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DVD Review: Animal House/Vacation

By Glenn Abel

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photo Ask any lit major: You can't go home again -- not even at homecoming. The lesson comes to life in John Landis' where-are-they-now? mockumentary for the new "Animal House" DVD.

Landis rounds up most of the key surviving cast members from the 1978 college comedy classic and lets them ham it up. Boon, Katy, Otter, Flounder, D-Day and Hoover all show up. The director and his middle-age actors give it the old college try, but the result is about as vibrant as a long-in-the-tooth class reunion. "Animal House" didn't have a single boring minute; here you get 23 of them.

Let this "Delta Alumni Update" serve as a reminder that the filmmakers had the good taste and good sense never to mount "Animal House II." And Landis and Co. certainly have good will to burn, having all those years ago created one of the few true comedy classics of the past three decades.

Mockumentary aside, Universal's "National Lampoon's Animal House: Double Secret Probation Edition" (retail $19.98) will be required viewing for everyone who loves this film -- which is just about everyone. The uninitiated must wear beanies until the big homecoming scene.

The disc replaces a raggedy DVD from the early days of the format that dispensed wobbly sound and dark, grainy video. The new disc's images range from OK to quite good, while the audio, upgraded from mono to front-biased Dolby 5.1, adds punch to the comedy and grace to Elmer Bernstein's straight-faced score. The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, with the enhancement for 16x9 monitors. (Universal bills the picture quality and audio as better than on the original theatrical release.)

The 1998 DVD's sole virtue was a real documentary, "The Yearbook: An Animal House Reunion," in which the producers, writers, director and actors told many of the great stories behind the production. Fortunately, Joseph J.M. Kenny's engaging and fast-moving docu resurfaces on the new disc. For extra credit, the new DVD sports optional pop-up trivia.

Producer Matty Simmons, publisher of the National Lampoon, tells how his company's first feature film project was cooked up in an effort to keep burned- out humorist Doug Kenney from quitting the magazine.

The original story, at one point "Charles Manson in High School," had youngsters awash in sex and drugs. Fearing a lynching, Simmons steered writers Kenney, Harold Ramis and Chris Miller into the college years. Miller, especially, was at home on campus, having mined his undergrad experiences at Dartmouth for a series of short stories in the Lampoon.

None of the writers had a clue about screenwriting. The project hit town as a 104-page treatment, a beast that no film execs wanted to read or buy. A Lampoon fan finally opened the door at Universal, where rising young execs Sean Daniel and Thom Mount adopted the project. Mount says "Animal House" was misunderstood the entire time it was at the studio.

Director Landis, who'd just made piles of money with the low-budget, lowbrow "Kentucky Fried Movie," seemed to be on the same whacked-out wavelength as the Lampoon crew. The studio was skeptical, but eager to replicate his success.

"So much of what I wanted to do, they really thought I was crazy," Landis recalls of the Uni suits.

Among the chief complaints: There were no stars, just unknowns rounded up by casting director Michael Chinich. They included newcomers Tom Hulce, Kevin Bacon and Karen Allen. Bacon happily worked for scale, even though he didn't know what the term meant.

Landis landed the omnipresent Donald Sutherland for a minor role, and the project finally got its green light. (Sutherland made $50,000 for two days' work, instead of taking points that ultimately would have made him at least $17 million, the trivia track claims.)

"Animal House" needed its "great animal," the filmmakers decided, and so popular "Saturday Night Live" comic John Belushi came aboard for $40,000. (The ill-fated horse's salary rivaled Belushi's.)

Landis made a point of bringing the film's heroes, the Delta frat boys, on location at the University of Oregon a week early. They quickly bonded and partied like it was 1979, snubbing the actors who would play their grim rivals, the Omegas.

At mealtime, Bacon, Mark Metcalf (Doug Neidermeyer) and James Daughton (Greg Marmalard) glumly sat off by themselves. "We would throw things at them and look the other way," recalls Stephen (Flounder) Furst. Belushi, true to legend, incited the first food fight before the cameras rolled.

Metcalf, known to still sign autographs with the notation "You're worthless and weak," recalls deliberately changing his hotel room to one above the Delta actors' party room, where he listened to the all-night racket, spit-shined his ROTC shoes and stewed.

Most of the film was shot single-camera. Landis had little time for improv, remaining "extraordinarily faithful" to the tight script, Ramis says.

Karen Allen, who plays a Delta girlfriend, the only mature character, says her fondest memories were of the relationship between Landis and Belushi. The docu has a must-see clip of Landis and Belushi killing time on the set, with the director prompting his star to act out a full range of emotions.

Like most of the "Animal House" gang, Bacon came away a major fan of Belushi. "His bigs were bigger than big, but he also had this side to him that was very sweet and quiet."

Landis felt good about his film -- at least before showing it to Uni film chief Ned Tanen, who walked out on a screening, angered by the decidedly noncomic scene in which Tim Matheson's character is beaten up by the Omega thugs.

"Animal House" narrowly escaped a studio overhaul when its test screening happened to coincide with a nearby fraternity convention. The first audience was 80% Greeks.

"The screening was like 'The Firebird' -- they ripped the seats out, they went insane," Landis recalls. "It was incredible, riotous."

Alas, on the DVD, Universal kicks off this classic film with visual spam: a handful of ads for upcoming videos that can't be chapter-bypassed. The ads come up each time the disc is played. Repeat viewers, beware.

Other extras include an original trailer narrated by Otter ("School was fun in those days") and a smoking remake of Otis Day and the Knights' big number, "Shout," done by tattoo rockers MxPx.


Harold Ramis knows road trips. Five years after "Animal House," he directed "National Lampoon's Vacation," the Chevy Chase starrer that spawned a series of successful sequels.

Warner has released a "20th Anniversary Special Edition" (retail $19.98) that includes new commentary from Ramis, Chase and the actors who played the first Griswold kids, Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron.

The mom, Beverly D'Angelo, is MIA. Chase calls her "one of the most talented women in the world." Also getting props are supporting actors Imogene Coca ("The Gilda Radner of her generation"), Randy Quaid and Christie Brinkley, who made her film debut as the girl in the Ferrari.

Ramis, who directed from a John Hughes script, says National Lampoon films were "always hard-edged" and "a little crueler" than his own material. Still, "I was always willing to push it a little further (for Lampoon)." He hangs his head over one "dehumanizing" scene in an East St. Louis ghetto.

Ramis and Chase delight in war stories from their shoot, which wandered across four states. The production's caravan of trucks would "stop, shoot and move on," tracking the Griswold family as they drove from Chicago to the mythical Wally World theme park in Southern California. In John Ford's Monument Valley, cast and crew cheered as a stunt man broke some kind of record jumping the Griswolds' station wagon from hell.

The film's original ending had Chase's character, the goofy Dad, snapping when the theme park is closed. Wielding a pellet gun, he invades the home of the park founder (a thinly disguised Walt Disney) and makes him and his executives dance and sing for the family's entertainment.

Test audiences were not amused. They thought they were going to Wally World. So the ending was reshot, with John Candy as a security guard who reluctantly gives the family their day at the theme park. The kid actors had noticeably grown by the time of the reshoots, as they gleefully point out in the commentary.

The new "Vacation" disc looks and sounds fine. Extras include an odd game involving the station wagon and an original trailer.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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