It is 1978 and writer/director John De Bello, along with his co-writers Costa Dillon and J. Stephen Peace, release Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!, a spoof of 1950’s low-budget monster movies. The movie bombs, but that is not the end of the Killer Tomatoes. In the subsequent years, the film develops a cult following with audiences learning to love its low-budget nuttiness. By the late 80’s, De Bello and his team decide it is time for more. Adding a fourth writer, Stephen Andrich, to the team, they unleash 1988’s Return of the Killer Tomatoes!. Professor Gangreen (John Astin), is creating a new breed of killer tomatoes, ones that he can disguise as humans. Can two humble pizza guys help rescue The Girl and Save the World from the new red menace? A great cast clearly has fun playing with pratfalls, absurdist humor, fourth-wall breaking sequences, and even a bit of social commentary. The sequel recaptures the goofy fun of the original and tweaks it for the late 80’s post-Airplane taste in absurdist comedy. Return of the Killer Tomatoes! is an example of how a sequel can improve on the original. The cast and crew are having a ball, and that sense of fun spills over onto the viewers.
The film opens as if we are watching Channel 73’s afternoon One Dollar Movie, complete with a “if we call and you say the secret word, you win the jackpot” contest. After mistakenly cueing up the surprisingly PG film Big Breasted Girls Go to the Beach and Take Their Tops Off, they quickly switch to their intended feature, Revenge of the Killer Tomatoes! It is 1988, ten years after the end of The Great Tomato War, as chronicled in Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! All tomatoes, even non-killer ones, have been outlawed in the United States. Tomato war hero Wilbur Finletter (J. Stephen Peace as Rock Peace) has retired to run a tomato-free pizza joint. Helping him out are his nephew Chad Finletter (Anthony Starke) and his nephew’s buddy Matt Stevens (a before-they-were-stars George Clooney). Chad is smitten with one of the customers, Tara Boumdeay (Karen M. Waldron as Karen Mistal). Little does he know, Tara is quite literally a real tomato who has been given human form by the mad Professor Gangreen (John Astin). With the help of his blond haired, big toothed assistant Igor (Steve Lundquist), whose dream it is to be a TV newscaster, Professor Gangreen plans to use his laboratory to create a race of Rambo-esque Tomato-men to take over the World. When Tara sees the Professor trying to throw out a small, fuzzy, two-footed mutant tomato (Fuzzy Tomato or F.T.), she rescues it and runs to Chad and Matt for help. After falling in love with Chad, Tara soon is kidnapped by Igor and the Professor, and Chad and Matt find themselves having to call upon Uncle Wilbur and his fellow VTW (Veterans of Tomato Wars) members to rescue Tara and Save the World from Tomato Domination.
One of the things that makes Return of the Killer Tomatoes! so enjoyable is the infectious nature of the fun the uniformly strong cast is clearly having. While Chad is miscast-by-life as the hero, Anthony Starke is perfectly cast as Chad. He has a great sense of comic timing and is equally adept at delivering goofy lines as he is at taking pratfalls and delivering double-takes. As things get worse, Chad “loses his shit” in increasingly comic manner. Playing calm straight man to Starke’s excitable Chad, George Clooney shows off his particular brand of cool, deadpan comedy with which he has come to be associated. Karen M. Waldron plays Tara, the tomato with a heart of gold. Tara starts out as near-robotic Tomato-woman, but Waldron brings out her humanity as she rescues her “brother” F.T. and discovers the joys of true love. Yes, the Tomato-woman has the most fully realized character arc in the film. On the evil side of things, John Astin is a delight as Professor Gangreen. Imagine the bizarre nuttiness of Astin’s Gomez Addams, but channeled to evil. Astin relishes in the mustache-twirling mad scientist nature of the character. (I do have to say I was a tad disappointed that he did not literally twirl his mustache at some point.) Steve Lundquist’s wannabe news anchor / evil laboratory assistant Igor is also a blast to watch. While Igor’s newscaster-style delivery would seem likely to get old, Lundquist manages to pull it off and keep it fresh. The cast is having a ball playing, and that joy seeps into the film and the viewers.
The humor of Revenge of the Killer Tomatoes! is strongly influenced by Airplane (1980). The filmmakers use a mixture of absurdist situations, background gags, pratfalls, and fourth-wall breaking self-referential humor. Just the premise alone, mad scientist wanting to take over the World with genetically modified Tomato-men, has strong absurdist leanings. Absurdities abound, such as tomato-less pizzas (e.g. sardines with peanut butter sauce, pepperoni and raspberry jam sauce), overly clingy street mimes, and backroom black-market tomato “pushers”. Subtle and not-so-subtle gags populate the background. Uncle Wilbur sports a VTW cap instead of a VFW cap, and while no explanation is given, one can surmise it stands for “Veterans of the Tomato War”. In Igor’s bedroom, alert views will catch his diploma from The Ted Baxter School of Broadcasting, complete with a picture of Ted Baxter (Ted Knight). Other background gags are not quite as subtle, with the camera lingering on them. For instance, Igor’s bedroom also sports numerous framed photos of 1980’s network news anchors, including a conspicuous candle-bedecked shrine to Diane Sawyer. Self-referential / meta humor is used throughout as well. Aside from the intro “One Dollar Movie” segment, the actors (and crew) break the fourth wall on more than one occasion. Much like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), the disruption of the fourth wall even ends up tying into the plot of the movie itself.
Revenge of the Killer Tomatoes!’s disregard for the fourth wall helps it move from realm of simply parody to absurdist satire by letting it comment on the movie business itself. About halfway or so into the picture, writer/director John De Bello calls “CUT” and informs the cast and crew that the production has to be shut down due to lack of funds. After a quick joke at the expense of the screen actors guild, George Clooney suggests they look into the rising trend of product placement the bankroll the picture. For the rest of the film, at random intervals, there are some not-so-subtle placements of real and imagined products. These interludes are as simple as an actor eating a name brand candy bar and drinking a branded soda rather conspicuously to a big box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes being thrust into a scene so prominently that it totally obscures the actors. Hollywood’s overuse of product placement is not the only target for the filmmaker’s jabs. Coddling of white collar criminals comes under fire as a prison for former government workers is titled Oliver North Prison and the prisoners have their own putting green, complete with waiter service.
Return of the Killer Tomatoes! is a really enjoyable slice of 80’s absurdist nonsense. The fun that the cast and crew had making the film comes through in every frame. Silly gags, pratfalls, fourth-wall busting shenanigans, and even a bit of social commentary help to make this worthwhile viewing for fans of oddball, goofy comedies. It is no wonder that there is even an early 90’s Saturday morning cartoon spinoff from the film that includes John Astin reprising his role as Professor Gangreen. If you are looking for an honestly funny, goofy film with genre trappings, check out Return of the Killer Tomatoes! Like the sardine and peanut butter pizza, you may find it surprisingly good.
Return of the Killer Tomatoes! (4 / 5)
Available now on Blu-ray from Arrow video