Some of my favorite movie memories are of finding B-movie VHS treasures with my Dad, cackling over the box art and renting the videocassette in search of cheap thrills.
While this practice brings me great nostalgia, it was a means of introducing so many obscure cinematic milestones into my life.
I recall this one Mom n’ Pop-owned video store which looked like it used to be a barbershop, complete with a tile floor and a vast glass window front. I once asked the owner if he had a copy of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” He explained that the film wasn’t officially released on video yet, but he had a bootleg copy behind the counter he was willing to rent my Dad.
That was how I got to see that film years before anyone else in my third-grade class.
Then, there was the time my Dad and I borrowed a copy of “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” from the same store. The cover art made us chuckle (indeed, the promotional poster is lively and amusing), so Dad plucked down a buck and we watched it that evening.
I recall laughing hysterically for the first few minutes (namely during the goofy title song), then sitting in total silence for the rest of it.
Directed by John De Bello and released in 1978, “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” front-loads its best jokes in the establishing scene (in which a housewife is attacked by a tomato that pops out of the kitchen sink) and the pun-heavy opening credits.
After that, it’s like one of those sorry “Saturday Night Live” sketches that has one-joke that gets stretched over an agonizing five minutes. Namely, the one where Luke Perry is the head of an organization that names fish -- I recall that sketch for being so remarkably slim and unfunny, it became downright surreal.
Watching De Bello’s movie is a lot like that.
There’s a plot. In fact, there are so many subplots, you’d think that shoehorning a dozen storylines and characters would result in more laughs. If this had just succeeded in being a clever takedown of monster movies, it could have worked. Instead, the hallmark of wit on hand here is the title.
FAST FACT: The team behind “Attack of the Rotten Tomatoes” said they “parboiled” select tomatoes prior to shooting so they would “splat” better on screen.
“Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” manages to be racist, sexist, tasteless and (bizarrely) blasphemous, which can be expected of a film that wanted to be another “Tunnel Vision” or “The Groove Tube” or “The Kentucky Fried Movie.”
The problem is, it’s rarely funny, even by accident. Despite an obvious aim to be as outrageous and attention-rousing as possible, it mostly plays like an insufferable children’s film. In fact, bearing a PG-rating, it’s hard to imagine what De Bello and crew thought they could get away with.
There’s no nudity, the violence is quaint (lots of chaos but, aside from ketchup stains, no blood) and I can’t recall a single word of profanity. Were it not so dated and dull, you could show it on The Disney Channel.
To get really nitpicky here -- the title notwithstanding, it’s not much of an attack. The tomatoes roll into frame, often never touching the actors. The victims scream and the camera cuts to something else. It’s never clear if the tomatoes are chomping on the humans (unlike the sequels, the tomatoes have no mouths or faces) or absorbing them like “The Blob” or just, I dunno, squirting juice in their eyes.
For a monster movie spoof that takes time to toothlessly tease “Jaws,” it never works at establishing itself as a horror/comedy.
There are tiny bits that work, like a site gag of a Wheaties-inspired breakfast cereal called “Steroids.” Sorry, I just ruined one of the better gags in the entire movie.
The filmmaking often hits Ed Wood-worthy lows, as the screenplay can’t keep focus on anything (yes, the tomatoes eventually become the subplot of their own movie), the acting is strictly hambone variety show-caliber and it’s so awful, even the so-bad-its-good moments are paltry.
To cut it a minor break: The plot aims to mimic the structure of monster movies, in which sudden attacks are juxtaposed with lengthy situation room discussions between men of power. What this proves is that these kinds of scenes are funnier when played straight (as any scene in “The Return of Godzilla” or even “Broken Arrow” demonstrates).
Curiously, the manner in which the tomatoes are finally dispatched, featuring the use of an unlistenable original song called “Puberty Love,” is awfully similar to the Slim Whitman-empowered finale of “Mars Attacks!”
A number of scenes have two characters in a room speaking to one another: the cinematographer alternates between a two-shot or a head-on shot of the actor talking directly into the camera. There’s no rhythm or purpose to it.
Too many sequences to count feel unfinished, either a victim of editing or at the writing level. The try-anything approach to filmmaking here is astonishing for a movie that actually played in theaters.
“Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” is comparable to “Sextette,” “The Garbage Pail Kids Movie” and “Mannequin Too, On the Move” in the way it beats the audience down with its grueling un-funniness. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” another obvious inspiration from the same era, was both an on-point parody and a zany comedy taken as is.
The audacity of this movie to inject a couple of cringe-inducing musical numbers (I’m being charitable even referring to them that way) only solidifies this as a hall of fame stinker.
Against all odds and reason, this maintains its cult standing, spawned sequels and an animated tv series and firmly withholds its place in the cult movie lexicon (mostly as either a novelty item or a title that brings bemused recognition).
As a curiosity item, it severely punishes the inquisitiveness of the viewer and only rewards the most forgiving (and preferably inebriated) audience. There are numerous micro-budgeted cult movies that have the one quality this ultimately lacks: charm.
Discovering a random B-movie with an eye-catching title shouldn’t bring the adventurous film goer such misery. I still recall fondly my joy in encountering durable drive-in flicks like “The Wraith,” “Race With the Devil,” “Blood Beach” and (a great recommendation from the creator of this site) “Tourist Trap.”
A willingness to delight in, without irony, a pulpy genre film with ideas bigger than the budget allowed, is a key to enjoying lesser known cult classics.
On the other hand, if you remember how hard you laughed during the opener of ”Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” allow me to assure you that following up with the rest of the film is akin to biting into a rotten tomato.
One Tomato…I mean, Star. One Star