Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. And yet others thrive on a tone not easily marketed in Hollywood. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these films for what they get wrong — when they get it wrong — and what they right do in spite of the wishes of the studio or the director.
This week: Attack of the Killer Tomatoes
Make no mistake, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is a bad movie. It is, potentially, the worst film I’ve ever profiled on Your Weekend Cheesy Movie. At the same time, though, I’m reticent to use the tag-line Elvira, Mistress of the Dark used whenever she would screen it on her old Movie Macabre show: “the worst movie ever made.” That statement will definitely get viewers to watch this adolescent attempt at parody, but it is far from the sheer cinematic disaster required to be the worst of all film. We’d happily submit Anthony Hopkins‘ Slipstream or the videotastic Vampire Dentist as legit contenders for the titles. But since we like to examine movies worth watching, let’s get back to Attack of the Killer Tomatoes — which still manages to offer something while being bad.
The plot concerns an unexplained attack of man-eating tomatoes and the ineffectual U.S. government tasked with routing the foul scourge. Unfortunately, congress is mired in a sleepy subcommittee and the president is more concerned with his approval rating. Press Secretary Jim Richardson (George Wilson) tries his best to keep a lid on the tomato problem, but a young reports blows the scandal wide open. As a result, Mason Dixon (David Miller) is appointed to lead a new taskforce made of more incompetent government employees, a horrifying racist stereotype or two, and a paratrooper who thinks its D-Day despite being no older than twenty-two. Nevertheless, Dixon must be getting close to the truth because someone wants him dead.
Oh, also, one of the subcommittee’s dossiers made it out to a newspaper, so cub reporter Lois Fairchild (Sharon Taylor) is on Dixon’s trail, too.
Now, if the plot sounds like a like a bunch of half-remembered monster movies with a really lazy commentary on the federal government of the 1970s, that’s … sort of the charm(?) Made for less than $100,00 by director John DeBello, the film is an expansion of student project DeBello made with fellow writers Stephen Peace and Costa Dillon. Dillon is credited as the creator of the entire concept and makes a cameo appearance as an impish college student who can’t help but say “tomato” to cause a panic in a library. This moment, more than anything else, exemplifies the spirit of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes — the impish, yet somehow still good-natured impulse to make a theater erupt in terror. And if DeBello and his team can’t do it with genuine chills, they try to do it with laughs.
This, of course, is the problem. The handful of funny jokes outlast their welcome by weeks — an initially good moment in which a flock of generals must climb over each other to sit down in tiny meeting room never finds the right timing — and most others just fall flat; forcing the film to point at the material and try, desperately, to convince you it’s funny. The most glaring example of this is an attempt to comment on the political situation in Washington. The congresspeople are asleep at the wheel, the president is an egotist, and the civil servants incompetent. There is a way to build that commentary into a satisfying meta-joke via a B-movie spoof, but Attack of the Killer Tomatoes lacks the artistry to do it.
Strangely, the film is at its best when it is directly aping the feel of cheesy monster movie like The Beginning of the End or Monster A-go-go. Scenes of the army fighting large rolling tomatoes is inherently funny. DeBello smartly shoots this material with all the sobriety of those atomic age terror pictures, making the tomato attack scenes worth the investment in time. You just wish there was more of it or, like Airplane would do a few years later, the structure of an older-film supporting DeBello’s attempts at comedy. Mimicking The Blob would at least give them some support to bolster the weak political humor.
It is hard to tell where DeBello and crew stand politically. As it happens, Peace subsequently served in the California Legislature as a Democrat for 20 years, but you’d be hard-pressed to see any sort of real opinion or leaning in the film. Other than one jab apparently aimed directly at a Carter-era policy, none of the jokes are pointedly about anything. They have all the depth of that old Simpsons gag in which a computer morning DJ’s mentions “those clowns in Congress” and the both-sides-are-terrible feel of a South Park plot. I suppose that should be expected as there is the undeniable student quality to the film, and within that, the impulse to blame the concept of government itself for all of life’s problems.
Or, at least, that was the case in the 1970s and it was still true in the 1990s.
Which may be why Attack of the Killer Tomatoes has any redeeming quality. It is youthful and that energy is on screen despite every failed sketch, overwrought original song — yes, the film has musical numbers — and the decision to call out light rock as a way to stop invasion. It may not be the sort of conviction we typically praise here, but there is something admirable in these guys essentially making a film-long prank and laughing all the way to the bank.
The film was successful enough after nearly a decade of local TV airings for DeBello and company to make three sequels and inspire an animated series. That has to count for something, right? This may be cheese with an obvious off-note, but it is still worth a sample.
Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is currently available on Amazon Prime with a paid subscription.