Joe Dante’s distinctly American genre career has focused on the horror of suburbia: Gremlins, Small Soldiers, The Hole and, even in title, The ‘Burbs all concern what can happen in our very neighborhood—be it supernatural, science fiction, or just plain ol’ crazy neighbors. Not to be confused with the primarily 80s and 90s staple sub-genre of the Domestic Thriller (such as Poison Ivy or The Babysitter), Dante’s Suburbia Horror almost always positions families, rather than a sole individual, as victim or perpetrator, at the center of the terror. At the center of The ‘Burbs is a family…or two.
If the idea of suburban horror doesn’t begin with the title of The ‘Burbs, then it does with its tagline: “He’s a Man of Peace in a Savage Land…Suburbia.” Introducing the location of its story as “savage” indicates how Dante will portray the developed neighborhood in which our characters live. Despite clearly being tongue in cheek, the tagline welcomes unpredictability—something most would argue suburbia is the opposite of. Dante was born in 1946 and raised in suburban New Jersey, in the midst of the boom of urban sprawl and the creation of the car-dependent and strip mall ladened suburbs that much of the American population now calls home. The suburbs are seen as quiet, safe places to raise a family and commute to work in or around a major city, but in Dante’s films suburbia is anything but safe.
The carefully manicured enclave that Tom Hanks’ Ray and his wife, played by Carrie Fisher, call home functions like most suburban neighborhoods: people tend to their lawns, kids play outside, neighbors come over to borrow food or raid the fridge. But what happens when your new neighbors don’t mow their lawn, don’t keep a “normal” schedule and look differently than everyone else? Now we could consider this gentrification, but in The ‘Burbs this is a cause for great concern to Ray and his neighbors, including the curious kid played by Corey Feldman and the loud Vietnam vet played with zeal by Bruce Dern.
Ray and his neighbors are terrified by the arrival of the Klopeks, a strange family who function as the Other in an entirely whitewashed, middle class America where xenophobia reigns supreme and appearances are key—in the 99% vs. 1% 2010s, this isn’t all that foreign a concept. They do everything they can to find out who the Klopeks are and what they’re doing in that house (but who they are and/or are doing isn’t really the point here, is it?). The Klopek’s house itself functions as a sort of scapegoat for those who inhabit it. The idea of a haunted house in an American neighborhood, particularly a suburb, is an old one and it permeates pop culture still from Stephen King’s It to the animated Monster House and 80s gory horror fare like Night of the Demons. It’s a tried and true narrative device but Dante subverts it into being about more than a house—about the politically and socially divided America we lived in then and still do today.
Late 80s genre cinema wasn’t deeply concerned with the mundane space of suburbia. It wasn’t particularly cinematic. Family comedies and dramas were set there but, if you look at big budget action cinema from 1989, you see the Gotham of Batman, the New York City of Black Rain and the Los Angeles of Lethal Weapon 2 and Tango & Cash. Even horror had moved to the big city with Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. The suburb was relegated to dramas like Steel Magnolias and Field of Dreams. It was considered predictable, like the structure of a melodrama—the excitement wasn’t there. But Dante saw it again and again.
Following The ‘Burbs, Dante would set both Small Soldiers and The Hole in suburban neighborhoods. Like The ‘Burbs, both deal with suburbia being somehow invaded—toys come to life or supernatural forces inside of a basement hole—with the young leads taking matters into their own hands. Unlike The ‘Burbs, the protagonists got younger; Hanks, Dern, and Fisher were predominantly replaced by teenagers, the “prisoners” of suburbia who are just looking for some excitement—and they all get more than they bargained for. For Dante, suburbia isn’t safe, quiet or predictable—it’s full of secrets, transgressions, and challenges. But it’s also full of steadfast Americans who will stop at nothing to protect their way of life, for better or worse. In the words of The ‘Burbs’ Art: “I think the message to, uh, psychos, fanatics, murderers, nutcases all over the world is, uh, ‘do not mess with suburbanites.’ Because, uh, frankly we’re just not gonna take it any more.” And maybe, we’re all more alike than we let on.