On Mayfield Place, a cul-de-sac in the fictional suburban town of Hinkley Hills, Ray Peterson is on vacation from work for a week and is trying to learn more about his mysterious new next-door neighbors, the Klopeks, after hearing strange noises emitting from their basement late one night. Art Weingartner, the Petersons' other next-door neighbor, believes the Klopeks are murderers.
While snooping around one evening, Ray, Art, and veteran Lt. Mark Rumsfield watch Hans Klopek drive his car from the garage to the curb, then carry a large garbage bag from the trunk to the garbage can and bang it with a hoe. During the night, Ray watches the Klopeks digging in their back yard with pick-axes in a rainstorm. The following morning, Art checks the contents of the garbage truck as it is collecting the Klopeks' can. He is joined by Rumsfield and Ray, but they find no human remains, suspecting that's what the contents of their garbage contained.
Bonnie Rumsfield finds a dog running loose and realizes it belongs to another neighbor of theirs, an elderly man named Walter Sczenik, and wonders if Walter went away, it being unlike him to leave his dog running loose. Ray, Art, Bonnie and Ricky Butler (the kid who lives next door to the Rumsfields) go to Walter's house and find his toupee in the kitchen, also believing this to be a clue to Walter's sudden disappearance. Ray collects the dog and leaves a note for Walter, explaining the situation. The following night, Ray and Art have a meeting in the Petersons' basement and theorize about Walter's mysterious disappearance.
Carol, Ray's wife, grows tired of her husband and his buddies snooping around the Klopeks' home and she requests that she, Ray, and the Rumsfields pay the Klopeks a visit, meeting Hans, Reuben, and Werner while Art peeks around in the backyard. Later that evening, Ray reveals to Art and Rumsfield that he found Walter's toupee in the Klopeks' basement, which he had previously slipped through Walter's mailslot after the group found it inside his house a couple of days earlier. Deducing that the Klopeks must have entered Walter's house in order to retrieve the toupee, Ray and the others are convinced the Klopeks have murdered Walter, and the trio agree to investigate the Klopeks' backyard the next day, knowing the Klopeks would be gone for the day.
In the morning, Ray sends Carol and son Dave to go visit Carol's sister, leaving Ray free to explore the Klopeks' place with his buddies. After Art disables the Klopeks' security system, he and Ray enter the backyard and begin digging for Walter's remains, while Rumsfield stands guard on his roof. After hours of digging and finding nothing incriminating, Ray and Art enter the house, where they discover what they believe to be a crematorium. Ray then begins to dig into the loose soil that constitutes the basement floor, believing they must have incinerated Walter's body then buried his bones in the soil.
That evening, the Klopeks come back, only to drive back out when they see lights on in their basement. Rumsfield, Art, and Ricky are shocked to see Walter return home. When the Klopeks return with the police, Art goes into the Klopeks' home to rescue Ray, who after thinking he had discovered a crypt that contains Walter's remains, turned out to be a gas line that he struck with his pick-axe. He yells for Art to flee right before the house explodes into flames with Ray still inside. A disheveled and burned Ray emerges from the flames just as his wife returns.
Art talks to an officer, who explains that Walter had a medical emergency and his family took him to the hospital, thus explaining his mysterious and sudden disappearance. While away, Walter had made arrangements for the Klopeks to pick up his mail for him. When Ray had slipped the toupee through the mail slot, it got picked up mistakenly with the mail. Ray snaps at Art and declares that they were wrong about the Klopeks, before lunging at Art and then throwing himself into an ambulance on a gurney.
Joining Ray in the ambulance, Werner Klopek, thinking Ray must have seen a skull that he kept in the furnace, confesses that they murdered the previous owners of the house and that the skull belongs to one of them, thus revealing they were right about the Klopeks after all. He attempts to murder Ray by lethal injection to collect his skull as Hans assumes the role of the ambulance driver, but crashes into the Weingartners' house during the struggle. The gurney, with Ray and Werner still struggling on, rolls out of the ambulance and down the street. Ray makes a citizen's arrest on his would-be murderer as Ricky uncovers a large collection of human skeletal remains in the Klopeks' trunk. The Klopeks are arrested and the charges against Ray are dropped. Ray tells Ricky that he and his family are going away for a while and that he needs him to keep an eye on the neighborhood.
Screenwriter Dana Olsen based the script, under the working title Life in the 'Burbs, on experiences from his own childhood: "I had an ultranormal middle-class upbringing, but our town had its share of psychos. There was a legendary hatchet murder in the thirties, and every once in a while, you'd pick up the local paper and read something like 'LIBRARIAN KILLS FAMILY, SELF'. As a kid, it was fascinating to think that Mr. Flanagan down the street could turn out to be Jack the Ripper. And where there's fear, there's comedy. So I approached The 'Burbs as Ozzie and Harriet Meet Charles Manson."
Olsen's script attracted producer Larry Brezner, who brought it to Imagine Films. It was greeted with a warm reception from Brian Grazer. "I liked the concept of a regular guy taking a vacation in his own neighborhood, plus it was funny and well written. It suddenly dawned on me that Joe Dante would be fantastic [as a director] because it's a mixture of comedy, horror, and reality."
Dante, the director of Gremlins and Innerspace, and his partner, Michael Finnell, were immediately impressed by the concept of the movie. Dante, who specializes in offbeat subject matters, was intrigued by the blending of real-life situations with elements of the supernatural. "When I tell people about the story, a remarkable number say, 'On my grandmother's block, there were people like that. They never mowed their lawn, and they never came out, and they let their mail stack up, and nobody knew who they were'. And I must confess that in my own neighborhood there's a house like that, falling to wrack and ruin. I think this is perhaps a more common even than most people are aware of."
Dante, Brezner and Finnell agreed that Tom Hanks would be the most suitable actor to portray the harried Ray Peterson, a conservative man who tries to introduce excitement into his life by investigating the activities of his strange neighbors. Dante referred to Hanks as "the reigning everyman, a guy that everybody can identify with" and went on to give the umpteenth comparison between Hanks and James Stewart. Brezner echoed the sentiments, saying, "Hanks is an actor capable of acting funny rather than funny acting. He also has no problem with transition from comedy to Pathos, as he showed in Nothing in Common, and he's now proving himself as one of the country's most versatile actors."
Hanks accepted the role of Ray with enthusiasm. "What's so bizarrely interesting about this black psychocomedy is that the stuff that goes on in real life in a regular neighborhood will make your hair stand up on the back of your neck." He was also intrigued by his character with distinctive personality traits. "Sometimes there's more of an opportunity to create than others. Here's a guy with a great life – a nice house, a wife, a beautiful tree, a nice neighborhood – and he's happy. Next day, he hates it all. I thought something must've happened to him offstage. And that's the challenge for me of the part: to communicate Ray's offscreen dilemma. One of the reasons Ray doesn't go away on vacation is because it's another extension of the normalcy he's fallen into. So he thinks he'll try a more Bohemian thing, which is to just hang around the house. With a week's worth of free time on his hands, Ray is drawn into the pre-occupations of his neighbors, who always seem to be at home. But what I did is just back-story embellishment that any actor will do. Perhaps from my repertory experience. I don't ask a director for motivation. If he says, 'Go over to the window', I find the reason myself."
Hanks found admiration for Dante's directorial style, saying "Joe has a stylized, visionary way of looking at the entire movie. It's pure film-making – the story is told from the camera's point of view, and that's a type of movie I haven't made." Dante, in turn, praised his star. "The most impressive thing about Tom Hanks as a comic actor is how effortless he makes it seem. He actually is very diligent about his acting, but his comic sense of what is going to work – and what isn't – is really unparalleled."
The ten-week shoot took place during the summer of 1988, with Dante directing Hanks and the high-profile supporting cast. Dante's laid-back, casual style encouraged improvisation among the actors. He noted, "Tom doesn't like to do scenes the way they're always done. He goes out of his way to put a different spin on everything and his being good as he is and as open as he is encouraged the other actors to do the same. It set a tone for the movie that made it a lot of fun to make."
Filmed entirely at Universal Studios, The 'Burbs presented technical and logistical problems for Dante and the crew. "I can't think of many pictures since Lifeboat that all take place in the same area," Dante said as production got under way. "There was a lot of temptation to broaden it and go outside the neighborhood, but it seemed to violate the spirit of the piece. It's almost the kind of thing that could be a stage play except that you could never do on-stage what we've done in this movie."
Dante used the Colonial Street set on the back lot for the Mayfield Place cul-de-sac. The set had once been used in Dragnet (1987) also starring Tom Hanks. Coincidentally, the structure used as the Petersen home in The 'Burbs was used as the home of the character of "the virgin Connie Swail" in Dragnet. At the time The 'Burbs began production the Colonial Street set was being used as the location for the Still the Beaver television series – the 1980s follow-up to Leave It to Beaver, so the entire area 'reeked' of normalcy. Dante said, "I asked [production designer] James Spencer, a veteran of Poltergeist and Gremlins if he thought he could turn that street into the neighborhood we needed in that period of time. Spencer rose to the challenge, and within a few days they began work on sketching out the proposed designs for the sets. Spencer observed, "We had to be on the spot. Due to the lack of time, it would have been ludicrous to do our drawing elsewhere."
The sacred Beaver household had to be carted away to make room for the dilapidated Klopek home. By the time Spencer was through, the entire street had been reconfigured.
The Klopeks' house was not completely destroyed, and remained almost intact as it appeared in The 'Burbs for a number of years, albeit without the tower. The whole building can be clearly seen in a season-two episode of Quantum Leap. The house no longer exists in an easily recognizable form (the Van de Kamp house in Desperate Housewives) but the right façade does still have some features of the original style. The original Klopek garage sits alongside the house, in much the same style as in The 'Burbs.
The other houses (many of which are just façades) have been used in countless television shows, movies and music videos through the years. Perhaps the most notable is The Munsters' house, which is home to the Butler family in The 'Burbs. Due to its recognizability, the house's facade is never completely shown in the film. Two new houses, which were built specifically for the movie, were Walter Seznick's (which is still there to this day, see Desperate Housewives) and the Klopeks'.667: Walter Seznick
669: The Klopeks
670: The Rumsfields
671: The Petersons
672: Ricky Butler
673: The Weingartners
The film opened at number 1 with $11,101,197 in its opening weekend (February 17–20, 1989). Overall, in the US, the film made $36,601,993 and $49,101,993 worldwide.
The film received mixed reviews from critics, as The 'Burbs currently holds a rating of 46% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 28 reviews.
The first DVD release of The 'Burbs was Region 1, which contains English and French language. This release includes an alternate ending in which Werner Klopek attempts to kill Ray but is caught in the act by Rumsfield and Carol. While being arrested, he gives a satirical monologue about why he moved to the suburbs.
This was followed in 2004 by the European/Australian Region 2/4 release entitled The 'Burbs Uncut. The 'uncut' in the title refers only to scenes removed from the TV versions which are present on the DVD; there is nothing additional from the theatrical release. However for the first time, the UK release included the clips from the three films watched by Ray on his TV (namely Race with the Devil, The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), which had previously been cut by the BBFC from the original theatrical and VHS versions.
Arrow Video released The 'Burbs on Blu-ray in 2014 in the UK. The edition included a commentary by screenwriter Dana Olsen, a newly commissioned feature-length documentary and a work print with temp music and deleted scenes provided by Joe Dante himself (who also helped in the restoration of the film). The deleted scenes included, among other things, a Kevin McCarthy cameo, a dropped subplot about Ray's job problems and different versions of some scenes.
The orchestral soundtrack was composed by Jerry Goldsmith and includes references to his Patton tune for the Rumsfield character.
Joe Dante used Ennio Morricone's "Se Sei Qualcuno è Colpa Mia", from My Name Is Nobody, as a temp track for the scene in which Ray and Art walk up to the Klopeks' house instead of using the cue Goldsmith composed for that scene ("Let's Go").
- "Main Title" – 2:23
- "Welcome to Mayfield Place" – 2.20
- "New Neighbors" – 2:06
- "Klopek House" – 2:02
- "Storytelling" – 3:20
- "Neighborhood Watch" – 2:01
- "A Nightmare in the 'Burbs" – 2:30
- "Brownies?" – 0:47
- "The Assault" – 2:36
- "Ray Peterson, Neighbor from Hell" – 1:43
- "Runaway Ambulance" – 2:24
- "Vacation's End" – 2:12
- "End Titles" – 4:10
Total duration: 30:34
Deluxe edition, also by Varèse Sarabande:
- "Night Work" (Main Title) – 2:38
- "The Window / Home Delivery" – 2:22
- "The Raven" – 0:51
- "Nocturnal Feeders" – 0:27
- "Good Neighbors" – 2:06
- "Let's Go" – 2:04
- "Bad Karma" – 0:38
- "The Sentinel" – 3:22
- "My Neighborhood" – 2:04
- "The Garage" – 4:24
- "Spare Key" – 1:19
- "The Note" – 1:00
- "Devil Worship" – 1:12
- "The Dream" – 2:34
- "The Note #2" – 1:28
- "This is Walter" – 2:00
- "Snooping Around" – 0:50
- "I'm O.K." – 1:02
- "Ask Him" – 1:24
- "What's in the Cellar?" – 1:00
- "The Wig" – 2:23
- "Hot Wires" – 2:39
- "Red Rover, Red Rover" – 1:11
- "No Beer" – 3:07
- "Home Furnace" – 1:44
- "No Lights" – 0:48
- "Walter's Home" – 1:58
- "Something is Moving" – 1:46
- "There's a Body" – 1:04
- "My Skull / The Gurney" – 2:24
- "The Trunk" – 1:41
- "Pack Your Bags" – 2:15
- "Square One" (End Credits) – 4:14
The insert of the 2007 album includes the following note from Varèse producer Robert Townson:
"Universal Pictures released The 'Burbs in February 1989. No soundtrack album was forthcoming. A mere three years later (although it seemed like a lot longer at the time) the score was rescued in the Varèse Sarabande CD Club. Well, thirty minutes of it was, at any rate. But Jerry Goldsmith's exceptionally inventive and inspired score for The 'Burbs had a lot more to offer. As of 2007, the Musician Union rules have changed in this neighborhood. Though a straight re-issue of our original CD would go against the Club's intent, an expansion of this order (over twice the amount of music) in this new era of soundtrack releases, seemed to warrant a special exception. This expanded edition also returns to Jerry Goldsmith's original track titles, where our previous release featured titles by yours truly. Now over an hour long, this Deluxe Edition of The 'Burbs gives a new generation the chance to discover a comedy classic. It gives those who've been to this neighborhood before the opportunity to revisit the Peterson house, now with a new coat of paint, some new landscaping and a roomy extension that has been added. Hinckley Hills has been refurbished and is all set to weather the next decade or two. It's a great place to raise a family!"
Like the deluxe version of the soundtrack, the score has 33 tracks:
- "Main Titles"
- "The House"
- "Welcome to Mayfield Place"
- "Shooting Crows"
- "Dave's Story"
- "New Neighbors"
- "Klopek House"
- "Bad Karma"
- "Neighborhood Watch"
- "Garbage Disposal"
- "Little Dog Lost"
- "A Klopek Watching"
- "A Hell of TV"
- "A Nightmare in the 'Burbs"
- "Leaving the Note"
- "The Bone"
- "A Horse in the Basement"
- "Planning the Raid"
- "The Assault"
- "On the Roofs"
- "Searching the House"
- "The Search Continues"
- "The Furnace"
- "Walter is Back"
- "Ray Peterson, Neighbor from Hell"
- "Runaway Ambulance"
- "Canvas Fight"
- "Skulls" / "Catching Pinocchio"
- "Vacation's End"
- "End Titles"
The music played during the fight scene between Werner and Ray, known as either "Runaway Ambulance" or "My Skull / The Gurney", is also used at a crucial point in Dante's next film, Gremlins 2: The New Batch."Machine" by Circus of Power
"Se Sei Qualcuno è Colpa Mia" by Ennio Morricone (from the My Name Is Nobody soundtrack)
"Questa o Quella" by Enrico Caruso
"Locked in a Cage" by Jetboy
"Make Some Noise" by Jetboy
"Bloodstone" by Jetboy