A cheesy, self-aware genre parody, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes did to creature features what Airplane! would later do to disaster movies. Today, we’re looking at how this absurd film took root and flowered into a franchise. Now would someone please pass the ketchup?
1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY A KILLER MUSHROOM MOVIE.
By the early 1960s, Toho Studios had become a monster movie factory. In 1954, the Japanese company introduced the world to Godzilla, a city-smashing reptile who has starred in more than two dozen movies (and counting). To ride Godzilla’s massive coattails, Toho unleashed an onslaught of creature features—the strangest of which might be 1963’s Matango. A twisted survival tale, it’s about five people who get shipwrecked on an island that’s dotted with radioactive mushrooms. Eat one, our heroes learn, and you’ll be transformed into a violent humanoid fungus.
Matango never saw a theatrical release in the U.S., but a dubbed version of the film was broadcast on American television every so often under a different name: Attack of the Mushroom People. One night, a San Diego high school student named Costa Dillon caught the flick on TV, and that ridiculous title struck a chord. “I saw Attack of the Mushroom People and thought, ‘How dumb is this?’” Dillon said. Suddenly, he found himself thinking of ways to make the concept “even sillier,” and ended up writing Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. “I don’t know why tomatoes came to mind first, maybe because they’re so innocuous,” he said.
2. IT BEGAN AS A STUDENT FILM.
Dillon went on to attend the University of California, Davis, where he enrolled in a film course with two of his high school buddies: John De Bello and James Stephen Peace. To complete an assignment, the trio worked with two other students to turn Dillon’s “killer tomatoes” idea into a 10-minute movie. Shot with a Super 8 camera, the short film has unfortunately landed in the dustbin of history, as no known copies exist. On the plus side, though, Dillon and his classmates received an “A” for their efforts.
3. ONE OF ITS STARS LATER BECAME A STATE SENATOR.
Upon leaving college, Peace and De Bello founded Four Square Productions, which Dillon later joined. Based in San Diego, the company specialized in taping high school and junior college football games. In 1977, Four Square began production on a full-length Attack of the Killer Tomatoes movie. Funded by a combination of savings and investors, the film’s budget amounted to roughly $120,000. On top of co-writing the script, Peace was cast in the movie as Lieutenant Wilbur Finletter of the government’s Tomato Task Squadron.
Eventually, Peace found himself working for taxpayers in real life. From 1982 to 1993, he served as a Democratic legislator on the California State Assembly. Afterwards, Peace was elected to California’s Senate, where he remained until 2002. Every so often, his B-movie roots would prompt a few jokes around the State Capitol. In 1983, Peace sponsored a bill that would require California food-sellers to put labels reading either “vine picked” or “artificially ripened” on their tomatoes. While covering this story, journalists couldn’t resist bringing up Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. As the Associated Press dryly noted, “Peace ... owes a debt to the tomato.”
4. BOTH REAL AND (VERY) FAKE TOMATOES WERE USED.
Executing the film required lots of fruit—much of which was “executed” in the literal sense. As Costa told Bon Appétit Magazine, the produce that appeared in the final cut fell into two main categories: “We had what I called ‘stock tomatoes’ and ‘star tomatoes,’” he recalled. The former were rotting or blemished specimens bought on the cheap. By and large, these mainly ended up getting smashed or thrown at things during the shoot. Conversely, the more photogenic “star tomatoes” appeared in close-ups. Costa’s movie also features some unnaturally large, obviously man-made fruits. After experimenting with PVC and papier-mâché, the team opted to build these monstrosities out of the soundproofing material normally found in BART cars.
5. THE HELICOPTER CRASH WASN’T PLANNED.
In one early scene, in which a group of local policemen and government employees face off against some tomatoes, a helicopter was rented to intensify the sequence—and it did just that. The helicopter spun wildly out of control when its tail accidentally touched the ground. A spectacular crash ensued, totaling the $60,000 chopper. According to the official Attack of the Killer Tomatoes website, this snafu “cost more than the rest of the movie combined.” But no one was killed or seriously injured, and the footage made it into the final film.
6. JAMES STEPHEN PEACE ALMOST DIED IN THE CAR CHASE SCENE.
That helicopter sequence wasn’t the only one in which things went dangerously awry. During another action scene, Peace’s Finletter gets his trusty parachute caught in a car door, which then proceeds to drag him around for quite some time. Here, Peace did his own stunts. Unfortunately, this left him at the mercy of some very poor planning. “When we were towing Steve behind the car, we didn’t have a mechanism for letting go,” Dillon explained. Midway through a practice run, Peace crashed into a parked truck. The accident knocked him out and shooting was halted until he came to.
7. MANY SCENES WERE SHOT AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SAN DIEGO.
UCSD alumni might get a feeling of déjà vu as they watch Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. The crew filmed extensively at the school’s assorted parking lots and administrative facilities. In 2007, De Bello—who directed the feature—admitted that he also “borrowed” a few lab coats from some empty offices he snuck into on-campus.
8. “PUBERTY LOVE” WAS SUNG BY PEARL JAM’S FUTURE DRUMMER.
What’s the one thing that can wipe out a killer tomato epidemic? A screeching ballad called “Puberty Love.” Halfway through the movie, we find out that the murderous fruits cannot stand the grating pop song—and this very specific weakness is what ends up doing them in. To record the vocals, De Bello recruited his then-14-year-old neighbor, Matt Cameron, to sing “Puberty Love.” Since his voice was audibly changing at the time, Cameron seemed like an ideal choice. Fortunately for grunge fans, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes didn’t kill the teenager’s music career. As the elite drummer of both Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, Cameron’s become a superstar. Today, he has warm memories about his horror movie debut. “It was a big neighborhood project,” Cameron recalled (both his brother and sister had cameos in the film).
9. WHEN JOHN DE BELLO MADE THE FIRST SEQUEL, HE ADVISED ONE ACTOR AGAINST WATCHING THE ORIGINAL.
Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’ early reviews were pretty rotten. Released in 1978, it was widely dismissed as one of the most inept motion pictures ever conceived. For his part, De Bello remained philosophical. “I’m greatly honored by the fact that somebody had to make the worst vegetable movie, why couldn’t it be us?” he said. Despite some bad press, the picture gained a huge cult following that’s growing strong to this day. The first of three sequels was released in 1988. Directed once again by De Bello, Return of the Killer Tomatoes famously stars a young George Clooney. Veteran actor John Astin also joined the ensemble as Professor Gangreen, a role he’d reprise in the series’ third and fourth installments. As he prepared for the role, Astin asked De Bello if he should see the first Attack of the Killer Tomatoes flick. “Don’t bother,” said the director. “There’s a lot of publicity about it being the world’s worst movie. Well it really is.”
10. THE THEME SONG HAS BEEN PLAYED IN OUTER SPACE
On January 13, 1990, the original film’s operatic theme song was played aboard NASA’s Columbia Space Shuttle as a morning wake-up call to the crew. [PDF] This was an inside joke, as Columbia was ordered to recover 12.5 million tomato seeds that had been sent into space in 1984. These were subsequently given to schools all over the world and experimented with by children. Young scientists overwhelmingly agreed that NASA’s space tomatoes were just as tasty as those grown here on Earth, if not more so.