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Blu-ray Review: “ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES” appetizers make the meal

Tuesday, February 6, 2018 | Blu-ray/DVD, Review

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

Starring David Miller, George Wilson and Sharon Taylor
Directed by John De Bello
Written by Costa Dillon, John De Bello and Steve Peace
MVD Entertainment Group

ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES may be one of history’s most misunderstood films. It has often been celebrated as a prime example of “so bad it’s funny” cinema, when in fact it’s an attempt at intentional comedy that is, at best, a scattershot success. Yet it has achieved cult status since its 1978 release, which is now well-served by a Blu-ray/DVD edition issued as part of MVD Entertainment Group’s Rewind Collection.

As its title announces, the movie is a spoof of ’50s monster flicks with a small side order of ’70s-esque eco-terror. Here’s where I would start the next sentence with “The plot involves…”, except there really is no plot. We learn that tomatoes of both normal and super-sizes have turned against mankind, and then follow the efforts of a group of motley characters to stop them, with nothing resembling an actual storyline emerging. That wouldn’t be an issue if there were more honest laughs, but there’s a reason that ATTACK’s goofy theme song has become its most enduring element. There are sporadic gags that work, but long dead stretches between them, and the biggest surprise is a moment that could have been tragic: a helicopter actually crashes on camera early in the film (fortunately, no one was seriously hurt).

There’s a feeling throughout ATTACK that its creators aren’t pushing the material hard enough, and little of the sense of daring that made Mel Brooks’ comedies before and AIRPLANE! after such audacious fun. But it’s one of the many saving graces of the extras package that those moviemakers acknowledge that their creation is far from a work of art. Director/co-writer John De Bello, producer/co-writer/actor Steve Peace and co-writer/lots of other stuff Costa Dillon balance self-deprecating humor with mock profundity throughout the many supplements, which have been ported over from a long-out-of-print Rhino Video DVD boxed edition.

That disc showcased ATTACK fullscreen in a transfer that was good for its time, but MVD’s 4K remaster, presented at 1.85:1, is a significant upgrade. While there’s wear and tear here and there, and the film’s limited finances still show, overall the picture is very sharp and the colors quite vivid—the better to show off the gaudy late-’70s fashions and decor. The 2.0 mono sound is sharp enough for the low-cost looping and other effects to be easily discernible, which adds to the vintage feeling.

The track that’s really worth listening too, however, is the audio commentary by De Bello, Peace and Dillon. The trio approach the talk with few regrets and pretty keen memories, putting a good deal of emphasis on the locations they scrounged or filmed guerrilla-style, explaining how they stretched their $90,000 budget and pointing out all the relatives and friends they cast in supporting roles. These guys clearly approached the production with enthusiasm, if not the most developed sense of comedy.

It was only inevitable that TOMATOES’ humor would come off as sophomoric, the disc reveals, as it was based on a Super-8 short the trio made while they were sophomores at college. This early version, most of which (including the title song) was closely replicated in the feature, is provided, and the trio contribute a commentary for this as well, revealing along the way that Peace went on to be a California state legislator! Another of their Super-8 works, the spy spoof GONE WITH THE BABUSULAND (shot during their senior year in high school), is also included, and can be viewed only with their commentary (it was shot silent, though there are sound effects and music). This talk will likely strike a chord with young filmmakers past and present, as they recall all manner of stunts—using actual guns in a couple of quite realistic shooting scenes, sending “soldiers” running through a mall, barricading a road to film a car chase—that few people past their teen years would have the guts to pull off.

While a few of the many featurettes, particularly one involving a guy in a tomato costume roaming the streets of LA, are disposable, others are invaluable, and the segment creators really went the extra mile gathering illustrative footage old and new. Los Angeles Times critic Kevin Thomas is interviewed about his early negative review, which wound up being excerpted on the poster; Johnny Carson is seen discussing the film with actor Jack Riley on his late-night show; a vintage TV news report details that helicopter accident; future TWIN PEAKS star Dana Ashbrook briefly talks about his small TOMATOES role; and humble “slate girl” Beth Reno gets her brief moment in the spotlight.

Other goofy stuff includes follow-the-bouncing-tomato singalongs, “We Told You So!”, which posits the film as an early warning against genetic manipulation of foodstuffs (hmmm, they may have a point there…) and even a bit with the San Diego Chicken. Not carried over from Rhino’s release are the “Tomato Mode” in-film feature and the items accessible therein, the prop-photo collection and (though it’s listed on the case) a “Production design photo gallery” that’s actually parodies of famous works of art with tomatoes added. (These may be among the Easter eggs that are also mentioned on the packaging, but that I wasn’t able to find.)

Finally, there are three deleted scenes, which again can only be watched with De Bello’s commentary over them. The first two aren’t much missed, but the third, a fake public service announcement involving a classroom full of blind children, seems pretty funny in a sick way. We’re informed that it was pulled from the movie and replaced with a less politically incorrect gag, which begs the question: Were people who felt a blind-kids joke was too sensitive really the right ones to tackle an anarchic comedy like this?

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.