Sunday 7 February 2021

Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes

As Shakespeare almost said: some films are born with cult status, some achieve cult status, and others have cult status thrust upon them.

But if Bill the Bard never quite uttered those words, it’s clearly only because he never lived to see Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes! (1978) - a film with a cult following bigger than Jim Jones.

Made for a mere $90,000 by a bunch of have-a-go filmmakers, the film was panned by critics and largely ignored by audiences on its release. Yet as the years passed, a curious thing happened. The film steadily acquired a dedicated following – and at this point there have been three sequels, a computer game, a comic and an animated TV series. (Inevitably, a reboot is also in the works).

How did such an inauspicious film acquire the illustrious status it enjoys today? Exploding Helicopter set out to forensically investigate the issue. Or just glance at Wikipedia, if that was too much work.

The plot

When scientific efforts to improve the humble tomato go wrong, it transforms the normally docile salad staple into a murderous, human-hungry fruit. Yikes!

Naturally, in this moment of crisis, the Government calls in their top experts to tackle the fearsome fruit threat. The crack team includes a paratrooper who drags an open parachute behind him, a diver who's never out of scuba gear, and a master of disguise who conceals his appearance by dressing as a black Adolf Hitler. Well, we did say the world was in trouble.

The scene is set for an apocalyptic man versus lycopersicum showdown. Can our heterogenous heroes save the day? Will America succumb to the deadly Red Menace? And, most importantly, do you say ‘tomayto’ or ‘tomahto’? Let’s call the whole review off…

Attack of the B Movie parody

If all this sounds like it’d make a deeply terrible film, you’d be absolutely right. But then, that was always the point.

Inspired by old science fiction B-movies, Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes parodies the z-grade films that clogged up drive-ins during the Fifties and Sixties. (Who can forget such terrifyingly titled efforts as Attack Of The Mushroom People?)

At first glance, ‘Killer Tomatoes’ appears to be as bad as the films it’s supposed to be sending up. The acting is terrible, the sets shaky and the special effects profoundly non-special. (This was a product of the film’s cheap ‘outside the film industry’ origins rather than intentional homage). But despite the readily apparent limitations, it possesses an oddly infectious – and undeniable – joie de vivre.

The first half hour is terrific fun. It includes an amusing title sequence, a tomato-based Jaws parody,  and a terrifically daft sequence where senior military bigwigs hold a high-powered meeting in a comedically small room. And the quickfire style of the gags, which blend silliness, satire and slapstick, make it feel like a forerunner of the disaster movie spoof, Airplane! (1980).

However, like an eight-day-old tomato, it does all start to feel a little squelchy and off at around thirty minutes in. Plot lines quickly go nowhere, and it gradually dawns that the comedic value of some of the two-dimensional characters have an incredibly short shelf-life. But still, a few jokes continue to hit the target and the whole production’s full-blooded commitment to the absurd inspires forgiveness.

None of this, though, explains how the film went from obscure curio to cult classic. Let’s be clear: there is no shortage of god-awful-but-with-a-bit-of-kitschy-charm movies gathering dust in the world’s cinematic vaults. But what saved ‘Killer Tomatoes’ from obscurity was its inclusion in a very influential book: The Fifty Worst Films Of All Time.

The book-fuelled publicity saw the film become a fixture of ‘midnight movie’ slots at independent cinemas and a surprise hit on the (then newly launched) home video market. Eternal cult status was assured. But, you ask, what about the really important question: the calibre of its exploding helicopter credentials?

Exploding helicopter action

As police gamely battle the homicidal tomatoes in a field, a small helicopter carrying some random dignitary comes in to land. But as it descends, the tail rotor clips the field surface and breaks off. Instantly, the wounded whirlybird starts spinning wildly before crashing to the ground and tumbling over on its side.

The action cuts away momentarily to a crowd of people running for cover. When it cuts back, the helicopter is already a flaming, molten ruin, with smoke billowing everywhere. Sensing his Oscar moment may be at hand, one character loudly exclaims: “My God! Did you see that? A tomato flew into it!”

Artistic merit

Given this is a zero-budget movie with famously terrible effects – remember, it largely revolves around people pretending to be scared of red balls of foam – the chopper conflagration looks great. It is surprisingly, grippingly realistic – as in documentary-level accurate and convincing. And it turns out there’s a good reason for that: the helicopter really did crash and explode.

You see, while the helicopter was merely meant to land in the field, the pilot cocked it all up and crashed the bloody thing. As the giddy cameras whirred, it really did spin violently then roll over on its side.

But here’s the best bit. As genuinely terrified actors disembarked and ran for their lives from the smoking vehicle, which quickly caught alight and erupted in an inferno, the production crew – resourceful as always – hastily sketched out a scene on the spot and improvised some lines around the burning wreckage. Miraculously, no one was harmed in the crash. And with a little quick thinking, the smouldering chopper became just another victim of those deadly tomatoes.

Exploding helicopter innovation

First and only known helicopter destroyed by a tomato.

Favourite line

“It’s not blood, it’s tomato juice.”

Interesting fact

A ‘before he was famous’ George Clooney has an early starring role in the sequel, Revenge Of The Killer Tomatoes (1988).

Review by: Jafo

Still want more then check out the Exploding Helicopter podcast episode on Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes. Listen now on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and all other major podcatchers.

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