Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review: Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes
Directed by John De Bello
Four Square Productions; MVD Visual
65 minutes, 1978 / 2018

Back in 1978, I attended the Worst Film Festival, held in New York City, which was sponsored and hosted by the Medved brothers, Harry and Michael; they wrote the book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (with Randy Dreyfuss). There, I was present for the world premiere of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Also in attendance was the director, John De Bello, who I remember talking about how the helicopter crash in the film was real, and they kept it in because it was great footage (and rightfully so).

Yeah, AotKT gets flack for being bad, but in retrospect the film can be seen as either a turning point or effected one, because just two years later, Airplane! (1980) would hit the theaters and change the way cinema looked at comedy (as Mel Brooks had done in 1974 with Blazing Saddles). That absurdist humor that we had loved so much in the previous The Groove Tube (1974) and Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) came to adulthood (such as it was; perhaps it regressed...) with Airplane!. However, AotKT was the missing link between the two sketch comedy films and the fully grown Airplane!, taking short bits and stretching them into a full movie, albeit with sketch-like set pieces. I mean, this film even has multiple amusing Public Address Announcements, which was also employed often by Airplane! Coincidence?!

I haven’t seen the film since that time (and have never seen the multiple sequels), yet I was pleasantly surprised to find that it really was a bit ahead of its time. Audiences, however, were just not ready to appreciate it. And that includes me. I remember it being bad, but I also recall being amused by it. It makes more sense in the perspective of the comedy timeline I mentioned above.

For those who don’t know, the basic premise is that tomatoes had genetically mutated and became flesh-eating monsters, including some that had grown to enormous (human) size. The film doesn’t waste any time, immediately jumping into the fray with the first scene. Of course, most of the violence occurs off-screen since this is a low budget film (despite the destruction of the whirlybird), and well, most of the time they used real to-may-toes (as opposed to to-mah-toes; yeah, I don’t know what that means either; I’m just gettin’ with the program, Jack).

The humor is both broad and subtle, but all of it bada-boom, bada-bing, bada sis-boom-bah. In other words, it’s non-stop. For example, in just one scene – and this isn’t everything by a long shot – generals and scientists gather in a meeting room that is way too small, a Japanese scientist is obviously and badly dubbed; at one point he knocks a photo to the bottom of a fish tank, and of course it’s of the battleship USS Arizona. Then the head of the Federal Intelligence Agency makes a point that he doesn’t need to check into the background of anyone involved with this project; a future Trump selection?.

Speaking of which, there is a lot of fun made of the (fictional) president in the film. Now, this was released during the time of Jimmy Carter, but it seems pretty obvious to me it was written during the tenure of Gerald Ford by the manner of which he is duplicitous (e.g., getting rid of a submarine base because “those funny little black ships just keep sinking anyway”).

Some of the humor is quite topical, and has now reached the stage where it might get lost on a younger audience. For example, two soldiers are looking and a map and someone asks what the blue dots on a map mean, and is told “Those are Mobil stations,” from the days when gas stations gave out free maps. Or someone calling the operator on a pay phone and claiming he got a wrong number and wanting the money back (yes, this really happened).

Also, a lot of the humor that was hysterical then is kinda rubbing against the PC model, with some gay and racial humor (e.g., a Black man in disguise dressed as Hitler), and a rape joke and assumption that it is women’s duty to sleep with someone to get what she needs for her job (in this case, a reporter). One could also see a bit of sexism if they wanted in a love song that professes, “Our love will be classy / Just like Timmy and Lassie,” but I’ll leave that one up to you to decide.

There are a number of song set pieces in here making it a musical-Lite , such as a salesman explaining to a government official about how he knows how to sway an audience (a pre-Wag the Dog influence, decades before that 1997 release?), or an Army officer doing an Elvis-ish song and dance with a chorus of soldiers that’s a cross between a Monty Python bit (“Oooh, get her / You military fairy!”) and a foretelling of Mel Brooks’ dancing and singing Merry Men in Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993). Another spoof song that shows up occasionally is “Puberty Love,” done in a high-pitched whine by Matt Cameron, who went on to become the drummer for Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. With all that, the song that most people remember is the title one written by the director, sung in a bravado voice and whose chorus is incredibly catchy.

Sharon Taylor
As for the story proper, well, it’s a bit all over the map, but the closest thing to a protagonist is a government agent named Mason Dixon (David Miller). His not-so-bright sidekick is pilot Wilber Finletter (Rock Peace, aka J. Stephen Peace, aka the co-writer of the film) who always has his parachute trailing behind him. The government is trying to either keep the killer tomatoes a secret, or to convince the public that there is no danger, whose drive is led by Press Secretary George Wilson (Jim Richardson). However, news reporter Lois Fairchild (the willowy and unconventional cutie Sharon Taylor who has a Julie Hagerty vibe), is hot... on the trail of the story. Meanwhile, someone is trying to assassinate Dixon, while the huge tomatoes are gobbling people up.

Many of the people in the film went on to other roles, though few had spectacular film careers beyond the sequels, arguably other than “Twin Peaks” actor Dana Ashbrook, who had a non-credit role here. That is not to say there aren’t a couple of cameos here and there, such as English actor Eric Christmas (you’d probably recognize him if you saw him; d. 2000), and especially Jack Riley (d. 2016), a comic performer who had many roles in the 1970s and ‘80s, but is probably best known in the recurring psychiatric patient role of Mr. Carlin on “The Bob Newhart Show.”

There are two discs on this set, one in Blu-ray and one DVD, so you can watch it in any contraption. I don’t have an HD teevee, so I couldn’t tell the difference, but both have the same extras, which include the following:

Jack Riley
Of course, there is a commentary track, with the three original creators of the film, De Bello, Peace and Costa Dillon. They still work well together to tell the story of the making of the film through inception to anecdotes, all with a sense of humor without stepping all over each other, which is great. Even though it was recorded a quarter of a century after the film was made but a decade before this version of the release for the DVD in 2003 for the DVD release, as was the rest of bonus material, it still sounds relevant.

You may not know that the film actually started as a 17:35-minute short in 1976, which is presented here both without and with commentary track. It’s worth the view (for both) to see just how many of the gags they kept intact – if not nearly identical – and the storylines that were added to pad it out to a feature. It’s still pretty funny, shot as a college course student film on 8mm. The acting is horrendous, but it’s important to remember the context of when and why it was made. Also showing is an even earlier 32:27 short, “Gone with the Babusaland” from 1971. Being a silent film, it just comes with the commentary. It doesn’t really make too much sense, and it is funny in parts, but what makes this most interesting is it presents the early version of the Mason Dixon and Finletter characters that were incorporated into the main feature later. Unfortunately, the volume of the commentary is much lower than the others, so it’s a bit hard to hear.

The 14:14 short “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes: The Legacy” follows. This is a really fun documentary/interview with the three main behind-the-scenes guys, and pieces with people like Bruce Vilanch and other fans. For 3:40 there’s “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes Redux: Chopper Crash” which is about, well, duh. It’s an enjoyable mixture of news and archival material mixed with 2003 follow-up interviews with the crew and Jack Riley. The subsequent short is three “Deleted Scenes” that are enjoyable to watch, but yeah, they were right to be pulled as there was plenty of other gags that worked better that remained. The very short – err – short, “Famous Fowl,” comes after that at a mere 2:21 about the San Diego Chicken mascot discussing his being in the penultimate scene, shot in the San Diego stadium.

Next up is a 4:33 short titled “A Killer Tomato Invades Hollywood” (also called “Killer Tommatomania”). We meet “as seen on television” interviewer Wendy Wilder (I have no idea who is she is, FYI) talking to some effervescent dude dressed as a “killer tomato guy” (described as “desperate actor”). He walks around Hollywood asking people (in an obnoxious way) to complete the sentence, “Attack of the Killer ____.” It’s more goofy than interesting. What I found more appealing (and humorous) is the 2:52 “Where Are They Now?” which catches us up with the main actors (as of 10 years ago, of course), narrated with funny dialogue. “We Told You So!” is a 3:07 look at how ahead of the game the film was in warning the world about GMO “Frankenfoods,” told in a humorously told-you-so snarky manner.

Rock Peace and David Miller
As for trailers, we get the theatrical one (see below), two radio spots, and oddly enough, the coming attraction for the Lech Kowalski punk film, D.O.A.: Rite of Passage.

The last presented is a series of clips of the songs, with the lyrics underneath (and a follow-along bouncing tomato ball, natch), and then “Slated for Success: The Killer Tomato Slate Girl,” with a 1:57 tongue-in-cheek honor for Beth Reno (who was also the production accountant), the film’s “Slate Girl.” It shows just how wonderfully silly this whole film is, in the long run.

There is a reason why AotKT has reached such a strong cult status, in my opinion. While not as noteworthy a bad film as The Room (2003), it’s come to be a funny mess that is worth the watch for the nostalgia, the mostly decent corny jokes, the political humor, and a snapshot of comedy of its period. It’s also interesting, as I’ve implied, to see it in a rear view mirror (as Marshall McLuhan would have put it), to note how the use of humor is reflected and arguably copied in more infamous films to come.

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