Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 5, 2021)
Ah, the 1980s, back when major studios released comedies about suicidal teens – and only got “PG” ratings for them! Such became the case for 1985’s Better Off Dead.
High school student Lane Meyer (John Cusack) gets dumped by his girlfriend Beth Truss (Amanda Wyss). Because Lane feels more than slightly obsessed with Beth, he takes this poorly.
So poorly that Lane decides he can’t continue with his life, in fact. Lane makes a few attempts at suicide, though he proves inept at these and eventually pursues other paths to deal with the end of his relationship.
I understand that the “PG-13” rating remained fairly new in 1985, but it shocks me that Dead only got a “PG” rating. With teen sex, suicidal content and a character who tries to snort every substance he finds, the movie seems to rub against an “R”, much less a “PG-13”.
I also feel surprised that Dead enjoys a pretty good cult following. Absurdly dated, this becomes a mess of a movie.
Dead really does feel like the platonic ideal of an 80s “outrageous comedy”. Granted, I think some of this is intentional, as I get the impression Dead acts as semi-parody of the genre.
If Dead managed any wit or cleverness of its own, this might work. However, it feels less like a spoof of bad 80s teen comedies and more like an actual bad 80s teen comedy.
With a movie like this, we find a strong “you had to be there” factor. If you were a teen in 1985 and saw it then, you probably loved it and maintain an affection for it that allows you to overlook its flaws.
I was a teen in 1985, but as far as I recall, I never saw Dead. If I did, it failed to stick with me, so I bear none of this nostalgic connection to it.
As I watch it at age 53, I find it to offer a nearly incoherent collection of comedic beats without much to link them. Dead throws everything it can find at the screen and hopes some of it sticks.
Unfortunately, little of the material connects, so the movie becomes a bit of a chore to watch. This frustrates as the film’s wacked-out attitude means it should turn into a blast, but instead, it just feels random and asinine.
36 years after its debut, Dead retains a decent cult following. I can’t become an addition to that club, as I think it delivers little more than a headache.