Harold Ramis & co either had a far more depraved time at university than most of us, superbly exaggerated their experiences for comic effect, or some of us just didn’t do the university experience properly (we suspect it’s a combination of all three). Whatever the answer, since its release in 1978, Animal House has been inspiring generations of students to squander their chance at a good education in the name of debauchery.
Loosely based on the university experiences of Ramis, his co-writers and producer Ivan Reitman, the film tells the story of Delta House, the “worst fraternity on campus”, populated by the kind of students any self-respecting university wouldn’t let through the front door – amongst their number The West Wing’s Tim Matheson, Amadeus’ Tom Hulce and, most importantly, the late great John Belushi.
Already one of the biggest stars on Saturday Night Live, Animal House gave Belushi a wider audience for his anarchic humour, and he made the most of it. Although Blues Brothers was still to come, Animal House may well be his finest hour. The scene where he impersonates an exploding zit is legendary, but the film is packed with classic Belushi-isms: smashing guitars; breaking the fourth wall with looks to camera, or even just repeatedly shouting “Holy shit!” – all to hilarious effect. Although they try their hardest to keep up, the rest of the talented cast (including Karen Allen and Kevin Bacon in their debuts, along with some bloke called Donald Sutherland) have scene after scene effortlessly stolen from them.
Whilst the fraternity system has been relentlessly mocked in everything from Revenge Of The Nerds to Scream Queens, it has never been sent up better than here. The anarchic Deltas and their rivals, the straight-laced Omega House, set the template for all frat-based comedies to come. Even Pixar’s Monster’s University was directly inspired by it (although with considerably less swearing and nudity). Likewise, the Dean (John Vernon) created the template for adversarial educators. Without Animal House, Ferris Bueller’s life would have been a whole lot easier.
Animal House also set the standard for a thousand (mostly inferior) raunchy teen comedies. Its combination of vulgarity, gross-out and raunch means everything from Porky’s to American Pie owes it a massive debt. But rarely have its imitators matched the inventiveness on display here. It delivers a series of memorable set-pieces, with the standouts including a superb bad-taste sequence involving a horse, along with the legendary toga party.
Whilst some of the attitudes – particularly towards women – may not have dated brilliantly, the humour remains timeless. Separately, Ramis and director John Landis would go on to give us Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places and American Werewolf. Animal House stands proudly alongside any of those classics. All together now: “Toga! Toga! Toga!”
ANIMAL HOUSE (1978) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: JOHN LANDIS / SCREENPLAY: HAROLD RAMIS, DOUGLAS KENNEDY, CHRIS MILLER / STARRING: JOHN BELUSHI, TIM MATHESON, JOHN VERNON / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW