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By Tom BakerPublished 3 months ago Updated 3 months ago 4 min read
Vic (Dan Ackroyd) examining edible panties in NEIGHBORS (1981)

Neighbors is a 1981 weirdo black comedy that was the final film appearance of the doomed John Belushi, who died of a heroin/cocaine speedball two and a half months after the film's release (March 13, 1982). Belushi was thirty-three years old, by the way, when he died. The film is notable for several reasons, one of which being it led to the band Fear, one of the great early powerhouse L.A. punk bands, being booked to "Saturday Night Live," where they infamously played a song as their fans started a miniature riot, (Apparently Ian McKaye, from Minor Threat, as well as members of the Cro-Mags were in the audience.)

That appearance got Fear banned and blacklisted from Saturday Night Live and television in general. Belushi, a punk rock fan, had wanted the band to perform on the soundtrack. No dice. They used "Holiday in Cambodia" by The Dead Kennedys instead (although you can only barely hear the music in the scene).

Fear - "Neighbors" (Unused soundtrack song for film)

But all that is only a small part of the trivia of the movie, which is based on Thomas Berger's 1980 novel. Additionally, the director, John "Rocky" Avildsen, was disliked by both Belushi as well as Ackroyd, who went so far as to petition to have him removed). The screenwriter, Larry Gelbart, was wildly unthrilled with major changes to his material, and, on the whole, there was a feeling of doomed contentiousness about the small-budgeted black comedy. (Which was made for eight million dollars. It eventually earned thirty, making it a profitable, if critically panned, largely, movie. Although the late Roger Ebert gave it three stars and said it was truly an "experiment.")

Regardless of critical appraisal, the film is a success, portraying a completely believable characterization of a bourgeois zombie, Earl Keese (Belushi), and his dull-as-paste little life, which is turned almost immediately upside down by the entrance of Vic and Ramona (Dan Ackroyd and Cathy Moriarty), the very, very disturbing, if reliably friendly and social next-door neighbors, who move in on Earl and his wife over twenty hours, bringing Earl's life to ruin. Earl, grinding out an impoverishing (if affluent) existence in a two-story house beside another dilapidated one, lives with wife Enid (Kathryn Walker). Daughter Elaine (Lauren-Marie Taylor) is away at school, punk-rocking her life away until expelled due to an accusation of theft. She returns, looking like a 1981 MTV VJ, with a bag full of edible, see-through panties that Ackroyd/Vic finds most amusing.

Ramona, with her sultry Mae West self, tries to turn on Earl, who flounders with embarrassment. Vic borrows the car and thirty bucks to go get Italian, but Earl, hiding behind the hedges of Vic's house, realizes Vic is making the Italian himself in a filthy kitchen while listening to The Doors. He's already witnessed his curious, seemingly turncoat wife feeding steak to the Zeck's dog when she assured him the best he could get for dinner was burnt frozen waffles. In retaliation, Earl moves the brick holding Vic's station wagon in place ("I got no brakes. Heh-heh!") and it rolls into the adjoining swamp.

Thus begins the late-night miniature suburban war.

Vic is a real character, stepped right out of an SNL skit: loud, Seventies Goodwill clothing, dyed blonde hair, and a gold-capped tooth. His demeanor is glad-handing, garrulous, happy-go-lucky velvet conceiling a subtle menace and a thriving psychopathy. Earl is restrained, timid; and understandably easily intimidated by the larger man, who shoots at him while wearing scuba gear and a Nazi helmet, standing on his balcony. He speaks German to his dog, has a Red Baron radio-controlled biplane, and escaped from a mental home. But the performance, as cringingly over-the-top as it is, is still the best thing in the entire movie.

The film has a Tim Burton, fantasy invading reality feel to it, with the two isolated houses placed side-by-side, alone, a mirrored contrast (Earl's suburban home juxtaposed against Vic's creepy Addams Family abode), and Earl's life is a tragicomic series of abuses hurled at him by cartoonish troglodytes: the hostile greasemonkey and his son (Tim Kazurinsky and Tino Insanna, respectively), the fireman who can't put out a fire (his limp hose with its comical spray a visual pun that would be used in Blue Velvet a few years later). His life is spent contemplating the self-parodying content of the television shows his glazed-over gaze wanders curiously across. At the end, perhaps spurred on by Ramona's sexual advances (she accuses him, at one point, of trying to "pork" her while they are all eating dinner), he has a "born again" moment when he realizes the Zeck's are "living life to the maximum," and he really, really loves his new friends.

We typically call this "Stockholm Syndrome."

Neighbors is a cultural relic, a curiosity; an entertaining one, but it still carries the glum pall of being Belushi's final film (and he is the straight man here, for a change, playing against Ackroyd's "wild and crazy guy"). It's dark, weird, understated; an inversion of culturally accepted norms of friendliness and communal good intentions, all gone sour just below the smiling surface. The soundtrack has a few weird theremin blasts ala "The Outer Limits," and this sets the tone right. (Think films like The Burbs and Bob Balaban's Parents.) It virtually all takes place in the dead of night. When daylight comes, you wanna go home.

No matter who the neighbors might be.

Neighbors (1981)


About the Creator

Tom Baker

Author of Haunted Indianapolis, Indiana Ghost Folklore, Midwest Maniacs, Midwest UFOs and Beyond, Scary Urban Legends, 50 Famous Fables and Folk Tales, and Notorious Crimes of the Upper Midwest.:

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Comments (2)

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  • ROCK 2 months ago

    I have got to see this. O thought I'd seen most all of the Belushi and darker comedic films of this genre. I was probably out dancin' at The Marble Bar in Baltimore around this time. Excellent piece.

  • Interesting. This came out right as I was finishing up my undergrad work & I have never seen it. Gonna have to come back & watch it as a blast from the past. (Always loved Akroyd & Belushi.)

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