Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978)

Posted: February 14, 2016 in Movie Review
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Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978)

Director: John DeBello

Starring: David Miller, George Wilson, Sharon Taylor, Jack Riley

In watching a couple of Troma movies last month, I was reminded of a tamer but still bizarre low-budget comedy called “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” which I’d seen twice before but has since been gathering dust on my DVD shelf. Both begin with the most absurd premises imaginable. Both aim for humor that is decidedly juvenile. However, the comparison pretty much dies right there. The differences begin with the definition of the word “juvenile.” Films under the Troma banner are notorious for their reliance on over-the-top violence, sexual innuendo (minus the innuendo) and bathroom-related jokes. “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” having no relation at all with Troma or the creative minds therein, goes for the complete opposite extreme. This movie mostly contains humor that might have worked best when I was a child.

The best thing about “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” by far is its main title theme. This approximately two-minute song is genuinely hilarious. It also immediately follows a well done prologue scene where a tomato makes its way up through a garbage disposal and kills an unsuspecting young woman. So far so good. Later, it’s discovered that there’s been a rash of reports citing sentient tomatoes attacking and killing humans. One such incident occurs when a bunch of tomatoes take to the water to pursue a group of swimmers. In this case, I don’t mind the obvious “Jaws” parody, complete with the “Jaws” theme. For some reason, “Jaws” parodies never seem to get old.

To combat the tomato problem, the President assembles a team of specialists so thoroughly unremarkable that he’ll probably lose a few percentage points in his approval rating. The team leader is Mason Dixon (David Miller), who can best be described as what you’d get if John Belushi dialed down his insanity volume to zero. Joining him in the fight are parachutist Wilbur Finletter (Stephen Peace), “expert” disguise artist Sam Smith (Gary Smith), Olympic swimmer Gretta Attenbaum (Benita Barton) and deep sea diver Greg Colburn (a character so thoroughly unimportant I had to look up his name to remember it). Eventually, Gretta is attacked and eaten by tomatoes, not that she’d been much help either. In fact, it’s hard to say that any of Dixon’s assistants really contribute much other than demonstrating sheer incompetence. Sam Smith’s biggest accomplishment is infiltrating the tomatoes’ camp only to reveal himself by asking for some ketchup.

As if Dixon hasn’t got enough problems, he’s also got an assassin tracking him down. This later turns out to be U.S. Press Secretary Jim Richardson (George Wilson), who plans to take over what remains of the world. He is not necessarily behind the creation of the mutated tomatoes, but he claims to be able to exert some sort of control over them. There’s also a subplot with a reporter named Lois Fairchild, on a mission to get a story that should make her career. It’s made blatantly clear that the character is meant to be a spoof of Lois Lane, Superman’s love interest. In fact, it almost seems to be a spoof of the Margot Kidder version of the character. I don’t know how that’s even possible, though, as 1978’s “Superman” was released two months AFTER this movie.

The tomatoes should be able to win this battle rather easily. Even our armed forces aren’t enough to beat them back. The one thing no one could have anticipated (but you’ll be able to predict if you’ve seen “Mars Attacks!”) is that the tomatoes’ one weakness is bad pop music… specifically a song called “Puberty Love.” Think Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” sung a capella, and you’ve got the basic idea. Providing the shrill vocals for “Puberty Love” is a then-teenaged Matt Cameron, who is more well-known in the music world as the drummer for both Soundgarden and (since 1998) Pearl Jam.

The main flaw of “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” …and it’s pretty much a fatal one… is that it’s not half as funny as it wants to be. Its best moments come when it relies not on the ‘one-joke premise’ of the tomato invasion, but when its low budget allows for some unintended laughs. There’s the giant tomato which is clearly moving thanks to a wooden board on wheels. There’s the tiny conference room where everyone is constantly crawling over one another just to get to their seat. It’s the funniest meeting place in a movie since the War Room from “Dr. Strangelove.” Best of all is the helicopter crash. It’s the real deal, captured in all its accidental glory. Thankfully no one was either seriously hurt or killed in the process. Otherwise, you have a thoroughly unremarkable cast of characters tied to a plot so slowly paced that the musical numbers (yes, plural) seem there to distract from the fact that they’ve run out of jokes.

All three times I’ve seen this movie, I’ve fallen asleep at about the midway point. “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” is a bad B-movie spoof of even worse B-movies from the 1950’s. Yet, it is popular enough that there are three sequels, and there even existed a short-lived cartoon series (which served as my introduction to the franchise). From here, the only direction the “Killer Tomatoes” series could possibly have gone was up, but it would be ten years before anyone knew for sure. If you were going just by what is presented here, you’d find yourself wondering why they would even bother.


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