20 Things You Never Knew About Better Off Dead
Although he’s not generally considered a member of the ‘Brat Pack,’ John Cusack was a key actor in 80s teen movies. 1985’s surreal dark comedy Better Off Dead gave the then-19-year-old Cusack one of his first leading roles, and the part of the angst-ridden, recently-dumped teen Lane Myer helped forge his reputation as a loveable screen dork. Here are some facts about the film which you might not have known.
20. John Cusack took the lead role after being turned down for Back to the Future
Better Off Dead gave the then-19-year-old John Cusack one of his first leading roles as Lane Myer.
However, with a different role of the dice, Cusack could have taken the starring role in another 1985 comedy.
The young newcomer was among the actors considered for the part of Marty McFly in Back to the Future.
Cusack was on the initial shortlist of contenders to play the time-travelling teen, alongside Eric Stoltz, C. Thomas Howell and Ralph Macchio.
Unfortunately for Cusack, he was passed over for the role, which (after a false start with Stoltz) ultimately went to Michael J. Fox.
You probably don’t need us to tell you that, of the two films, Back to the Future wound up the significantly bigger hit: it took almost $389 million at the box office, whilst Better Off Dead flopped on release, making less than $11 million.
19. It was semi-autobiographical for writer-director Savage Steve Holland
Though PG-rated on release in the US, Better Off Dead tackles some pretty sensitive subject matter.
Cusack’s Lane is sent into a downward spiral after his girlfriend (Amanda Wyss, otherwise best known for A Nightmare on Elm Street) dumps him for the captain of the high school ski team.
As the film’s title suggests, Lane comes to believe he’d be better off dead, and makes several attempts to take his own life.
While the film presents these events in a cartoonish manner, all of this really happened to writer-director Savage Steve Holland when he was in high school.
Holland has revealed since that the ex-girlfriend in question got in touch with him years later.
Apologising profusely, Holland’s ex informed him, “I’ve been in therapy because I saw your movie and I had no idea.”
18. Roy Stalin actor Aaron Dozier was very rude to the director at his audition
Aaron Dozier co-stars in Better Off Dead as Roy Stalin, the new boyfriend of Lane’s ex-girlfriend.
As the captain of the ski team and a stuck-up bully, Dozier needed to show some attitude for the part.
As it turned out, the actor demonstrated that he had those characteristics without meaning to.
On arriving for his audition, Dozier had never met director Savage Steve Holland before. The actor then asked another person in the room, “Who’s this chubby kid?”
As insulting as this might have been, Holland immediately recognised that Dozier was right for the part.
A skier in real life, Dozier didn’t act again after Better Off Dead, but has reportedly worked as a college ski coach in Boston.
17. Paperboy actor Demian Slade approached the part “as if I was a serial killer with no intention of making it funny”
One of the most memorable characters in Better Off Dead is Demian Slade’s paperboy Johnny.
Another character based on a real-life figure from the director’s teenage life, the sinister pre-teen stalks Cusack’s Lane demanding his payment of two dollars.
Slade was 12 years old at the time, with one credit to his name in another 1985 movie, sci-fi thriller Radioactive Dreams.
The actor recalls that he “approached [the role of Johnny] as if I was a serial killer with no intention of making it funny.”
Whereas most child actors tend to sell themselves on being cute, Slade “brought in a headshot of me wearing a leather jacket and looking really menacing.”
Slade went on to appear in TV series Second Chance, and briefly had a recurring role on The Wonder Years.
16. The animated burger scene was added to replace a rejected scene about a deep-fried rat
Better Off Dead features scenes which show Cusack’s Lane working in a fast food restaurant.
In the original script, there was a scene in which a rat accidentally falls into a deep fat fryer, and is served up to a customer.
The film’s producer dismissed this idea as being too disgusting, so writer-director Holland had to come up with a replacement.
This became the scene in which Lane daydreams about a burger coming to life and performing the Van Halen song Everybody Wants Some!!
This proved to be a good move, as this stop-motion animated sequence proved to be a highlight of the film.
Better Off Dead’s test audiences declared it their favourite part of the movie, and it remains a favourite among the fanbase.
15. Cusack thought the film was “the worst thing he had ever seen” and was furious with the director
After being met with a lukewarm response on release, Better Off Dead eventually became a cult classic.
However, one notable figure who was not impressed with it at the time was John Cusack.
The actor didn’t see the completed Better Off Dead until he had already started work on writer-director Savage Steve Holland’s next film One Crazy Summer.
A furious Cusack walked out twenty minutes into a screening of Better Off Dead, and afterwards didn’t hold back in expressing his anger with Holland.
The director recalls Cusack declaring “that I sucked, and it was the worst thing he had ever seen, and that I had used him, and made a fool out of him, and all this other stuff.”
It’s particularly perplexing that Cusack felt this way, as the actor was in fact present for most of the editing process on the movie, which should have given him a good idea what to expect from the final film.
14. Cusack has since clarified that he doesn’t hate the film
For a long time, it was widely reported that Cusack despised Better Off Dead, and that he would refuse to ever talk about it.
However, in more recent years the actor has spoken out on the film in more measured terms.
Cusack told fans in a Reddit Ask Me Anything session that Better Off Dead “was fine,” but that he “didn’t really have a feel for it.”
Cusack has also expressed some regret about the circumstances surrounding his falling out with Savage Steve Holland.
Nonetheless, Holland has said that Cusack’s treatment of him was “the second time my heart was broken since that girl that Better Off Dead was about.”
Holland has admitted that the experience played a large part in putting him off making further films.
13. It flopped at the box office, but was huge on home video
As with a lot of 80s movies which wound up becoming cult classics, Better Off Dead was a critical and commercial flop on release in 1985.
However, the film went on to find a whole new lease of life via the still fairly new medium of home video.
Director Holland says that VHS rental stores “completely saved” his film from disappearing into obscurity.
The filmmaker recalls, “it was always out [of stock] at any Blockbuster Video I walked into.”
“I’d talk to the guys who worked there and they were like, ‘You know, people rent it and they don’t bring it back.’”
As was also commonplace, television screenings were another way that Better Off Dead reached a great deal of its audience.
12. Writer-director Holland and actor Dan Schneider went on to work in children’s TV
The supporting cast of Better Off Dead includes actor Dan Schneider in the role of Ricky Smith.
Smith went on to appear in a few more movies before getting a long-term job on TV comedy Head of the Class.
Whilst on Head of the Class, Schneider got his first experience of writing and producing – and he would go on to pursue this further.
Schneider enjoyed huge success with his company Schneider’s Bakery, which enjoyed a run of hits on children’s TV network Nickelodeon.
Schneider created and produced many popular shows including Drake and Josh, iCarly and Victorious.
However, Nickelodeon ended their relationship with Schneider in 2018 following allegations of misconduct. This would appear to have ended Schneider’s career, although several shows he created are still running without his involvement.
11. Savage Steve Holland also went on to work in kids TV
Better Off Dead actor Dan Schneider isn’t the only person from the movie who went on to work extensively in children’s television.
Writer-director Savage Steve Holland also went on to enjoy a prolific and successful career in that small screen arena.
After completing his next movie One Crazy Summer, Holland created madcap TV comedy The New Adventures of Beans Baxter.
Holland would then return to his first love of animation, directing the pilot of cartoon series Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures, as well as creating Eek! the Cat and The Terrible Thunderlizards.
In the years since, Holland has done a lot of directing for Nickelodeon and The Disney Channel, both in animation and live-action.
His small screen directorial credits include episodes of Lizzie McGuire, Big Time Rush and Zeke and Luther. More recently, Holland created Netflix kids show Malibu Rescue.
10. The ski lodge scenes in Hot Tub Time Machine include a nod to Better Off Dead
25 years after Better Off Dead, John Cusack starred in Hot Tub Time Machine, another surreal dark comedy that features ski-ing.
Cusack co-stars with Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson and Chevy Chase in the film, which sees three old high school friends magically returned to the 1980s of their youth via the titular hot tub.
On top of similarities to the tone and subject matter, the 2010 comedy also features a notable nod to Cusack’s earlier film.
Around 26 seconds in on the clip above, a passer-by can be heard saying, “I want my two dollars!”
This is a reference to the recurring joke in Better Off Dead of the menacing paperboy demanding his overdue payment.
Hot Tub Time Machine was Cusack’s last real hit movie. The actor has since largely disappeared from major films, including 2015’s Hot Tub Time Machine 2.
9. Henry ‘The Fonz’ Winkler helped get the movie made
Savage Steve Holland had never written or directed a feature film before Better Off Dead.
Like a lot of first-time filmmakers, Holland got his break because an influential figure saw his work and liked it.
In Holland’s case, his powerful Hollywood advocate was Henry Winkler – best known to millions as The Fonz from Happy Days.
Holland had made a short film, My 11-Year-Old Birthday Party, which was screened at a film festival in the early 80s.
Winkler saw this short and was impressed. Taking Holland under his wing, Winkler got the young newcomer an office on the Paramount Pictures lot.
Although Winkler did not produce Better Off Dead himself, his support of Holland was instrumental in getting the film off the ground.
8. The film’s tagline was changed from ‘sometimes you’re better off dead’ following complaints
With a title like Better Off Dead, it’s obviously not too hard to accuse the film of being flippant about suicide.
Initially, the dark comedy’s poster and trailer sported a slightly darker tagline which would indeed seem to advocate ending one’s own life.
The tag line goes, “You’ve blown up your neighbour’s mom. Your seven-year-old brother has better luck with women than you do.”
It continues, “Your girlfriend has a new boyfriend. Sometimes, you’re… Better Off Dead.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of people who saw this poster were not too happy about the message it sent out, and complained to the studio.
In response to this, the tag line was amended to instead conclude with the words, “Relax, you’re never Better Off Dead.”
7. Yuji Okumoto’s dialogue was dubbed over by Rich Little
Better Off Dead gives Japanese-American actor Yuji Okumoto one of his first film roles.
Okumoto co-stars as Yee Sook Ree, who speaks in a voice similar to American TV sportscaster Howard Cosell.
Knowing that this was the plan, Okumoto worked hard on his impersonation of Cosell prior to the audition.
Sadly for the actor, all his dialogue was later overdubbed by comedy impressionist Rich Little.
Okumoto recalls he was informed by the producers that “they wanted to make sure the audience understood the dialogue. It was a little disappointing but, hey, it’s their film.”
Okumoto would later achieve greater recognition as Chozen, the villain of The Karate Kid Part II. The actor recently reprised this role on TV series Cobra Kai.
6. It was the first of several collaborations between Savage Steve Holland and Curtis Armstrong
Today, actor Curtis Armstrong is best remembered for the role of Booger in the Revenge of the Nerds movies.
The first film of that series had not yet been released when cameras started rolling on Better Off Dead.
At that point, Armstrong’s most high profile role was in Risky Business, and it was on the basis of that movie that the actor was cast as Lane’s best friend Charles.
Director Savage Steve Holland would cast both Cusack and Armstrong again for his second movie, One Crazy Summer (which was a marginally bigger critical and commercial success in 1986).
Unlike Cusack, however, Armstrong didn’t wind up having a massive falling out with his writer-director.
Armstrong would go on to work with Armstrong again, voicing the character of Scooter on animated TV series The Terrible Thunderlizards, a companion show to Eek! the Cat which ran from 1993 to 1997.
5. The studio resisted John Cusack’s casting
Considering how Cusack would later turn on Holland, it’s sadly ironic that the writer-director really fought to cast the actor in Better Off Dead.
Cusack only had a few roles to his name at the time, mostly small supporting parts in teen comedies Class, Sixteen Candles and Grandview USA.
However, Cusack got his first lead in The Sure Thing – which was produced by Savage Steve Holland’s mentor, Henry Winkler.
At Winkler’s recommendation, Holland pushed for Cusack to play Lane Meyer, but studio executives were resistant.
Holland recalls, “they were like, ‘This is not a leading man.’ I was like, ‘Yes, he is… You don’t even know what you’re getting right now. You’re gonna be so ahead of the curve to get Cusack now.’”
Cusack would indeed be a bona fide leading man before the end of the 80s, taking top billing in Hot Pursuit, Eight Men Out and – most famously – Say Anything.
4. Diane Franklin’s performance got her an invitation to sing the National Anthem at Dodger Stadium
Diane Franklin takes the key supporting role of Monique, the French exchange student who helps Lane get over his abandonment issues.
The romantic happy ending of Better Off Dead takes place at LA’s Dodger Stadium, so Franklin wondered if there was a way she could use this for publicity.
The actress (whose most high profile role up to that point was in The Last American Virgin) reached out to the stadium via her manager to try and arrange an autograph session – but instead found herself invited to sing the National Anthem before a game.
Franklin recalls, “when they introduced me, I thought they were going to say, ‘And here’s Diane Franklin from Better Off Dead’… [but] they wound up saying, ‘And here’s Diane Franklin.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Who knows Diane Franklin? Nobody knows who I am.’ It was so funny.”
After Better Off Dead, Franklin reunited with Holland on How I Got Into College, and most famously portrayed Princess Elizabeth in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
Soon afterwards Franklin largely retired from acting, but has since written a memoir with the incredible title Diane Franklin: The Excellent Adventures of the Last American, French Exchange Babe of the 80s.
3. The film’s California town Greendale doesn’t actually exist
It’s somewhat fitting that a movie which clearly doesn’t quite take place in the real world should have a fictitious setting.
We’re told that Better Off Dead takes place in the town of Greendale in Northern California.
However, although there is indeed a place called Greendale in California, the town we see in the movie does not exist.
The bulk of the film was shot in and around the Los Angeles County area.
The skiing sequences, meanwhile, were shot around the Salt Lake City region in Utah.
Some fans have speculated that the town of Greendale in the similarly madcap TV sitcom Community was named after the town in Better Off Dead.
2. Lane’s mother’s weird cooking was inspired by director Holland’s own mother
One of the many off-the-wall recurring gags in Better Off Dead revolves around the culinary experiments of Lane’s mother Jenny (Kim Darby).
It seems that everything she cooks winds up unrecognisable as whatever kind of food it’s meant to be.
This is another aspect of Better Off Dead which writer-director Savage Steve Holland took directly from his own teenage experience.
Holland says, “My mom would get McCall’s magazine, and she would find these recipes and make these things.”
“[She would always] have some excuse why they didn’t taste good—because she forgot something or she didn’t have an ingredient.”
Actress Kim Darby is best known for her role in the original 1969 western True Grit, and went on to appear in Teen Wolf Too and Halloween 5.
1. Prolific cartoon voice actor Elizabeth Daily appears as a singer
One scene in Better Off Dead features a live vocal performance by singer Elizabeth Daily.
Daily might not have the most familiar name or face, but we’re confident that you’ve probably heard her voice elsewhere.
On top of being an actress and singer, she’s also one of the most prolific cartoon voice actors around, usually credited as E.G. Daily.
Her best-known roles include Tommy Pickles of Rugrats, and Buttercup on The Powerpuff Girls, as well as dozens of other animated TV and film credits.
Daily also reunited with Savage Steve Holland to voice the character Wendy Elizabeth on Holland’s animated series Eek! the Cat.