Few filmmakers have the guts (or the gall) to actually try to make a bad film. John De Bello was one of the bold few.
This trash cinema auteur (he was a writer, director, producer and actor) brought the world Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, a 1978 spoof of bad 50’s sci-fi flicks that actually managed to be considered worse than the movies it parodied. And in the Bizarro-movie world of low-budget campiness, that was the highest praise anyone could have given.
The title gives away all you need to know about the movie’s plot. Man-eating tomatoes of varying sizes – some bigger than a human – have been popping up around the country, terrorising (and eating) innocent Americans.
CIA man Mason Dixon (David Miller) is assigned to investigate, rounding up a ragtag team that includes master of disguise Sam Smith (Gary Smith), sabre-carrying military nut Lt. Finletter (J. Stephen “Rock” Peace), Russian swimmer Gretta (Benita Barton) and SCUBA diver Greg Colburn (Steve Cates).
Nosy reporter Lois Fairchild (Sharon Taylor) tags along on the mission, trying to get the scoop on the mutated killers.
When it turns out that government experiments are responsible for creating these psychotic fruits, Mason and company are forced to take on a corrupt administration as well as the tomatoes themselves. Can nothing be done to stop these sun-ripened slaughterers?
Attack of the Killer Tomatoes was certainly bad, but in the minds of many, that gave it a greatness not seen since the heyday of Ed Plan 9 From Outer Space Wood.
Kids especially were delighted by the kind of movie that seemed to be made just for them – silly premise, corny jokes, goofy special effects and all.
The film was by no means a box-office blockbuster, but it did become a cult classic, surfacing on cable and on video for years after its release in cinemas.
Ten years later, as the legend of the Killer Tomatoes continued to build, John De Bello decided it was time for an equally campy sequel. Return of the Killer Tomatoes starred John Astin (TV’s Gomez Addams) as Professor Gangreen, a mad scientist creating human beings from tomatoes (and vice versa), their killer tendencies intact.
Solidifying its place as a cult hit, the movie also boasted a cast that included future superstar George Clooney and 2000’s most talked-about groom, Who Wants To Marry a Multi-Millionaire‘s Rick Rockwell.
The tomatoes’ next move was to television, where they starred in a surprisingly successful Saturday morning cartoon series.
Astin and Rockwell (and De Bello, of course) returned for two more movie sequels, 1990’s Killer Tomatoes Strike Back and 1991’s Killer Tomatoes Eat France!, proving that the only thing worse (in a good way) than a bad movie is a bad movie franchise.
Lt. Wilbur Finletter
J. Stephen “Rock” Peace
John De Bello