Critics considered National Lampoon's Animal House to be cheap, terribly plotted, and in bad taste upon its release in the summer of 1978. Nevertheless, the comedy struck a chord with its public and grossed more than $90 million in its first year. The movie's success inspired an entirely new genre of teenage "animal comedy" movies and three television network series and started a craze of toga parties on college campuses nationwide. It also launched the movie career of comedian John Belushi.
Despite the lasting influence of the film, many movie studios agreed with the initial critics and passed on the script. John Landis remembers thinking that he was the last person asked to direct, and only then because everyone else had turned it down. As it was, the studio gave him less than $3 million to make the movie, which afforded him a cast of largely unknown actors and a set that is in real life the University of Oregon campus in Eugene, Oregon.
Based in part on co-writer Chris Miller's college experiences in the 1960s, Animal House begins innocently enough with two freshmen seeking to pledge to a fraternity. Set in the early 1960s at fictional Faber College (Miller was quoted as saying that this was the last class to graduate before the Kennedy assassination), the two freshmen discover that they are either too "dweebie" or fat for most of the fraternities except Delta House.
The Delta House fraternity is an image that most college Greek societies have been trying to forget since 1978. Simply put, it is a collection of politically incorrect and incorrigible students whose most intelligent member is averaging less than a 2.0 grade point average. The strait-laced Dean of the school is determined to see Delta evicted from campus and its members expelled. In what is questionably called a plot, the remainder of the movie is a series of skits about the run-ins between the Dean and Delta House. Among these skits are the food fight between Delta and the Dean's cohorts, Belushi's imitation of a zit, and the toga party.
It was Belushi's portrayal of Bluto Blutarsky that was one of the movies most enduring images, virtually typecasting the manic Saturday Night Live alumnus as a gross, excessive, drinking party animal on-screen and off. For most of the movie Bluto speaks in unintelligible grunts, his big monologue coming near the end when he encourages a demoralized Delta House to take its revenge on the Dean. Thus, Animal House ends with a Delta-inspired riot at the college's Home-coming Parade. The characters then all head off into the sunset, with captions revealing their eventual fates (Bluto's was to become a Senator).
Teenagers and college students were instantly struck by the movie's anti-establishment message. Of all the figures in the movie, Bluto was the one least cut out to be a Senator. Also, the only role model the students seem to look up to is the English professor who is seen smoking dope. Soon, the antics of Delta House were to be rehashed in such movies as Police Academy, Porky's and other "animal comedy." Studios sought to reinvent the success of the movie, as well as it's financial profits—virtually all of the following movies were made on shoestring budgets but returned large box office receipts. Jeff Kanew, director of Revenge of the Nerds, remembers that his studio told him to "Give us an Animal House, " and he directed a movie complete with food fights and beer-drinking contests.
Over time, however, the teenagers moved on to different fare, and Animal House could only be found on cable channels in the 1990s. Greek societies have tried to change the image of the "animal house," though it still comes back to haunt them every time there is a binge drinking related tragedy on a college campus. The stereotypical image of strange, ham-handed initiation rites, sex groupies, and excessive toga parties is still as fresh as in July 1978. The legacy of Animal House is best summed up in the names of the Bluto clones that appeared in the television series created to cash in on the movie: Blotto, Gobo, and Zipper.
—John J. Doherty
Clarke, Gerald. "And 'Animal House' Begat…." Time. April 15,1985, 103.
Meyers, Kate. "'Animal House' Opens." Entertainment Weekly. July 25, 1997, 86.