Lunatics and Laughter Day 4: Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978)

Director: John DeBello

Writer: Costa Dillon, John DeBello, Steve Peace, Rick Rockwell

Cast: David Miller, George Wilson, Sharon Taylor, Steve Peace, Ernie Meyers, Eric Christmas, Ron Shapiro, Al Sklar, Jerrold Anderson, Don Birch

Plot: A series of people begin dying in assorted tomato-related incidents: a man keels over drinking a glass of tomato juice, a woman is beaten to death by a tomato in the kitchen, a boy is gobbled up by a tomato… and the authorities scramble into action to solve the crisis. Presidential Press Secretary Jim Richardson (George Wilson) is sent to calm an increasingly worried public, but when he fails, the task of halting the tomato menace is given to top agent Mason Dixon (David Miller). Miller and his team of “experts” begin their investigation even as the attacks continue and the government feels more and more pressure to take action. Meanwhile, gossip columnist Lois Fairchild (Sharon Taylor) is given the task of reporting on the tomato menace, mostly because everybody else is busy.

Dixon and his team pick up their final member, Lt. Wilbur Finletter (Steve Peace), and the members are sent out on individual missions. Richardson is sent to meet Ted Swann(Al Sklar), head of the “Mind Makers” agency, about ways to convince people that tomatoes are safe. His sales pitch (including a spontaneous and incongruous musical number) fail to do the job. Things only get worse when Dixon encounters a scientist studying a tomato the size of a basketball. The real horror, however, comes in the revelation that this is merely a cherry tomato – the full-sized ones have grown enormous. Mere moments later, one of Dixon’s team is murdered by a tomato the size of a man. Dixon continues to seek a way to combat the menace, but it grows all the more intense, with attacks across the country and people panicking at the slightest reference to the deadly fruit.

Fairchild, stymied by her lack of progress in the case, begins to trail Dixon’s team, finally winding up in Finletter’s hotel room in an attempt to charm him with her feminine wiles. Instead, he mistakes her for an enemy spy and drives her out, screaming. Dixon, meanwhile, is fired upon by a hidden gunman – someone is trying to stop his investigation. The would-be assassin comes after Finletter next, but loses him across a railroad track. The army forces amass as the tomatoes make a brutal assault, destroying large portions of the country, somehow “burning, pillaging, and raping” along the way. (The movie doesn’t explain it and I don’t want to ask.) Dixon and Finletter get caught in a high-speed chase with the assassin, which turns into a slow-speed race as both cars malfunction. Dixon is captured, only to discover the killer is Richardson. He plans to use the tomatoes to overthrow the government and seize power in the chaos. Finletter saves Dixon and kills Richardson, but does so right before Richardson is going to confess the secret of controlling the tomatoes. Dixon realizes that the tomatoes have failed, twice, while the hit song “Puberty Love” has been playing on the radio. He has Finletter bring all the people left in the city to a football stadium, where the tomatoes predictably come to attack. They are rendered helpless, however, when “Puberty Love” blasts from the speakers. As the tomatoes shrink back to normal size, the humans press the attack, smashing and squashing them into pulp.

Thoughts: From the opening crawl, this movie takes its refuge in audacity. John DeBello decides to start the film by reminding people of how silly the concept of Hitchcock’s The Birds seemed in 1963, and that a real-life bird attack in 1975 made people stop laughing. I don’t know if there’s any truth to that at all, but you’ve got to admire the guts of the man who made this movie starting things off by comparing tomatoes to seagulls… or for that matter, himself to Hitchcock.

But that’s actually part of the movie’s bizarre charm. Starting with the crawl and going into an almost disturbingly-catchy opening theme song over credits that include several jokes (including a few “advertisements” and a blatant lie about the story’s origin), there is never any chance that this is a movie that takes itself too seriously. It can’t. And it knows it can’t. So it starts with the ridiculous. It’s another Type B horror/comedy, and a far broader one than Young Frankenstein, but it still stays close enough to the concept of legitimate storytelling to remain entertaining instead of just being a litany of joke after joke after joke.

The “killer tomato concept, in and of itself, comes across as a parody of 1950s sci-fi films, so many of which featured ordinary creatures – ants, lizards, and even the occasional plant – mutating into killing machines. As few of those films were self-aware enough to roll with the joke, though, Attack does it for them. The horror nods don’t stop there, though. The opening sequence feels like it was taken from a George Romero zombie movie, featuring random attacks striking random people. The scene where the girl swimmers are assaulted by tomatoes from beneath is a clear reference to Jaws (even down to a musical sting that mimics the John Williams theme without treading quite close enough to feel like legal action should be considered).

Now I’m not going to lie to you and say this is a good movie. The acting is miserable, the effects are weak, and at no point are you convinced that the tomatoes are actually “attacking” (a better term to use is “being lobbed gently at the actors from immediately off-camera”). Some of the humor does get a little too broad, as well. Taylor’s character seems to be named “Lois” purely for the sake of slipping in a Superman joke that doesn’t really go anywhere or add anything. But despite these relatively mild gripes, there’s still something oddly, inexplicably charming about this movie.

Part of it, I think, is that I never knew exactly how zany it is. I’ve heard of the movie for years, even watched the cartoon spin-off in the 90s (it didn’t last long, don’t be surprised if you never heard of it), but I guess I always had it in my head that it was a more tongue-in-cheek sort of film. Instead, it’s a straight-up spoof movie, and it hit me at a time when I wasn’t expecting one and, at the same time, was particularly turned off of them after seeing such a flurry of poor ones in recent years. In contrast, a lot of these jokes actually do hit. Sam Smith’s terrible (yet astonishingly effective) disguise skills never failed to elicit at least a chuck from me, and an early gag in which a Japanese scientist – all of his dialogue poorly dubbed for no real reason – accidentally knocks a very unfortunate picture into an aquarium pulled one of those simultaneous gasps and laughs. It was that moment where you start to laugh because it’s funny, then immediately try to stop yourself because you know it shouldn’t be. It’s not easy to do that really well, and if you fail to land a joke like that it’ll kill you. This doesn’t.

Some of the writing is also really clever. The bit where Dixon, Finletter, Fairchild and her editor all argue on the phone is cut perfectly, at one point making you question who was talking to who. The dialogue itself isn’t actually funny, but when cut together in such a way that you wonder if the speakers have somehow gotten their lines crossed, it makes you laugh.

This movie is, of course, a cult classic at best, but that’s fair. A lot of those movies that have a small but dedicated audience fall into that category, and even more of them blend together the horror and comedy tropes that mash up so very, very well. This is a movie you start to watch expecting it to be so bad it’s good. The fact that there are a few moments where it’s actually, genuinely good is a nice added bonus.


About blakemp

Blake M. Petit. Author. Podcaster. Teacher. Actor. Geek Pundit.

Posted on October 15, 2012, in 2-Lunatics and Laughter, Comedy, Horror and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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