Revenge of the Nerds

Revenge of the Nerds
Directors: Jeff Kanew
Screenplay: Steve Zacharias & Jeff Buhanik (story by Tim Metcalfe & Miguel Tejada-Flores and Steve Zacharias & Jeff Buhai)
Stars: Robert Carradine (Lewis Skolnick), Anthony Edwards (Gilbert Lowe), Timothy Busfield (Poindexter), Andrew Cassese (Wormser), Curtis Armstrong (Booger), Larry B. Scott (Lamar), Brian Tochi (Takashi), Julia Montgomery (Betty Childs), Michelle Meyrink (Judy), Ted McGinley (Stan Gable), Matt Salinger (Burke), Donald Gibb (Ogre), John Goodman (Coach Harris)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1984
Country: U.S.
Revenge of the Nerds
Revenge of the NerdsAs I finished watching Revenge of the Nerds, it occurred to me that I had no idea where the word nerd came from. According to The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, nerd is listed as originating around 1965 in hot-rod and surfing slang, although it was in oral use prior to 1955. It originally meant “a foolish or ineffectual person,” and it derives from the similar word nert, which meant a crazy or stupid person.

I bring this up not to turn a review of a mid-’80s gross-out college satire into an exercise in academic pedantry, but to help illuminate some of what is happening in Revenge of the Nerds below its comedic surface. I find it interesting that nerd originally conveyed a sense of stupidity or foolishness, because that is quite the opposite of the meaning used in the movie (and in modern discourse, in general). Rather, the nerds here are intelligent, creative, innovative, and cunning. In short, if there is any “ineffectualness” here, it is simply in the nerds’ inability to conform to the mainstream. It is their outsider status that marks them as nerds, and they are outsiders because they have different priorities.

What Revenge of the Nerds makes clear, in both the story and its title, which humorously suggests a horror movie of sorts, is that “beautiful people” (jocks, sorority girls, cheerleaders, etc.) don’t truly dislike nerds. Rather, they fear them. This is a key distinction, and it is one that often slips through the cracks because being feared is a form of power. Nerds are to be feared because, early in life, they seem weak, ineffective, and outside the social body. Yet, as time passes, the simple fact is that nerds become powerful while beautiful people, whose position in the social stratum is based on physical appearance and athletic prowess, begins to slide. Nerds are smart, and intelligence and knowledge increase with time, leading to professional success and the accumulation of wealth. The athleticism and good looks of jocks and cheerleaders can only go downhill.

Thus, worked into the subtext of the movie is the jocks’ latent fear of the nerds based on their repressed knowledge that, someday, the people they mock and torture will overcome them. This, for instance, also comes out in Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), in which the class nerd in the 1950s is a successful and confident businessman at the 25-year high school reunion. In real life, there is no better example than Bill Gates. You can laugh at his hair cut, sloppy clothes, and “nerdish” appearance all you want, but the fact is he is a multi-billionaire with more power and influence than most of us could ever dream of.

So, the central joke of Revenge of the Nerds is not that nerds get their revenge (that will happen in due time). Instead, the central joke is that the nerds get their revenge prematurely. They defeat the jocks and beautiful people during the time in which they should be superior. Thus, it is a double victory that is that much more humiliating for those defeated.

The two main characters in Revenge of the Nerds are Lewis Skolnick (Robert Carradine) and Gilbert Lowe (Anthony Edwards, now best-known for his role on TV’s ER), both of whom are nerds par excellence. They fit every cliché of nerd-dom, from the highwater pants, to the plain haircuts, to the outdated glasses, to the overloaded pocket protectors that are literally spilling over with pens, pencils, and the like. Lewis stands out even more with his awkward overbite and haw-hawing laugh that makes him sound like a braying donkey (apparently it’s genetic because his nerd father, played by James Cromwell, has the same laugh).

When the movie opens, Lewis and Gilbert are entering their freshman year at Adams College. Lewis, the more outgoing of the two, is confident that they will have a great year. He is so sure that he and Gilbert have entered manhood and left their tortured high school years behind them that he boldly goes forward, thinking they will be accepted into the powerful Alpha Beta fraternity, which appears to be populated exclusively by the football team.

As one might guess, things do not go as Lewis planned. In fact, the first 45 minutes of the movie play out one humiliation after another. Along with the other freshmen, Lewis and Gilbert are tossed out of their dorm rooms and made to live in the gym after the Alpha Betas burn down their fraternity house during a party and take over the dorms as their place of residence. They are tricked into thinking they will join the fraternity and are then dehumanized in some kind of awful ritual (thankfully left off-screen) involving condoms and a sheep. When they finally gather together with some other nerds and refurbish an old house, the jocks throw a rock through their window. The final insult comes when, during a party meant to impress the leaders of the Lambda Lambda Lambda fraternity, for which the nerds have formed a probationary chapter, the jocks let loose a dozen pigs in the house. Thus, it is time for revenge.

One of the creative aspects of Revenge of the Nerds is the way the screenplay sets out a broad spectrum of rejected outsiders and shows how each of them contributes a particular knowledge or skill that, when combined, is more than enough to defeat the jocks at their own game. While their technical skills are used during a high-tech panty raid of a sorority house, which incorporates the use of video cameras and a satellite dish, the majority of their skills are employed in the Greek Games at the annual Homecoming Carnival, the winner of which gets to choose the president of the Greek Council.

Gilbert and Lewis contribute natural leadership skills and their knowledge of computers. The various musical skills of the nerds, from Booger’s (Curtis Armstrong) ability on guitar to Poindexter’s (Timothy Busfield) violin playing, are put to use in the final skit competition, in which they stage a show that is part Devo and part Michael Jackson. Wormser (Andrew Cassese), a preteen gifted child made to go to college many years before his time, knows aerodynamics, which he uses to design a special javelin for Lamar (Larry B. Scott), the group’s flamboyantly gay member.

As the various members make clear, Revenge of the Nerds is not so much about the conventional idea of what a nerd is, but rather it is about the socially downtrodden in general. The group includes not only stereotypical nerds like Lewis and Gilbert, but also minorities (in the form of foreign-exchange student Takashi, played by Brian Tochi) and the homosexual Lamar. Therefore, it is of little surprise (although still funny) that the nerds officially become a chapter of Lambda Lambda Lambda, which is an exclusively African-American fraternity. The conflation of discriminated-against minorities and discriminated-against nerds is something of an uneasy pairing, but it does bring out the fact that predjudice is prejudice, no matter who it’s aimed at or for what reason.

Revenge of the Nerds “Panty-Raid Edition” DVD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • French Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • Subtitles English, Spanish
  • Audio commentary by director Jeff Kanew and stars Robert Carradine, Timothy Busfield, and Curtis Armstrong
  • “I’m a Nerd, and I’m Pretty Proud of It” retrospective featurette
  • Revenge of the Nerds TV pilot
  • Six deleted scenes
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Distributor20th Century Fox
    Release DateMarch 6, 2007

    After comparing the two, it appears to me that this disc offers the same anamorphic widescreen transfer that was available on the 2000 Fox Double Feature DVD of Revenge of the Nerds and Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise. The previous transfer was pretty good and probably couldn’t be improved much, considering the film’s low budget. The image is fairly sharp and detailed through most of the film (a little softness here and there), with good color saturation (all those reds on the Alpha Beta sweaters sometimes veer toward a tad of oversaturation, but it is very minor). There is some film grain evident in the darker scenes, but none of it is distracting. The original monaural soundtrack has been remixed into a subtlety effective Dolby 2.0 surround track. There is nothing particularly outstanding about it, but it does what it needs to without pushing its inherent limitations. The songs on the soundtrack have a nice spaciousness that enhances their mid-‘80s electronic pop vibe, and the dialogue is always clear and well-rendered (especially Robert Carradine’s wonderfully braying laugh).
    While many double-dip reissues don’t improve much on the original DVD, the “Panty Raid Edition” of Revenge of the Nerds, despite its ridiculous title and awful cover art, adds a solid array of supplements not found on the previous edition. First, there is an audio commentary by director Jeff Kanew and actors Robert Carradine, Curtis Armstrong, and Timothy Busfield (alas, Anthony Edwards continues to refuse to have anything to do with his nerd past). There are lots of good production anecdotes throughout the commentary, and the participants sound like they had fun recording it. “I’m a Nerd and I’m a Pretty Proud of It” is a new 40-minute retrospective documentary that features interviews with most of the cast, including Carradine, Armstrong, and Busfield, as well as Ted McGinley, Larry B. Scott, Julie Montgomery, and even Andrew “Wormser” Cassese. Director Jeff Kanew also appears, at one point saying he got the job directing the film when he promised the studio he would make it something he “would be ashamed” to put his name on. The production, not surprisingly, was like a nonstop fraternity party, partially because the studio didn’t care about the film and was actively hoping it would be a flop so they could use it as a tax write-off. There are six deleted scenes, which range from an additional event at the carnival to a strange subplot involving the nerds going to the Tri-Lam national convention in Las Vegas. All six scenes together run about nine minutes, and although they are essentially in rough cut form and are lacking any post-production work on the soundtrack, they are presented in anamorphic widescreen. The real gem on this disc, though, is the inclusion of the rightfully failed 1991 pilot episode of a Revenge of the Nerds sitcom starring TV D-listers Rob Stone (Mr. Belvedere) as Lewis, Lightfield Lewis (brother of Juliette Lewis) as Gilbert, and former child actor Robbie Rist (best known as Cousin Oliver from the last season of The Brady Bunch) as Booger, who he plays as an obnoxious hippie. The pilot is even worse than you would imagine it to be; although essentially the movie shrunk down to 25 minutes, it impales itself on shrill overacting and stale laugh-track gags. Still, it’s worth watching out of pure curiosity and I salute Fox for including it. The disc also includes the original theatrical trailer and a trailer for Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise.

    Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright ©20th Century Fox

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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