Better Off Dead



Uneven, occasionally hilarious '80s teen comedy.
  • Review Date: September 12, 2008
  • Rated: PG
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Release Year: 1985
  • Running Time: 98 minutes

What parents need to know

Positive messages

Nobody here is very deep, and the hero's repeated attempts at suicide, though (half-heartedly) discouraged, are basically joke setups. "True" love, that is romance not based on who is the better, more popular guy/girl in homeroom, does win out at the end. Characterizations lean towards stereotypes (nerds, jocks, fatties, car-crazy Asians), but there's one girl who goes against the grain by being an ace mechanic and baseball fan, not a shallow blonde -- but she's emphatically not American, so go figure.


Reckless driving and car collisions, spills on the ski slopes, and one character beaten up (offscreen) by school athletes.


Brief talk/flashback about Lane losing his virginity to Beth (it's never clear whether or not it happened successfully) and condom use. Off-color confusion of words "testicles" for "tentacles" and "sex" for "sax" (as in saxophone). Visual joke in which a girl suddenly gets her clothes torn off down to bra and panties.


Some use of "s--t," "ass," and "damn."


Coca-Cola and Perrier labels rather obnoxiously thrust into foregrounds. Car models and the names of several winter-sports-gear product lines are evident.

Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Smoking for gag effect (it causes an explosion). One character talks enthusiastically about drugs, at one point pretending that a snow-covered mountain is pure cocaine (snorting the snow to make his point). Reference to drinking and moonshine whiskey.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that some releases of this movie carry the PG-13 rating, others a PG. It's pretty mild for its type nonetheless. There is drug humor and a few sexual references and modest swearing. Reckless behavior -- on the ski slopes and drag racing in streets -- is glorified. Queasiest factor for most viewers might be the repeated depiction of (unsuccessful) teen suicide as gag pratfalls.

Parents say

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What's the story?

Lane (John Cusack) is a typical teenager in a typically weird suburban northern California household (younger brother is a mad-scientist type; mom's atrocious kitchen techniques are right out of the the Addams Family, best friend is a crazed goofball). Lane adores his girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss), a fellow student he's been dating for six months. Straightaway she dumps him for the handsome, popular varsity ski-team champ, and Lane goes into a bad-luck tailspin. His car radio plays nothing but breakup songs, and he finds himself repeatedly humiliated in front of Beth, in and out of school. Other dudes (even a famous cartoon character!) tell him they're going to ask Beth out. The tormented Lane repeatedly tries to kill himself, but finds a promising new relationship with the proverbial girl next door -- a French-exchange student being amorously pursued by the fat "dork" son in her host family.

Is it any good?


BETTER OFF DEAD graduated to theaters with a homeroomful of D-grade locker-room comedies (many inspired by Porky's, whose title character cameos here) fixated on teen lust, teen drugs, and teen feuds/revenge/payback. While some critics failed it from the outset, Better Off Dead turned out to be a notch more upscale than most of its classmates and gained a "cult" reputation for its clever gags (even if some haven't aged too well; anyone for a Howard Cosell parody?) and zany blend of animation and live-action. Some individual bits are fall-down hilarious, if pretty much throwaways in a severely disjointed plotline.

A young John Cusack would have more multidimensional roles to play later in his career, and the absurdist approach to life from a bewildered adolescent's POV would be done in remarkably similar style -- but with more heart -- by TV's Malcolm in the Middle. Still, a generation of parents who grew up in the 1980s cherish Better Off Dead and might want to give it a spin again with their own offspring to see whether the humor holds up. That's if the cavalier treatment of suicide as a running joke isn't a dealbreaker.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the heartbreaks that come along with school crushes and first loves. Do you think this feature treats the topic sympathetically or just milks it for yocks? FYI, the writer-director claimed his own painful breakup as a youth inspired the comedy. What do kids think about the slapsticky teen-suicide angle, especially compared to achingly serious dramas on the subject such as Permanent Record and The Virgin Suicides? Is suicide no laughing matter, or is joking it away a good approach?

Movie details

Theatrical release date:October 11, 1985
DVD release date:July 16, 2002
Cast:Curtis Armstrong, David Ogden Stiers, John Cusack, Kim Darby
Director:Savage Steve Holland
Studio:Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
Topics:High school, Misfits and underdogs
Run time:98 minutes
MPAA rating:PG

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Learning ratings

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  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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What parents and kids say

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Kid, 12 years old September 6, 2014

Attemped Suicide

and Drug use
What other families should know
Too much violence
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking
Teen, 13 years old Written byteen_n_happy April 28, 2012


This is an ok movie. However, talk to your kids about suicide beforehand. It has a bunch of talk about it. Also has some sexual language such as "t*******s". Only let your kids watch if they can handle it.
What other families should know
Great messages
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Too much consumerism
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking
Teen, 13 years old Written bySafemancam001 February 28, 2011

Good movie, but would be rated PG-13 today.

This movie is pretty good, to admit it. It's my mom's favorite. "Gee, Ricky. I'm really sorry your mom blew-up last night" LOL!
What other families should know
Too much swearing


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