For many, the initial discovery of cult cinema is akin to finding a doorway to another world. The sudden understanding that there is a whole community outside the mainstream that rallies around movies both subversive and campy is a breathtaking epiphany for those who just aren’t finding something that defines them at the multiplex. Whether that immersion began with the discovery of a sketchy VHS at a local rental store or a chance visit to an art-house theater, we each have entered the world of cult in our own way. Though these instances often are unique to the individual, their inclusive power in the greater world of trash cinema are what truly form that near religious bond these movies create.
In other words, the movies are the glue that hold our “cult” together…and we each have that one particular film that kicked it all off. The cherry-popping piece of celluloid, if you will.
Since we all fondly remember our first, I’d like to tell you a little bit about mine.
In the late 1980s, I was living with my parents in a remote location in Colorado. Surrounded by vast stretches of potato farms and wilderness, our closest neighbor was several miles off and the nearest movie theater was quite the jaunt away. Due to the rural nature of our abode, cable TV wasn’t really an option, and thus, entertainment choices were slim. Not wanting to go without quality programming, my parents had a satellite dish installed in the yard, likely to ensure that no episode of Cheers would go unwatched. It being the 80s, this was no small dish, but rather a hulking monstrosity that made our home look like a NASA home base, causing many daydreams on my part about being the first plucky kid to make contact with space people.
But, I digress.
Despite the satellite’s awesome ability to pull in hundreds of channels, I was usually quite content parking on Disney Channel, watching endless episodes of Danger Bay and the occasional screening of Teen Witch. However, this sense of entertainment complacency was all about to change thanks to a simple listing in the TV Guide. Some show called USA Up All Night was hosting a double bill of a movie and its sequel, and for some reason the title just called to me.
That movie was Attack of the Killer Tomatoes…
…and in that very instant, a cult fanatic was born.
By grace of the film gods, my mom let me stay up to watch the flicks, and through the hosting conduit of Rhonda Shear, I discovered something that would become a decades long obsession. In watching Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and its sequel, Return of the Killer Tomatoes, I was immersed in a world of perverse silliness and knowing insanity. Long before I found Rocky Horror or the work of John Carpenter, those mean little veggies (or fruit, to be scientifically correct) fed my need for the subversive, and because of that, I owe them a huge debt of honor.
Of course, all debts do need repaid in time, and today I am here to share with you a bit about this wonderful franchise that has meant so very much to me over the years. In all, there have been four Killer Tomato movies, and in the grand tradition of my franchise recap articles here on peacheschrist.com, I’d like to revisit each of them, and maybe encourage the uninitiated to seek said films out for the very first time.
With my rambling introduction out of the way, let’s get started on this path of vegetation villainy!
The film that started it all! Created and directed by John De Bello (who would direct all four Tomato flicks, and is DEFINITELY a Cult Filmmaker You Should Know), the original Tomato film was made with a modest budget and crafted as a spoof of the very B-movies it was destined to become. Concerning a wave of sudden attacks in suburbia committed by the titular produce, the film details the government’s engagement in an all out “Tomato War” to win back the country. With a wacky cast of relatively unknown actors making up the Tomato Task Force, the movies spoofs the tropes of terror cinema at every turn, and offered up one of the single most catchy title songs in horror history. Surely De Bello had no idea that this meager film would soon become a pop culture phenomenon, and its gritty, modest nature truly lends to its overall appeal. Featuring a great comedic performance by J. Stephen Peace as Lt. Wilbur Finletter, leader of the Task Force, and a stunning musical number to a tune called “Puberty Love,” Attack of the Killer Tomatoes has certainly earned its spot in the pantheon of the all-time great midnight movies.
Probably one of the most outrageous things about Return of the Killer Tomatoes to the audiences of today is the fact that its cast features a young George Clooney in one of his earliest film roles. However, the winsome charm of the Academy Award-winning Clooney is not all this rambunctious sequel has in its corner. Indeed, Return may well be the most successfully executed of the Tomato movies. Introducing John Astin (TV’s Gomez Addams) as the iconic Dr. Gangreen, Return offered up a mad scientist behind the tomatoes’ quest for blood, and thus created new layers of comedic villainy. In an attempt to incite a second Tomato War, Gangreen creates an army of genetically-altered Tomato-people, hoping to catch the world governments unaware and ensure global domination. With biting comedy that is executed with tongue planted firmly in cheek, Return stays true to the roots of the original, all the while expanding on the franchise’s potential. Viewers who have a particular distaste for corporate influence on cinema will want to watch for a brilliantly realized scene in which Clooney’s character mocks the use of product placement in movies, hilariously ensuring to audiences that those behind the Tomato flicks vastly appreciate their underground status and audience. Overall, Return is just as worthy a midnight flick as its predecessor, and often succeeds where the other failed. A true gem of the 80s camp horror market, Return of the Killer Tomatoes was a welcome…er…return of one of cinema’s most unusual monsters.
Killer Tomatoes Strike Back (1991)
Admittedly, Strikes Back is my least favorite of the four Tomato movies, but that is not to say there isn’t a lot to enjoy about the third entry in the series. Starring Rick Rockwell (who later became known as a contestant on Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire) as a hapless cop pulled into a string of tomato related murders, Strikes Back sees the return of Dr. Gangreen, who is now utilizing his guise as a TV talk show host to take control of the world via television. Because of the movie’s portrayal of America’s co-dependency on media and television news, Strikes Back is both a silly comedy and harsh commentary on our country’s inability to think for itself. Providing clever insight into our own cultural dumbing down, the third movie shows the Killer Tomatoes at their most socially vicious. Worth watching for Rick Rockwell’s horrid choice in splatter pants, as well as a scene of attempted shower murder (by tomato, of course), Killer Tomatoes Strikes Back is ultimately a clever mirror of a society that takes its reliance on television just a little too seriously.
The fourth and (so far) final sequel in the Tomato quadrilogy takes us across the pond to the City of Love. When American tourist Michael J. Fox (yep, that’s his name, and he’s ironically played by Fox’s real life Family Ties co-star, Marc Price) happens upon Dr. Gangreen’s latest plot to take over the world by reviving the long-dead French monarchy, he is forced to go against the evil doctor in a battle of ketchup-soaked wits. Not for the politically-correct at heart, Eat France exploits every conceivable French stereotype for comedic effect with a vicious, gleeful abandon. Although Astin’s portrayal of Gangreen has always been a significant draw in all the films, the movie legend never played the role as frenetically as he did here. Perhaps the knowledge that this would be his last outing in the iconic lab coat gave Astin the incentive to push the character into the very stratosphere of over-the-top B-movie performances. What results is a character so brilliantly and goofily realized that he easily stands next to Tim Curry’s Frank-n-Furter and Paul Reuben’s Pee Wee Herman in execution of unadulterated cult greatness. Hilariously jingoistic and wonderfully self-aware, Killer Tomatoes Eat France was a grand note for a franchise that started simply to go out on. Even more fascinating is that they were able to take a whole country down while making their exit. Now that, my dear children of the popcorn, is cinema!
The pop culture imprint left by the Killer Tomato movies is undeniable. Endlessly spoofed in other mediums (ironic, considering that the franchise itself began as a spoof) and constantly referenced in the zeitgeist, the franchise hit heights of popularity that even saw the creation of a short-lived animated series. The cartoon, executive produced by De Bello himself, maintained the film’s acerbic nature and helped to introduce a whole new generation to the glib stylings of Dr. Gangreen (voiced by a returning Astin) and his killer vegetation.
Although De Bello has since stayed away from directing features (he only directed one other movie, an action flick starring Lorenzo Llamas), there were for a period of time persistent rumors that the daddy of the Tomato Empire would return to direct a fifth film, Killer Tomatoes in Space. Although the world has yet to see the Killer Tomatoes take to the stars, it seems that for many cult fans, the movies remain as beloved as ever, ensuring that if the cannibalistic crudités ever did come back, they would be warmly welcomed.
Clearly, if you hadn’t guessed from my rambling and nostalgic intro, I am obsessed with these movies. But, I don’t think that’s without just cause. Endlessly fun and brilliantly entertaining, these movies became my portal into the world of cult cinema. If I hadn’t found the Killer Tomatoes, who knows? I may not have found Peaches Christ! We all have our firsts, and these were mine. Served up on a tray of cool cult goodness, you can bet there are far worse ways to enter the world of horror and trash cinema than with these fun little slices of sleaze.
So, do me a favor, if you haven’t already…check out the Killer Tomatoes franchise. I guarantee you’ll never look at a salad without suspicion again!
Until next time!