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ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES: THE DIRECTOR'S CUT (1978/1994)

"No weapon, no motive, no clues. All we have to go on is this bloody corpse."
"Look again, Harry. That’s not blood. It’s tomato juice!"

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Director: John De Bello

Starring: David Miller, George Wilson, Sharon Taylor, J. Stephen Peace, Jack Riley, Gary Smith, Ron Shapiro, Ernie Myers, Al Sklar

Screenplay: Costa Dillon, John De Bello, J. Stephen Peace

Synopsis: A housewife watches as a tomato emerges from her garbage disposal unit, her puzzlement turning into terror as the tomato launches a savage attack upon her. All over America, tomatoes begin attacking the populace: a man drinks tomato juice and collapses in agony; an old couple sees their grandson devoured. At a facility run by the Department of Agriculture, police officers battle with the attacking fruits. A helicopter crashes when a tomato flies into it. A representative of the Department (Jack Riley) conspires to keep the uprising a secret, putting together an investigative team comprising the most obscure generals and scientists, and headed by a minor government functionary named Mason Dixon (David Miller). Mason and his team hold a meeting attended by the President’s Press Secretary, Jim Richardson (George Wilson), where Mason is assigned four operatives to help him, with Lt. Wilbur Finletter (J. Stephen Peace) being appointed his assistant. Meanwhile, tomato-related incidents continue to terrorise the nation. At a press conference, Jim Richardson is horrified when, at the last moment, someone questions him about the growing tomato menace. Richardson tells the gathered reporters that everything possible is being done, including the formation of a Senate Investigating Committee. However, at the first meeting of the Committee, it is discovered that a copy of the preliminary report on the tomato situation is missing. This document has fallen into the hands of the editor of the "Times" newspaper (Ron Shapiro) who, due to a shortage of qualified personnel, is forced to assign the tomato story to rookie reporter Lois Fairchild (Sharon Taylor). The President (Ernie Myers) sends Richardson to New York to meet with "Mind Maker" advertising executive Ed Swan (Al Sklar), hired to create a advertising campaign to reassure the American public. But it may already be too late: a giant tomato captured by the military is examined by scientists and found to be only – a cherry tomato!

Comments: Since watching this film, I have been unable to shake a mental image of the following conversation being held Somewhere In Hollywood: "So, we’ve got some spare cash. Do we restore The Magnificent Ambersons or Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes?" "Tomatoes! Tomatoes!" Frankly, I’m not altogether sure that the world actually needed a "Director’s Cut" of Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes, but I have to admit that newly shot bookends and the various interruptions throughout the film do add a few more badly needed giggles to something brilliantly summed up by Steven Puchalski of "Shock Cinema" as "a twenty minute joke crammed into a ninety minute movie". It isn’t hard to imagine Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes coming into existence as the result of either a joke or a bet. And there’s nothing wrong with that – after all, many an engaging AIP movie began life in pretty much that way, starting out purely as a title that would look good on a poster. (And now that I think of it, most of Val Lewton’s films came about that way too.) However, the makers of this film had nowhere near the talent at their disposal that their predecessors did. Most of the cast were (all too obviously) amateurs, and the performances vary from the deliberately clunky to the just-plain-terrible. There are some laughs to be had, but there are also an awful lot of dead patches, filled up with footage of people driving along roads, being endlessly pursued by tomatoes, or yelling unintelligibly at each other. Perhaps the most interesting thing about Tomatoes, at least at this distance, is how much it resembles a dry run for Flying High! (aka Airplane!), right down to the basic genre-spoof premise, the various references to other films, the use of unrelated sight gags in the back of a number of scenes, and throwaway one-liners over P.A. systems, radios and televisions. Unfortunately, in place of the Zucker/Abrahams scattershot attitude of "don’t worry if you didn’t like that joke, there’ll be another along in a second", Tomatoes operates on a philosophy of "you’d better like that joke, because that’s it for the next five minutes". Ultimately, the real value of this film is how thoroughly it illustrates the B-Movie dictum that no deliberately bad movie can hold a candle to one that got that way by accident. You only have to compare Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes to any of Ed Wood’s films, or to Robot Monster, or even to The Giant Claw, to see what we mean.

The plot of Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes, such as it is, involves the heretofore peaceful fruits suddenly growing to enormous size and attacking the population of America. To no-one’s surprise, we learn that the tomatoes are being controlled by an evil, power-crazed individual who, after sufficient damage has been done, plans to "defeat" the killer plants and take over the government. (Perhaps the only genuine surprise in the film is that the tomatoes do not ultimately turn on their creator.) Thanks to an evil faction within the Department of Agriculture, an incompetent team of government agents is assembled to fight the growing menace, headed by Mason Dixon, who "hasn’t worked since the Bay of Pigs". As the tomatoes rampage across America, Mason discovers inadvertently that they are being controlled by music; and that the one thing capable of defeating them is a ghastly little pop song entitled "Puberty Love". Along the way, the viewer is subjected to a few funny gags and an awful lot of groaners. Since this was made in the seventies, the story involves a government conspiracy to keep "the truth" from the American public; a Senate Investigating Committee consisting of dozy old men (as the camera pans across, we see that their names are Polk, Filmore, McKinley and Harrison); and a president who managed to get re-elected despite using the Statue of Liberty as collateral on "that Arab loan" ("How does the old girl look in the Dead Sea?"). There are also various swipes at the advertising industry, including the revelation of The World’s Ultimate Commercial ("Hi! Jesus Christ for Technatron!"). The other films referred to include, inevitably, The Birds and Jaws – although interestingly, it is actually Jaws II that is parodied, with a boatload of obnoxious teenagers being menaced by aquatic tomatoes (go you tomatoes!). For B-Movie fans, however, the highlight is probably the sequence depicting the meeting of the military and the scientists. Just as it always did in low budget film after low budget film in the fifties, the meeting takes place in a teeny little room – only this time, we get to watch everyone getting into their seats. Best of all, though, is the presence of a Japanese scientist who has been appallingly badly dubbed into English – for once, deliberately! The other really memorable thing about the film is its songs. The opening credits play to the strains of "Theme From Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes", which contains everyone’s favourite lyric, "I know I’m going to miss her/A tomato ate my sister". Along the way, we are also treated to a ditty entitled "The Tomato Stomp". Performed by a military unit, this catchy little number starts out seriously enough ("We stopped the Germans in ‘45/Then we crushed the Viet Cong (almost)") before turning into an up-tempo show-tune ("We stopped to negotiate at the very first attack/We gave them Alabama but they gave it right back") complete with a kick-line of soldiers. As for "Puberty Love" itself, just be grateful the film-makers don’t force us to listen to that one too closely – tomatoes aren’t the only things it could shrivel! It should also be noted that the "Director’s Cut" actually omits a song that was in the original cut of the film. It’s been too long since I saw that version for me to know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Unfortunately, for every joke that works in Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes, there are at least two that fall flat. Worse still, there are two stretches of almost ten minutes that fail to raise even a smile. It is for this reason that I welcome the new footage that has been inserted, which on the whole is funnier than the original stuff. The film now opens with the kind of featurette that has since become a standard DVD extra, depicting the arduous search for the "lost scenes". (Truth in advertising: the footage, when located, is labelled "Really bad scenes that are too lousy even for this movie".) Throughout the film there are various inserted comments by the film’s co-writer, Constantine Dillon. One likely to raise a sympathetic sigh from viewers of A Certain Age (and sex) comes after Lois Fairchild’s editor comments on her "nice ass", when Dillon observes wistfully, "We could say things like that in the seventies!" The single cleverest joke, however, is a "restored" scene that is dubbed into "Mabusilese" and subtitled in English (it even has the "Mabusilese" score!). "We couldn’t find the American version of the scene," Dillon explains gravely. Finally, the end credits of the film are now interrupted with a "Where Are They Now?" sequence that falls into the category of "It’s funny ‘cos it’s true." David Miller is now "a pig farmer in Mississippi". Sharon Taylor "was a junior college teacher – today she’s a community college teacher". Constantine Dillon "like many brilliant screenwriters, went on to a career in the National Parks service". And best of all, J. Stephen "Rock" Peace "is today a California State Senator" (really!). This insert proves that if the cast and crew of Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes weren’t over-burdened with talent, there were at least a bunch of good sports. In fact, this may actually be the funniest part of the film; and if nothing else, it does serve to leave the viewer laughing, and perhaps thinking of Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes more kindly than it actually deserves.