'Better Off Dead' and the Elusive Genius of Savage Steve Holland

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Writer and director ‘Savage’ Steve Holland lacks the name recognition of a John Hughes or a Cameron Crowe, but for a fleeting moment in the mid ‘80s, one could argue that he soared to more dizzying and audacious heights than either of those teen-film giants ever managed. Like Better Off Dead protagonist Lane Meyer’s run down the K-12, Mr. Holland’s 1986 opus still dazzles to this day due to its reckless bravado. 

Back then, the young director was flush with the confidence that none other than Henry ‘The Fonz’ Winkler believed in his genius. So much so, that after seeing Holland’s first short film, The Fonz helped get him a studio deal. So Savage Steve threw himself into the project, without much interference from the studio, committing himself to acts of great peril, like animating a ground-beef version of Eddie Van Halen and wedging a sax solo into a candlelit fast-food dinner. The end product was a teen movie the likes of which hadn’t been seen before – and hasn’t been attempted since.

Better Off Dead, and to a lesser extent, Holland’s follow-up, One Crazy Summer, tossed out the script on what you could do in a teen comedy. He fearlessly delved into absurdity and slapstick, embraced nihilism and sociopathy, and mixed in oddball touches like gross-out food humor and animated notebook doodles along the way.

Despite some early buzz, Holland has trodden a path not unlike many of his characters. He has cut an engaging figure, and has made surprising and sometimes unexpected contributions, but has always done so from the fringes.

Still, Holland designed The Whammy, the animated scamp that frustrated contestants but delighted viewers of mid-80s game show Press Your Luck. He worked as an assistant director on Saturday Night Live for two seasons, created a star-studded animated Fox Kids show called Eek! the Cat, and went on to write for an impressive selection of teen sitcoms like Kenan & Kel and Lizzie McGuire. Not a bad haul for an entertainment industry misfit.

In Better Off Dead, we get a glimpse of Holland’s idiosyncratic sense of humor and his willingness to risk everything – as he takes on the indignity of suburban teen existence. This is coming-of-age filmmaking at its most original and daring. And, by the way, it's loads of fun. Stay tuned for more about the underrated cast, the music and the timeless appeal of Better Off Dead in the coming days and weeks. Meanwhile, get tickets for our upcoming event today for only $12!

Boondocks Film Society