Second Union

Second Union

VINTAGE SUMMER: Revenge of the Nerds (1984)

“These nerds are a threat to our way of life.”

Revenge of the Nerds, 1984 (Robert Carradine) 20th Century Fox

I wrote an article a while back about how the word, “nerd,” has changed over the last 30 years, and how everyone is a nerd, in their own way. Even the jocks of Alpha Beta would be called “sports nerds.” I even posit that the definition of the word could be any person or any group interested in something, anything. It’s not an obsessive interest. It’s not even devotion. Just an interest. Best friends Lewis (30-year-old Robert Carradine) and Gilbert (Anthony Edwards) are excited about college. Lewis’ nerd-Dad (James Cromwell) takes them to Adams College where they can study computer science. We’re almost immediately introduced to the accepted majority in the form of the sociopathic Alpha Betas, a group of jock malcontents appalled at the idea of nerds on their campus.

The idiot jocks burn down their own house and then force (somewhat violently) the nerds out of their building. I know we’re supposed to think it’s a culture-clash at play, but I think it’s much more politically-motivated. Because of the popularity of the Adams football team (cleverly called the “Atoms”), the football coach (John Goodman) is a more powerful figure on campus than the Dean (David Wohl). This would appear to be in strict contradiction to Adams College’s status as a premier technological institute. Perhaps they get funding from the CFA. The nerds are forced to take emergency shelter accommodations in the school’s gymnasium, and they can’t find decent apartments or living arrangements.

This is an unusual college comedy; the antithesis of a movie such as Animal House, where we cheered for the slobs and criminal element in direct dichotomy to the casual victimization of the nerds. For a movie with the word, “nerd”, in it, the story makes no effort to hamstring or put these characters in a box for easy identification. Though Lewis and Gilbert are visually stereotypical nerds (with glasses and pocket-protectors), the majority of their bunkmates are outcasts and misfits. While the movie (as a whole) wants us to like the nerds, the writers demonstrate unbelievable cruelty toward them. Making them the source of the humor, but then turning around to lionize them by movie’s end is jarring, for me.

They find a house and fix it up, but this is too much for Alpha Beta leader Stan Gable (26-year-old Ted McGinley) so he puts a rock through their new window. As we move along with the harassment campaign, it becomes clear the jocks have an obsessive, irrational hatred of anything that even remotely resembles either a nerd or someone who isn’t a jock. Campus Security can do nothing for them, so they have to apply for membership with the “Greek Council,” which is top-heavy with jocks. They’re rejected by every fraternity organization on campus except Lambda Lambda Lambda (run by Bernie Casey). This is an awkward situation because Casey marks them as “nerds,” which, again I don’t understand. I thought of college segregation in the ’50s and ’60s, and I almost want to believe Revenge of the Nerds is making a socio-political statement. In fact, the word “nerd” is used almost as a racial epithet, but most of the racist content in the movie is limited to pothead “Booger’s” (Curtis Armstrong) incessant mocking of Brian Tochi’s Toshiro.

After an embarrassing incident involving a drove of pigs let loose by the Alpha Betas in the house during a swinging party, the nerds finally decide to take revenge. The revenge takes the form of breaking into the Pi Delta Pi house on a “panty raid” and installing closed-circuit cameras so they can spy on the girls in various states of undress. This seems surprisingly immature for this group of “intellectuals,” especially since the tactic doesn’t exactly advertise REVENGE on a big scale. Later, they pour Liquid Heat in the jock-straps of the football team, which makes them extremely uncomfortable to wear. Now that’s more like it! This is a legitimately funny scene. The prank impresses Bernie so he accepts the nerds into Lambda Lambda Lambda. With the power of a fraternal organization at their behest, they take their case back to Greek Council, but McGinley stalls the investigation.

Next, we get the “Homecoming Carnival,” wherein the winner or winners are named President of the Council. That’s an unusual (and convenient) system of election. The nerds try to rig the competition where physical strength is not a factor. The nerds let the jocks “win” the tug of war, while “Booger” easily faces “Ogre” in the belching contest. In one of the more controversial scenes from the movie, Lewis dons Stan’s costume and pretends to be him so he can make love to Betty. This would be rape in any other movie, but because Lewis is such a stellar lover (better than Stan evidently), she’s instantly smitten with him. Whoa! That’s a bit rich. The Alpha Betas retaliate by trashing their house and destroying their helper-robot. This is a Carrie-level of psychosis. Carradine and Edwards unite the new majority against the Alpha Betas. Everyone that doesn’t feel as though they fit in joins the nerds, but no one is being told to stay in their lane. Interesting choice. Despite the more troubling bits in the movie, Revenge of the Nerds is a fun, well-made inspirational teen sex comedy.

Related Articles