According to Savage Steve Holland, the film is mostly autobiographical. Holland really was suicidal when his high school girlfriend left him for captain of the ski team. Also, he really did have a paperboy named Johnny Gasparini who would harass him for two dollars. According to Holland, when the film came out, the ex-girlfriend contacted him to apologize.
In a 2004 interview, Savage Steve Holland said of his suicide attempts which inspired this movie: "I went into the garage, and I put an extension cord on a pipe and I'm on a garbage can, and I'm thinking, 'Should I do this? Maybe this isn't a good idea.' Anyway, it was a plastic garbage can, and my weight just like crashed through it, and I fell, and the pipe broke! And it starts pouring water everywhere. And I'm basically in a garbage can, drowning. And my mom comes and...starts yelling at me for breaking a pipe, which is what any mom would do. So I started writing down stupid ways to kill yourself that would fail after that, and I put them in sort of a diary. And that diary kind of became Better Off Dead... (1985)".
When Beth (Amanda Wyss) shows up at the high school dance, the person standing behind her is wearing Freddy Krueger's sweater. Wyss played Krueger's first victim in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). A similar scene from Eek! The Cat (executive produced by Savage Steve Holland) during Season Five featured Eek wearing the exact same sweater when his nemesis Sharky has been experiencing nightmares.
Savage Steve Holland stated in an interview that John Cusack hated this movie and walked out of the film after twenty minutes during a special screening prior to the star of production on One Crazy Summer (1986). Holland said: "The next morning [Cusack] basically walked up to me and was like, 'You know, you tricked me. 'Better Off Dead...' was the worst thing I have ever seen. I will never trust you as a director ever again, so don't speak to me' . . . He was just really upset. And I said, 'What happened?! What's wrong?!' And he just said that I sucked, and it was the worst thing he had ever seen, and that I had used him, and made a fool out of him, and all this other stuff . . . It was so out of left field that it just floored me." Cusack completed principal photography on "One Crazy Summer" due to contractual obligations but it had it not been for this Cusack likely would have not done the second film with Holland.
The Camaro SS seen in the film was owned by the son of the transportation captain, who sold the car in 1989 a few years after the film's release. In 2002, the Camaro was located (in poor condition) at a private residence, where it was purchased, transported from Los Angeles to Orlando, Florida, stripped down, and restored by repair shop Time Machines of Hudson, Florida. The film car did not have the original motor (it was swapped out for a Chevrolet 400 out of a mid-1970s Impala or truck). As of 2014, the Camaro has been seen at several car shows.
The DVD sleeve notes declare that "writer/director Savage Steve Holland says 'Better Off Dead...' is semi-autobiographical. After his high school love ditched him, he picked up an 8-millimeter camera and made some depressing movies that had the exact opposite on his friends - they laughed." These couple of 8mm short films then got screened on the film festival circuit upon which Holland decided to develop the story ideas from these shorts into a feature-length screenplay for "Better Off Dead...".
When Lane gets home from the dance, he opens his brother's door to find lovely ladies in his room, the camera angle is a classic scene from The Graduate (1967) - the lady's legs are spread so we can see the boy in the doorway admiring her.
Lane's mother's experimental cooking was inspired by Savage Steve Holland's mother, who did the same thing. "My mom would get McCall's magazine, and she would find these recipes and make these things, and have some excuse why they didn't taste good-because she forgot something or she didn't have an ingredient," Holland told Entertainment Weekly. One year for his birthday-not Christmas-she gifted him with some TV dinners. "She was like, 'And I got you these really cool frozen dinners because you like the peach cobbler in this one' or something. And I was like, 'Wow. Really? This is my life.'"
Some movie posters for this film featured a long blurb that read: "You've blown up your neighbor's mom. Your seven-year-old brother has better luck with women than you do. Your girlfriend has a new boyfriend. Relax, you're never...BETTER OFF DEAD".
Henry Winkler was instrumental in getting the film made. In the early 1980s, Savage Steve Holland's short film, My 11-Year-Old Birthday Party, played at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Winkler saw the film and took a liking to Holland. At Winkler's suggestion, Holland checked out John Cusack in The Sure Thing (1985), which Winkler executive produced. After seeing the movie, Holland thought Cusack was perfect for the lead role. Holland had to fight to cast, as the studio didn't think he was much of a leading man, based on his nerdy turn in Sixteen Candles (1984).
The claymation hamburger scene was inspired by Savage Steve Holland's first job working at McDonald's. "There was this rumor that a rat fell into a vat at a chicken place and somebody got served fried rat," he said. "That was what I had in the original script. The producer said, 'That's really just disgusting and not even funny.' So I saw this guy Jimmy Picker had made this really funny claymation short film about mayor Ed Koch called Sundae in New York. I was like, 'If I could do something like that and still incorporate it into a hamburger scenario.' And then I had the Van Halen song. I put that together, and it was just so, so out there and stupid that everybody was really worried about it. But it was the highest testing thing when we went to the test audience. They thought that was the greatest thing in the whole movie."
As a promo for the movie, Diane Franklin had her manager contact the Dodgers Stadium to see if they'd be interested in having her do an autograph signing. "I just kind of thought it would be fun for people, because if they saw the movie, and I was at Dodger Stadium-it would kind of be a fun venue for everyone to come and see me there," she said. The ballpark said no to a signing but asked her to sing the anthem. "What was unusual about that, was when they introduced me, I thought they were going to say, 'And here's Diane Franklin from Better Off Dead,' or, 'Here's Diane Franklin from Bill & Ted' or something. And they wound up saying, 'And here's Diane Franklin.' And I'm thinking, 'Who knows Diane Franklin?' Nobody knows who I am.' It was so funny."
When twelve-year old Demian Slade auditioned for the role of Johnny Gasparini, he wore a leather jacket and looked serious. "I approached it as if I was a serial killer with no intention of making it funny," Slade told Entertainment Weekly. "I brought in a headshot of me wearing a leather jacket and looking really menacing." During the car wash scene, he actually broke the windshield with his newspaper. "It was an accident but I was pretty proud of myself," he told Facebook. "They had to replace it. It's not easy to crack a windshield with a newspaper, especially when you are a little kid."
Aaron Dozier insulted Savage Steve Holland before he auditioned for the role of Roy Stalin. "When I came in, I didn't know who 'Savage' Steve was at first," Dozier told Moviefone. "I [looked at one guy and] said, 'Who's this chubby kid?' Turns out, he's the director." Holland remembers Dozier interrupting him as he watched the dailies. "All of a sudden this pompous jerk comes in and says, 'Hey, who's the fat surfer?' And I'm like, 'Wow, who is this?' and they go, 'Savage, this is the guy coming in for Roy Stalin.' And I'm like, 'You have the part! You're perfect.'"
Elizabeth Daily is seen as a live musician - she would become a voice over actress in Savage Steve Holland's Eek! The Cat. The film also featured a scene where Lane has a pet cat (based on Holland's past as a cat owner).
The pig burger was filmed only 1¾ miles (2¾Km) from where Butch (Bruce Willis) parked his car when going back to his apartment in Pulp Fiction (1994)). See the filming locations section for both movies for exact addresses.
For the "K-12" mountain scenes, John Cusack and stunt doubles were made to wear welding goggles as opposed to the traditional ski goggles. According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, "the welding goggles blocked peripheral vision, thus forcing the stunt doubles to 'ski 50-degree slopes looking straight down'."
The sound bite "Mr Myer?!" that the math teacher Mr Kerber (Vincent Schiavelli) says to Lane Myer (John Cusack) in the classroom when he chooses him as the fourth student to put their formula for figuring out the mathematic equation on the chalkboard, is used in a small part as a sound bite in the Pre-Jackass movies CKY.
At 50:55 when Lane comes home from the school dance, his father (David Ogden Stiers) happens to be on a page titled "paranoia" and there are some words in Latin visible. One phrase that is visible is "reprehenderit in voluptate" which means "find pleasure".
The DVD/VHS cover of all the characters reflecting from John Cuzack's sunglasses shows someone hanging on to the sunglasses themselves. If you look closely, the hand that is holding on to the hinge of glasses is incorrectly drawn in reverse.
'Amanda Wyss' plays a character whose boyfriend is named Lane Meyer. In A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) her boyfriend's name was Rod Lane. So, one boyfriend's first name is the same as the other one's last.