Bad-On-Purpose Shlock Like Sharknado Owes Its Existence to a Forgotten ‘70s Flick
You’ll never look at a salad the same way again.
Attack of the Killer Tomatoes certainly wasn’t modern Hollywood’s first parody. It arrived at the tail end of a decade that had already given us Kentucky Fried Movie, Blazing Saddles, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Nor was it the first to attain so-bad-it’s-good status: see Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. But it was perhaps the first example of a spoof that intentionally aimed for cinematic infamy.
It’s a cynical approach that’s since been replicated by everything from Lobster Man from Mars and Slumber Party Massacre II to every Syfy original based on an oversized monster; yes, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is to blame for the inexplicably popular Sharknado. In its creators’ defense, their paltry $100,000 budget meant they couldn’t really go in another direction.
College friends Costa Dillon, John DeBello, and Stephen Peace had actually been inspired by the deadly serious 1963 J-horror Matango, in which a hallucinogenic fungus turns island castaways into walking mushrooms. “Suddenly [we] got the idea that we could do something even sillier,” remarked Dillon in an oral history of their big screen debut. “I don’t know why tomatoes came to mind first, maybe because they seemed so innocuous.”
The trio, who were making a living compiling sports footage highlights, rarely bothered to make the tomatoes look anything other than entirely innocuous. The fruit that somehow takes the life of the opening scene’s housewife is so small it’s able to shoot up from her garbage disposal. Only the super-sized variety that kills steroid-munching Olympic swimmer Gretta Attenbaum (Benita Barton) and the earmuff-wearing final boss are unable to be squished by foot.
It’s never made clear exactly how the babbling, sentient foodstuff achieve their murderous rampage, or what their goal is. Do they poison their victims? Choke them? As you’d expect from a film that counts lameness as a badge of honor, the camera always cuts away at the vital point. The acting is also uniformly terrible, although the limited IMDB pages of most cast members suggests this wasn’t on purpose.
Unsurprisingly, the humor is largely of the, well, low-hanging fruit variety. There’s a Jaws parody so toothless it makes the Scary/Epic/Disaster Movie franchise look like high satire, while countless jokes would get the film canceled in 2023. The leading contender is the badly dubbed scientist who oh-so-hilariously mistakes certain English words for homophobic and xenophobic slurs, although the African-American disguise expert who tries to pass himself off as Hitler comes a close second.
And yet the film’s rapid-fire nature provides almost as many guilty laughs as it does groans, particularly when it comes to the media’s response. Watch how one reporter reduces a grieving widow to tears about her lack of future marital prospects (“You’re no spring chicken”) or the absurd attempt to appease the concerned public about the world’s tastiest pandemic (“Last year, more people were killed by automobile accidents, heart attacks, lung cancer and natural causes combined than by any one tomato.”)
Despite its ludicrous premise, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes still managed to rope in a few relatively impressive names. Best-known for playing principal Mr. Carter in the Porky’s franchise, Eric Christmas shows up as a Senator, and that’s Bob Newhart Show regular Jack Riley you can see crawling out of the helicopter wreckage. In further proof of just how ramshackle (and, arguably, resourceful) the whole production was, the crash was an accident that, thanks to the lack of any serious injuries, was incorporated into the final edit. And the score was composed by Gordon Goodwin, a future four-time Grammy winner!
The musical numbers are where the film reaches a vague air of competency. Ad executive Ted Swan (Al Sklar) delivers a maniacal song-and-dance to convince presidential press secretary Jim Richardson (George Wilson) that his firm can put a positive spin on the whole tomato invasion problem. The titular tune, penned by director Bello, is a knowingly ridiculous (“Remember Herman Farbage/While taking out his garbage”) attempt to ape the bombastic themes of the B-movie’s golden age. “Puberty Love,” sung by future Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron of all people, is an inspired parody of Donny Osmond’s signature hit, which proves to be the tomatoes’ Kryptonite.
The similar ending to 1996’s Mars Attacks, in which the Martians are thwarted by the sounds of Slim Whitman’s “Indian Love Call,” suggests Tim Burton was a fan. You could argue Killer Tomatoes was ahead of its time in several other ways: the desperately slow car chase between government agent Mason Dixon (David Miller) and his assassin — at one point, the former realizes it’s quicker to pursue on foot — has been emulated in everything from Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa to Malcolm in the Middle. And in the wake of the Trump era, Richardson’s White House denials about the use of public spending on “fluffy flower print toilet paper” now appear relatively sane.
There’s also the theory Killer Tomatoes is much smarter than it’s given credit for, with some hailing it as a misunderstood riposte to the jingoism of the Cold War era. It’s true that from the amusing moment they all crowd into the world’s smallest strategy room, the gung-ho U.S. military are portrayed as imbeciles. That’s a slightly generous reading, however, when you consider the three even sillier sequels (including the 1988 follow-up featuring a young George Clooney) written and directed by the same team had no such subtext.
Peace, DeBello, and Dillon appear to take great pride in the film’s lack of substance, and how it riled up the critics, even placing a “hopelessly inane” quote on its DVD cover. But while not without its zany charms, Killer Tomatoes suffers the same fate as every film that sees the Razzies as a goal: it’s never anywhere near as much fun as the kind of stinker that believes it’s good.