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Botanicult Fiction: Tomatoes, are they Fruit, Vegetables, or Murderers?

November 10, 2020

By Dr. David Galbraith, Head of Science, Royal Botanical Gardens

Since the 1978 release of the movie Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! it has become a true piece of BotaniCult Fiction. The title pretty much sums up the film. For no reason ever explained in the film, tomatoes start attacking and killing people in towns and cities across the USA. The cult following is not due to some deep appreciation for tomatoes as potential villains, but rests on just how bad this film is.

You really have to admire Director John De Bello, who was also one of the writers. It takes a lot of vision to restrict the special effects of an action-adjacent film to throwing tomatoes at the windshield of a car or rolling large inflatable tomato models toward fleeing crowds. The film is replete with inexplicable moments like an advertising executive who suddenly bursts into musical numbers (this isn’t a musical), a secret agent dressed as a World War II paratrooper who drags his increasingly-bedraggled parachute behind him throughout the film, and a shadowy assassin out to kill Mason Dixon (played by David Miller), the leader of a misfit band of government agents trying to stop the rise of the tomato menace, who succeeds in shooting everyone else but Dixon.

To be fair, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! was not intended to be taken seriously on any level. It was a satire of the horror movie genre in the same vein that Airplane! (1980) was a satire of disaster films a couple years later. The writers and producers had their tongues so firmly in their cheeks that they likely required periodontal surgery afterward.

Despite the silliness (or because of it) and the low opining of critics, Attack! was a box-office success, earning nearly $600,000 against a production budged of under $100,000. This was good enough to lead to the production of a 1990 cartoon TV series and three movie sequels (Return of the Killer Tomatoes! in 1988, Killer Tomatoes Strike Back! in 1990, and Killer Tomatoes Eat France! in 1991). Tellingly, the film rating web site Rotten Tomatoes gives Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! 25% on its “Tomatometer” as the average response of 11 critics. Audiences have a more positive view. Well, a little more positive. On the same web site 34,705 people have left an average score of 42%.

The film ends on a menacing note. Once the tomatoes are defeated (for the most part by being turned into spaghetti sauce by a stampeding stadium crowd), a carrot in a garden exclaims “All right you guys. They’re gone now.” Humanity is clearly not safe from these marauding vegetables

A promotional poster for Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978). Source: Wikimedia.
A promotional poster for Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978). Source: Wikimedia.

Botanicult Fiction is an affectionate review of plants in pop culture viewed through the lens of plant nerds and curated for your reading or viewing pleasure during this challenging time of self isolation

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