When you think of classic 80s high school comedies, three films come to mind—Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink. A fourth film, however, once mentioned might make a listener put it at the top of the list. It’s funnier and much more quotable—(“Two dollars,” and “Do you have any idea what the street value of this mountain is?”). It’s Better Off Dead, directed by Savage Steve Holland and starring John Cusack as Lane.
While dealing with young love like the other movies, Better Off Dead focuses on another challenge of youthhood—car repair. Lane’s father, played by Ogden David Stiers of M*A*S*H, mentions the car twice, and his words read like Shakespeare writing from the office. His dad wants to “take a meeting” to talk about “the mystery car, which, even as we speak, darkens our domain under a moldy tarp” and “in an auto cocoon on my front lawn.”
When Monique (Diana Franklin), the French foreign exchange student from across the street, asks about it it’s the first time we learn that the car is a Camaro. Later, Lane finds Monique under his car with parts laid out around it. The tarp mostly covers it, so we still don’t get a look at it. She urges him to work on it, but he explains, “I have a great fear of tools. I once made a birdhouse in wood shop and the fair housing committee condemned it.” That, however, is nothing an 80’s montage scene can’t fix.
When Lane finally turns the engine over we are face-to-face with a black 1967 Chevrolet Camaro, right up on the grill and hood like the point of an arrow, all to the tune of “Mannish Boy,” the rocking blues song by Muddy Waters.
The car slides out of the garage into the sunlight, we see the grill and the chrome in its shining entirety, and it goes by in all its inky blackness, leaving us back at the garage before we can get a good look at the whole machine.
Then Lane and Monique pull up to a stoplight. Next to them are the brothers, Yee Sook Ree (Yuji Okumoto) and Chen Ree (Brian Imada) in a red 1965 Ford Falcon. One brother doesn’t speak English, and the other speaks only like Howard Cosell from “Wide World of Sports”. They’ve met four times at the same traffic light for a drag race, the first three of which the brothers won. But they don’t even get going before the Camaro is just gone. We never even get to see the cars race.
We catch a couple of glimpses of the Camaro again, but we finally get to see it in all its glory for the final shot of the film before the credits when Lane, Monique and the car are somehow at home plate at Dodger Stadium. Chrome vividly outlines the black car, and the camera backs away and up as the paperboy rides vigorously towards them.