Of all the cult films produced in the last half century, Joe Dante’s 1989 black comedy The ‘Burbs remains one of the most under-appreciated. This is unfortunate, as not only is the film genuinely funny, it contains a scathing, if subtle, critique of late 20th-century suburban society.
The film’s plot centers on a group of bored suburbanites trying to figure out how best to waste their summer vacations until a new family moves in to their cul-de-sac. The family, a secretive group of vaguely Eastern European Slavs, immediately manages to arouse suspicion amongst the neighborhood’s sun-baked petty bourgeois with their eccentric habits. Before long, many of the residents of Mayfield Place have convinced themselves that their new neighbors are not only oddballs but murderers.
The main protagonist, Ray Peterson (memorably played by Tom Hanks), is the classic henpecked husband who just wants to spend his short summer vacation relaxing at home instead of fruitlessly “going to the lake” per the advice of his nagging wife. He is the most relatable character in the film, a classic everyman battling the banal suburban demons of boredom and malaise. The film’s other characters, thankfully for the viewer, are much more quixotic. There is Art, Ray’s friend, who is also the neighborhood conspiracy theorist; Rumsfeld, the unhinged military veteran; Ricky Butler, the resident juvenile delinquent; and Walter, an old man with the block’s best lawn, which is kept that way in part because he trains his tiny dog to defecate in his neighbors’ front yards instead of his own.
The story proceeds from suspicions about the strange new neighbors, the Klopeks, being a family of serial killers to an ultimately successful search for proof of their wrongdoing, which culminates in the protagonists burning down the Klopeks’ house. What is far more interesting, however, is what the film seems to be saying about its own idyllic suburban setting.
Mayfield Place is the apotheosis of 20th-century American suburbia. The neighbor’s children play on well-manicured lawns while their upper-middle-class parents watch from spacious front porches while sharing gossip about mutual acquaintances. Nights are spent inside watching game shows or late-night television. Politics is rarely discussed, aside from when it is shouted at the TV in the form of a question on Jeopardy.
Yet there is no true community in Mayfield Place. Instead, its residents seem to be a collection of eccentric and economically secure individuals brought together by the whims of the real estate market. Their only real connection to each other is a shared interest in finding the best ways to kill time on their summer vacations until they are forced back into their middle management cubicles.
Filmed in the late 1980s, during the age of Ronald Reagan and Perestroika, The ‘Burbs is a portrait of a country on the verge of losing its mind. The apparent serenity of Mayfield Place’s two-car garages belies a latent anxiety and boredom among its residents that eventually explodes into a fiery and comedic outburst of collective madness.
One of the more memorable lines from Alan Moore’s now-classic graphic novel Watchmen, set in an alternate timeline where America won the Vietnam War, is when The Comedian remarks that had they lost the war, “I think it might have driven us crazy.” The obvious allusion is to the social chaos and upheaval that America experienced in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
If anything, Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs offers a counter-thesis to The Comedian’s observation: what really drove America insane wasn’t losing a war but winning one.
The ‘Burbs was released in the winter of 1989, and by November of the same year the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union had begun to rapidly disintegrate. America was finally victorious in its long cold war against the forces of global communism. It might be argued, however, that it lost just as much as it gained. For though the U.S. was now the lone and undisputed superpower, its main foe was gone, as was the narrative of righteous conflict that had given its people meaning and a sense of collective identity for so long.
Afterwards, America and its people, like the residents of Mayfield Place, were forced to deal with one of the most unexpected and difficult spoils of victory: boredom. And they descended into a similar quest to find ways to stave it off. Looking back on many of the political and cultural obsessions of the 1990s, such as the televised trial of O.J. Simpson and the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky/Ken Starr impeachment melodrama, one is struck by the pettiness of it all, the national version of neighborhood gossip.
In this sense, The ‘Burbs was strangely prophetic, and not just with regard to its understanding of post-Cold War spiritual boredom. Jeopardy and neighborhood gossip can only go so far towards providing sustenance amidst a directionless existence. This tedium was only relieved, in both Joe Dante’s fictional suburban inferno as well in real-world America, by the entrance of a suspicious and foreign “other.”
With the arrival of this “other,” the residents of Dante’s cul-de-sac suddenly find their attention diverted away from the unbearable monotony of their own lives and towards the new wellspring of potential meaning suddenly offered by these interlopers. In much the same way, America was on the case of Bosnia or Saddam Hussein, and the sleuths of the American suburbs got to hunt down their own real-life versions of the serial-killing Klopecks.
The film’s climax—though it is slightly cheapened by a subsequent contrived reveal that the Klopeks were, in fact, guilty all along—sees the residents of Mayfield Place burn down the Klopek family house while searching for evidence of their supposed crimes. They find nothing. As the sirens began to wail and the police closed in, the terrible possibility begins to dawn on Ray Peterson that perhaps, as he says in his final monologue of the film:
Remember what you were saying about people in the ‘burbs, Art? People like Skip, people who mow their lawn for the 800th time, and then snap? Well, that’s us. It’s not them, that’s us. We’re the ones who are vaulting over the fences and peeking in through people’s windows. We’re the ones who are throwing garbage in the street and lighting fires. We’re the ones who are acting suspicious and paranoid, Art. We’re the lunatics. Us. It’s not them. It’s us!
He wasn’t wrong.
Dan DeCarlo is a freelance writer from Buffalo, New York. He currently lives Washington, D.C.