and you’ll find at least one or two debauched and disheveled dudes that love to waddle around wearing a “College” sweater and clutching a bottle of Jack. Call it self-fulfilling prophecy if you want, but Animal House hits home for anyone who has smelled the unholy scent of beer, whiskey, and dirt that haunts nearly every fraternity in America.
Most fitting are the predictions for the characters at the end of the film, which reveal exactly how well the filmmakers knew their characters. Stratton ends up a Beverly Hills gynecologist. Flounder becomes a self-help counselor. Otter and Katy marry in 1964 and divorce in 1969. Head Omega House fascist, Doug Niedermayer, gets killed by his own troops in Vietnam. And as for Bluto Blutarski, their prediction was the most apt. Sure, the filmmakers only predicted a senate seat for the legendary drunkard, but I think they sold him short. With the right Supreme Court and a weak Democratic opponent, Bluto could’ve gone all the way to the Oval Office. If he hasn’t already.
Advantage: Animal House
FINAL SCORE: Animal House 4 - Revenge of the Nerds 3