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Revenge of the Spazzes

Better Off Dead

In 1985-86, 25-year-old CalArts animation grad Savage Steve Holland wrote and directed — and got Warner Bros. to fund and distribute — two highly idiosyncratic, John Cusack–starring, live-action/animation–hybrid comedies: Better Off Dead ... and One Crazy Summer. Though released at the peak of the Brat Pack epoch, the Holland flicks are worlds apart from the angst-as-universal-language humanism of John Hughes. Cocktails of cartoonish live action and acid-edged animation, deadpan absurdist violence and virtual sexual innocence, these two features bear the Brit-comic influence of Richard Lester and Monty Python while critiquing the very American concept of sympathy for the little guy — which Holland was.

Cusack's nerd-studs hang with cracked crews (Curtis Armstrong as whip-it-huffing seven-year high school senior; Bobcat Goldthwait wreaking havoc in a Godzilla suit) and lead spazzy sidekicks in fights for freedom from the tyranny of near-Aryan preppies, the frustrations of the high school food chain funneled into gleeful class-war, wish-fulfillment fantasies. Both films flopped. Cusack disowned them, and Holland's career as a writer-director stalled as quickly as it had started.

Over decades, Dead ... and Summer have been reclaimed as cult classics; last month, Turner Classic Movies premiered Dead ... in prime time, rendering its cable-aided canonization complete. We chatted with Holland ("Everyone just calls me Savage," he says) in advance of Cinefamily's August 14 Dead .../Summer double feature, which Holland will host, joined by Armstrong and Goldthwait.

L.A. WEEKLY: Why do they call you "Savage"? 

SAVAGE STEVE HOLLAND: It's the world's stupidest nickname. I've had it since I was a little kid. I kicked a kid in the teeth accidentally, and I started crying because I knocked his tooth out. It was already loose, but I didn't know that. So it's [sarcastic], calling the big dumb wimp dude "Savage." The sad part was, later people thought it was cool, so I kept it.

Better Off Dead ... and One Crazy Summer play today more like personal indie movies than generic studio teen flicks. How did you get them made?

I was trying to make Better Off Dead ..., and then Fast Times at Ridgemont High came out, John Hughes' movies came out, and suddenly the teen thing was really hip and chic, so I had the perfect script at the perfect time. And this producer, Michael Jaffe, was looking for someone to rewrite a teen movie, and I said, "Well, if you want me to rewrite it, why don't you just make Better Off Dead ...?" And he said, "You know what, that's a good idea."

And then they just let you run wild?

They really trusted me. I would never get that movie made these days, but I just wanted to put in everything I knew about filmmaking — cartoons, Claymation, everything — because I figured I'd have one chance at it. Today the comedy police would stop me.

But then it was released ...

... and I was put in film jail. That's [when] the first weekend, when you don't do well, your agents don't talk to you. And then after [Summer], I did this other movie, called How I Got Into College. It was already written and they plugged me in as the director, and I think that was my third strike. And I'm grateful for the chances that I had like you wouldn't believe, but there's a point where I'm, like, "OK, I'd like to try and make a movie again," and everybody's, like, "I don't think so, mister. Stop right there."

Your name gets a lot of "whatever happened to" chatter online, but you've been busy working in kiddie TV [Holland created The Adventures of Beans Baxter and Sabrina: The Animated Series, and regularly directs episodes of tween hits like Jonas and Zoey 101]. So you've found a safe haven for your sensibilities at the Disney Channel?

Yeah, yeah. The stuff that people thought was so weird [about my movies], like mixing animation and live action, that's becoming a staple of tweener TV. I think lunacy is not a bad thing anymore. Looking at Better Off Dead ..., when it was made, nobody saw it and everybody who talked about it hated it. But it's played over and over again on cable, and now people are suddenly going, "That makes perfect sense that there's dancing hamburgers! Of course!"


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