Director – John De Bello, Screenplay – John de Bello, Constantine Dillon & J. Stephen Peace, Producer – J. Stephen Peace, Photography – Stephen Kent Welch, Music – Neal Fox & Rick Patterson, Special Effects – Side EFX Co, Production Design – Constantine Dillon. Production Company – Four Square Productions
John Astin (Professor Gangreen), Anthony Starke (Chad Finletter), Karen Mistal (Tara), George Clooney (Matt Stephens), Steve Lundquist (Igor), ‘Rock’ Peace (Wilbur Finletter), Frank Davis (Sam Smith)
Professor Gangreen is conducting illegal experiments with tomatoes, which have now been banned, attempting to turn them into people and create an army to take over the world. Gangreen’s tomato-created housemaid and sex slave Tara walks out on him, annoyed at the way that Gangreen treats his tomato pet Furry Tomato or FT. She falls in love with Wilbur Finletter’s nephew Chad, a pizza delivery boy, and moves in with him, he unaware that she is a tomato person.
Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978) was a unique one-off effort whose very silliness was its appeal. Films that are so silly they are amusing are notoriously difficult to do – the deliberately bad science-fiction film that the Killer Tomatoes series taps into is littered with vastly more failures than successes.
The humour in the first film lay in the deadpan silliness of tomatoes mimicking shark attacks from Jaws (1975), wearing headphones and the like. Here the elements of the first film’s success clearly eludes director John de Bello and Return of the Killer Tomatoes! is merely silly. We get surprisingly little in the way of the same absurdist humour. There is the odd scene that hits the same silly incongruity – like a dog in a diving mask or the tomato FT riding a dune bike. Mostly though, de Bello’s humour seems silly and forced. A prison has signs that divide sections up between ‘Really Nasty Guys’ and ‘Former White House Aides’; a woman is interviewed about the tomato panic in the restaurant and the tv interviewer starts abusing her: “You mean you were eating alone – you can’t get a date … You can’t even see your own feet, you fat cow.”
This time John de Bello seems to get off on breaking the fourth wall down with a series of gags that remind us we are watching a film. The film is framed by a tv gameshow, which itself interrupts the film during the climactic showdown, having Gangreen win the mystery word just as he is about to pull the gas chamber lever. A chase sequence is interrupted by two onlookers: “There hasn’t been a chase scene in the movie yet – it’s already 25 minutes old … That’s the shortest chase scene I’ve ever seen,” “It’s a low-budget movie.” In another scene, the film suddenly stops because the production has run out of money and the director (John de Bello playing himself) throws his hands up about having to pay people for talking on film whereupon everybody in camera range talks in unison. The film gets its most amusing mileage out of its product placement gags (which is, of course, the film’s answer to its cash crisis) – a packet of Kelloggs is placed in front of the camera during a two-shot in a restaurant booth; Gangreen wears a Pepsi ad on the back of his lab coat; a Pepsi ad is placed over the obviously cheap exterior painting of his laboratory; Steve Lundquist stops during a phone call to mention the name of the service provider; and George Clooney improvises a bizarre conversation during which he manages to plug numerous soda, beer and chocolate brands.
Return of the Killer Tomatoes!‘s greatest notoriety in retrospect is for being one of the first acting appearances of now A-list movie superstar George Clooney. Co-star Rick Rockwell, who plays a small role as a jailed presidential aide, later had his fifteen minutes of fame as the millionaire on the infamous Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? tv special (1999).
The subsequent sequels were Killer Tomatoes Strike Back! (1991) and Killer Tomatoes Eat France (1992). The idea was also spun out as an amusing animated children’s series – Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1990-93).