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 Jimmy 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 was being used at the time 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 stands two doors down from the Butler home 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'.
The opening sequence features a zoom-in on the Universal globe to an area in the Midwestern United States. As the camera zooms in further, a city becomes visible, then a street (a model of the Mayfield Place set), before settling on a view of the façade of the Klopek house.
For more information on the opening sequence, see here
Monday AM: Newspaper delivery. Ray watches Queenie take a dump on Rumsfield's lawn. Moments later Mark Rumsfield comes out and accidentally steps on it, causing a scene with Queenie's owner, Walter Seznik. Art almost kills Ray while attempting to shoot some crows. Invites himself in for breakfast. Ray and Art attempt to speak with their new neighbors, but are thwarted by an attack of bees.
Monday PM: Storytelling: Ray, Art, and Ricky.
Tuesday PM: Art interrupts Ray and Carol's watching Jeopardy! together for a spy session on the Klopeks. They, together with Rumsfield, watch Hans "drive the garbage down to the street and bang the hell out of it with a stick". Rain delay. Bummer. During the night, Ray watches the Klopeks digging in their back yard with pick-axes in the middle of a rainstorm.
Wednesday AM: Garbage collection. Art runs out to check the contents of the garbage truck. He is soon joined by Rumsfield and Ray — the latter taking a time-out from an argument with Carol about going up to the lake. Their search in the hope of finding human remains is futile. Bonnie finds Queenie is out on the loose and wonders if Walter went away and forgot to feed her. Ray, Art, Bonnie, and Ricky go over to Walter's house. Rumsfield lets them in. Inside, they find Walter's toupee. That, added to the fact that the television was left on and a chair was turned over, sets the alarm bells ringing in Art and Rumsfield's head. Ray writes a note to Walter explaining that he has his dog.
Wednesday PM: Ray and Art have a meeting in the Petersons' basement. Art puts theories of satanic rituals in Ray's head. Ray dreams about a satanic ritual, with him as the offering.
Thursday AM: Rumsfield and Art go over to No. 671 to see if Ray can come out to play. Negative: Carol has grounded him. The duo write a note to the Klopeks and slip it under their door. Art goes next door to tell Ray of the deed. Ray flips out. At Carol's request, she, Ray, Rumsfield, and Bonnie pay the Klopeks a visit. Art, intentionally not invited, snoops around in the Klopeks' back yard while the visitors meet Hans, Reuben, and Werner inside.
Thursday PM: Back at No. 671, Ray has a meeting with Art and Rumsfield in the Den. Ray reveals that he found Walter's toupee in the Klopeks' basement the previous day after initially putting it through Walter's mailbox. The trio agree to investigate the contents of the Klopeks' back yard when the owners leave in the morning.
Friday AM: The Klopeks leave for a meeting at the university. Carol, Dave, and the two dogs, Vince and Queenie, go to visit Carol's sister, Evelyn, leaving Ray free to carry out his dirty deed. 'Red Rover, Red Rover, let Art go on over.' Art and Ray vault the fence into the Klopeks' back yard while Rumsfield watches proceedings from his look-out position (the roof of his house). After having no luck after hours of (Ray's) digging, Ray and Art venture into the Klopek house, where they discover in the basement a furnace with a capability of reaching a temperature of 5,000 degrees. Ray begins to dig in the loose soil that constitutes the basement floor, believing there may be dead bodies buried there.
Friday PM: The Klopeks drive back into Mayfield Place, only to reverse back out when they see their house has been occupied. Not long after, Rumsfield, Art, and Ricky are perturbed to see Walter return home. Then the Klopeks return "with coppers". Art tells Ricky to delay them while he goes in and gets Ray. Ray hits the gas line with his pick-axe and yells at Art to get out. Just as Art does so, the Klopek house explodes into flames with Ray still inside. A few minutes later, a disheveled Ray emerges from the flames just as his wife returns from dropping Dave at her sister's house. Ray is read the charges against him. He ignores them in favour of admiring Carol's new hairstyle. Ray snaps at Art and gives his "We're the lunatics, not them" speech, before lunging at Art and then throwing himself into an ambulance on a gurney. Werner Klopek joins Ray in the ambulance a short while later and decides that, since Ray must have seen the skull of one of the Knapps in the basement, he would like his as a replacement. Hans assumes the role of the ambulance driver, but crashes into the Weingartners' house during the three-way struggle. The gurney, with Ray and Werner aboard, rolls out of the ambulance and down the street. Ray makes a citizen's arrest on his would-be assassin. Ricky uncovers a large selection of bones in the Klopeks' trunk; the Klopeks are arrested and Ray is off the hook. Bonnie: "Arrrrrt, your wife is home!" Rumsfield: "And your house is on fire!" Art: "My wife is home?!" With the local media descended on his street, Ray decides it's a good time to go away for a while. He asks Ricky to keep an eye on things while he's gone, and receives the reply, "You betcha, Mr. Peterson".
The DVD release contains an alternate ending feature. It is similar to the original but less action-oriented. Dr. Klopek attempts to kill Ray while wearing a sinister white coat, but he is caught by Rumsfield and Carol doing so. While being arrested, he gives a satirically-themed monologue talking about how the Klopeks moved to the suburbs for "quiet, the good life" but "if you do anything different, people say 'Oh look, there goes the weirdo.'"
Scenes involving Rumsfield speaking to the police as well as talking to Ray remain, but are filmed in different locations. Also there is a brief scene of a befuddled Hans being questioned by one of the two detectives. This ending also closes with Ricky, but he is shot from above rather than in close-up.
There is also a third ending, from the original script, wherein the Klopeks succeed in killing Ray in the back of the ambulance. The garbagemen are then found in the Klopeks' trunk after they have escaped.
The first DVD release of The 'Burbs was Region 1, which contains English and French languages since it was sold in North America and Canada. 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 are present on the DVD; there is nothing additional from the theatrical release.
On UK terrestrial TV, The 'Burbs has traditionally been shown late at night, uncut, on BBC One but ITV have since bought the rights to show it and it has enjoyed Sunday mid-afternoon showings on ITV 1 and late-night showings on ITV 3.
The extremely rare thirteen-track orchestral soundtrack was composed by Jerry Goldsmith and in some places parodies some of his other work, or well-known signature tunes, from other movies (Patton and Once Upon a Time in the West, for example).
Total duration: 30:34
Deluxe edition, also by Varèse Sarabande: