This holiday weekend marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Back to the Future, the 1985 Michael J. Fox science-fiction comedy that was loads of fun, made even bigger loads of money and inspired two sequels. But it’s actually not even the most noteworthy movie anniversary this weekend.
July 4 marks the 30th birthday of Airplane!, the 1980 disaster movie parody from the writing/directing team of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker. Honing the broad spoof comedy they had shown off in Kentucky Fried Movie, the “ZAZ” boys took the plot of the 1957 melodrama Zero Hour and turned it into a wild ride that took on everything from Airport to Saturday Night Fever in high absurdist style. For better and for worse, it also completely re-invented the career of Leslie Nielsen, whose deadpan performance as Dr. Rumack was his entry point into the ZAZ Police Squad/Naked Gun franchise, and eventually into years of shameless mugging in every genre parody that came down the pike.
It’s worth returning to the example of Airplane! when we see the lazy garbage that was “inspired” in later decades by its ground-breaking example. The Wayans brothers’ Scary Movie films—eventually taken over by David Zucker—began this drift towards the misguided notion that name-checking a memorable scene or character from another movie is the same as offering clever parody (see -- or, preferably, don't see -- Epic Movie, Dance Flick, Meet the Spartans, etc.). Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker didn’t think that a reference was the equivalent of a joke. They were willing to work at their craziness, even if that meant a combination of hilariously inappropriate references to pedophilia (“You ever see a grown man naked?”), broad visual gags (literal shit hitting a literal fan) and surreal self-referencing (co-pilot Roger Murdock, played by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, being recognized by a young boy as … Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
Like the Mel Brooks parodies that came before it, Airplane! wasn’t exactly subtle. But 30 years later, surely it still ranks among the funniest, most inspired movie comedies ever. And don’t call it Shirley.