I have a friend who loathes Return of the Killer Tomatoes!
(1988) as an affront to filmmaking. If he saw this film, he'd die. This 1978 original makes that look like a lost Orson Welles masterpiece. It's so rubbish that it's a work of genius, albeit in an scarily specific sense of the word.
This film looks ridiculously cheap, but was even cheaper. Unusually for a low budget film at the time, it was shot on Kodak 5247 negative stock that fooled people into thinking it must have cost more to make than it did. The imdb gives its budget as $90,000 (estimated). More importantly it's obviously the work of amateurs having a laugh rather than anything that had ever been within a million miles of professional movie-makers. It has no story. It has no characters. It has a script, yes, but that's little more than random gags draped over a loose framework ripped off from 1950s B-movies, while its idea of a character is "an actor with more screen time than everyone else". This is very much a movie you have to approach on its own terms. Go in looking for pretty much any of the traditional filmmaking virtues and you'll come out empty-handed.
However I laughed my head off. That's always the acid test for a comedy. Despite everything I've said, this film works rather well on the level of absurdist parody in which you'll have absolutely no idea what might come next. Admittedly this might be because you'll be reeling in disbelief at the idea that anyone older than six years old could have liked that joke, but there's such a density of comic ideas here that there's always a fresh surprise coming. I was expecting them to repeat the Lassie gag for instance, but no. Three seconds and it's gone. They don't hammer their ideas into the ground.
Even the killer tomatoes themselves have something new about them every time. They stayed funny every time I saw them, although I don't know if that'll remain true after I've seen all the sequels. For example they copy Spielberg's Jaws, but with the shark replaced by tomatoes. This looks even sillier than you'd imagine. They also have little grumbling voices, which helps add some personality as their victims cower in terror from vegetables being rolled at them from off-camera.
And make no mistake, this is one ridiculous movie. The helicopter crash has to be seen to be believed. I'd known in advance that they blew most of their budget by accidentally crashing a helicopter on-camera, but seeing it happen is something else. Wow. The songs are absurd even by the standards of musical numbers in movies, managing to break even what little reality there had been in a film called Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. What's more, it's consistent. This film never stops trying to be as stupid as it possibly can. I admired that.
It thus doesn't matter that the villain's unmasking is done with acting that would embarrass eight-year-olds with their dads' camcorders. Most of the performances here are perfectly acceptable given the overall tone, but this is something else. Nevertheless in the context of all this absurdity, it works. A far more serious charge is the fact that all the women in this film are dog-ugly. At least Troma can persuade girls to take their clothes off. Yes, I'm a bad person. Go on, throw things at me. It's still true. I'm not normally one to care two hoots about that kind of thing, but yowzers. However in fairness I don't imagine the men here would be much to write home about either.
By the standards of low-budget cinema, this is a blockbuster. It even spawned its own little industry, although it took a decade for the first sequel to emerge. It even starred George Clooney. The full roster is:
- Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! (1978)
- Return of the Killer Tomatoes! (1988)
- Killer Tomatoes Strike Back! (1990)
- Killer Tomatoes Eat France! (1991)
...plus two computer games and a 1990 TV series based on movies 2 & 3. There's even talk of a remake from Kent Nichols and Douglas Sarine, creators of Ask A Ninja. No, I've never heard of that or them either. Apparently Sarine has said he's interested in casting Jim Carrey and Bruce Campbell, but then again I'm sure he would be.
This film's script is pretty much exactly what you'd get if you got together an entire class of children and gave them pencils. They'd have to be really imaginative children, mind you. Superman wanders past for no reason at one point. I also liked the bad dubbing on the Japanese scientist, in homage to kaijuu movies. This may be the kind of film that's horribly vulnerable to what kind of mood you're in at the time. Try to take it seriously and you'll run away screaming, but I also think it could absolutely slay an audience. Get a group of eight-year-olds together, plonk them in front of the television and cover your ears. They might never stop laughing. However having said all that, if only by the law of averages there are some genuinely good lines in here too.
- "Is it serious?"
- "That depends. Did you have any relatives in Wyoming?"