Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Four Square Productions 1978.

Before watching the movie:

I always knew that this was a horror spoof, but I didn’t realize it was a musical. It’s already under 90 minutes, and there are songs in it, so the plot will probably be very thin. But how much plot can be gotten out of running from murderous fruiting vines? Three sequels and a cartoon series, apparently.

After watching the movie:

Around the country, people are being attacked by tomatoes, being killed or eaten by them. How? Why? Nobody knows. The President instructs his press secretary Richardson to keep the public calm and assembles a team of specialists to investigate, led by Mason Dixon. A pamphlet leaks from a Senate committee that leads a newspaper editor to send his reporter Lois Fairchild to follow Mason’s team and report whatever they learn. As the authorities try to stay on top of the tomato threat, they discover that not only are these tomatoes mobile and deadly, they’re also beginning to grow to gigantic proportions, and soon the streets are full of six-foot tall marauding tomatoes.

It’s a stretch to call this a musical. There are only two or three actual musical numbers in the entire movie, and the most important song in it is a recently released single within the world of the story. Technically, I guess if there are any sequences where characters drop what they’re doing and start singing, it could be considered a musical, but that happens so rarely it’s just a joke, not a direct part of how the movie operates. The songs aren’t even all that good, but I think that’s part of the joke.

The humor is very dry and deadpan, and at times it seems like the kind of bizarre and random yet 100% played-straight comedy that Zucker/Abrams/Zucker have been riding with decreasing success since Airplane!. It usually works here, because it feels like nothing was added without the confidence that it was actually funny, rather than just throwing in random things because the formula says random is probably funny, like later ZAZ productions have fallen into.

There’s a recurring gag with a Japanese scientist who is always dubbed like the old bad dubs of Japanese movies, but it feels like it’s only making fun of the bad dubs, not Japanese people. Dr. Nokitofa is arguably the most competent man in the room, and if his words matched his mouth movements, there wouldn’t be any joke in his characterization. Additionally, Lois Fairchild is not your typical useless B-movie heroine, but while she doesn’t achieve much, she gets as far as she does by being a skilled reporter.

Overall, this felt more like a series of strung-together jokes than a cohesive narrative, but as a spoof, it doesn’t have to be all that well connected. The jokes land, and it still mostly holds up today, which is what really matters for a comedy like this.

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