The 1970s decided that everything on Earth could be a threat to humanity: Jaws, Piranha, Grizzly, Frogs, worms in Squirm, an octopus in Tentacles, and even bunnies in Night of the Lepus. So, a team got together and decided to make one of the most absurd spoofs ever by making a movie about people dealing with the least threatening monsters on film.
So, the beauty of this film is mostly in the absurdity, largely presenting the characters and the world through ridiculous scenes that parody other films or genres. Nothing I can do can convey the insanity of the plot, the dialogue, the sight-gags, or the settings of this film. That said, here’s the actual plot:
Tomatoes are killing people. Some eat people, some crush people, some poison people who drink their juice. The President’s Press Secretary Jim Richardson (George Wilson) claims there is no threat, but the President (Ernie Meyers) puts a man named Mason Dixon (David Miller) in charge of a taskforce to deal with the tomatoes. Dixon recruits disguise expert Sam Smith (Gary Smith), deep sea diver Greg Colburn (Steve Cates), and olympic swimmer Gretta Attenbaum (Benita Barton), as well as para-soldier Wilbur Finletter (Senator Stephen Pea… wait, Senator? Holy hell, Stephen Peace became a California State Senator).
It’s discovered that the regular-sized tomatoes seen thus far in the film are, in fact, cherry tomatoes and that regular tomatoes have now become massive. To combat this threat, the President sends Richardson to get ideas from an ad agency headed by Ted Swan (Al Sklar), who pitches a bunch of slogans but no useful plans. A masked assassin attacks Dixon, revealing himself to be with the tomatoes, but Dixon escapes. Meanwhile, a Senate committee tries to address the problem (hilariously ineffectively), but instead leaks the committee guide to the crisis to a newspaper, which sends reporter Lois Fairchild (Sharon Taylor). Finletter mistakes Fairchild first for a prostitute and second for a spy and tries to kill her, but fails. He also tries to catch the masked assassin when he strikes again, but loses him.
Gretta gets killed by the tomatoes and the Army is defeated by the giant fruits. One tomato chases Dixon, but it jumps out the window when Dixon hides in a young boy’s room playing the awful song “Puberty Love.” Dixon spots the assassin and chases him, but is captured. The assassin is revealed to be Richardson, who, though he didn’t create the tomatoes, figured out their weakness and can now control them. He’s about to reveal his secret when Finletter appears and kills him. Dixon realizes that the secret is “Puberty Love” which has driven off the tomatoes throughout the film.
Dixon gets all of the tomatoes into a stadium and tells Finletter to bring all the people left in the town to fight. However, only crazy people are left in town (everyone with sense left), so all the people that show up are in funny costumes. Dixon plays “Puberty Love,” which cripples the tomatoes, allowing the crowd to destroy them, except for one tomato who found earmuffs. The last tomato attacks Fairchild, but Dixon saves her by having the tomato read the sheet music to “Puberty Love.” The two profess their love for each other. Then, the carrots start talking…
This was one of my favorite films when I was a kid. It had jokes that I was positive were “adult,” goofy over-the-top characters, a weird soundtrack, and the kind of oddball humor that I never could quite figure out. Plus, there was a TV Show on Fox Kids in the 90s, which was when television was awesome. Admittedly, it was based on the sequel film Return of the Killer Tomatoes and the best part of it, John Astin’s Dr. Putrid T. Gangreen, wasn’t in this film, but… well, the title was the same.
Attack of the Killer Tomatoes was a huge critical flop when it came out and it’s not hard to see why, in 1978, this film didn’t do well. It’s a surreal farce in the vein of Airplane! or Police Squad!, but the comic timing (and talent of the performers) wasn’t near the level of those two. This isn’t to say that the performances or the writing are bad, in fact, they’re pretty good, but this was essentially trying to make a surreal humor spoof a few years before the ground was really broken and this movie is even more surreal than most. Audiences probably weren’t ready for this yet. We needed a Star Wars to break the ice, but instead we got… I’m gonna say The Last Starfighter.
However, if you watch this film, you realize how influential it was on later media. A lot of gags that you see in this film are repeated in other, later, comedies, most notably the “Slow Car Chase” scene and the “Too-Small Meeting Room.” Hell, the idea of a song killing the evil monsters by being truly terrible would later be ripped off by Mars Attacks (though Howard Stern claimed to have come up with it in 1982… 4 years after this movie came out). Also, fun fact, “Puberty Love” was sung by Matt Cameron, drummer for Soundgarden and later Pearl Jam.
I have to admit that I had forgotten a lot of elements of this film, because some of the scenes are a little forgettable due to their disconnect from the rest of the movie. For example, I had forgotten most of the scenes with the Ad Man, Ted Swan, which include some interesting musical numbers and a parody of the extremely stupid “Whip Inflation Now” campaign… something I didn’t know existed as a kid. That’s definitely one of the reasons why this film is a little weaker, since a lot of the vignettes are connected to the tomatoes, but not directly to the central plot of the film. They’re funny, but they’re not outstanding enough to be remembered independently.
Overall, I really did enjoy re-watching this film. Despite being made in the 1970s, there aren’t a ton of things in it that aged poorly, including the (intentionally) awful effects and camerawork. Sure, some of the contemporary references are hard to catch, but most of the movie is pretty timeless. Is it the best horror spoof? No, but it’s pretty damned fun. If you’ve never seen it, you definitely need to. Much like with Airplane, a lot of what makes this film work are the non-sequiturs and the clever gags.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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