I don’t like raw tomatoes. I like ketchup, spaghetti and pizza sauce, barbecue sauce, salsa (figure that one out) and so forth, but raw tomatoes give me fits. Pizzas with slices of tomato on top are gross to me. Getting a burger with tomato on it is almost as bad as getting one with pickles and mustard (don’t get me started). Maybe it’s the smell of tomatoes. They always have a slightly rotten scent, at least to my nose. Still, I respect this odd little fruit, more for what can be done with it than for what it is in its natural state. For example, if you ever fuse some aluminum foil to the bottom of your oven, put some ketchup on the spot and let it sit for a while. The acid in the tomatoes and vinegar eats the foil, and you can usually clean it up pretty easily (there’s your pro tip for the day). I wouldn’t say that my reaction to tomatoes is quite on par with that of the characters in John De Bello’s (not to be confused with DJ John DeBella) Return of the Killer Tomatoes, but it’s not terribly far off, either. Maybe this was the impetus for the idea in the first place? The world holds its breath.
The evil Dr. Gangreen (John Astin) plans to take over the Earth with his (literally) homegrown army of tomato men (who all resemble a certain Sylvester Stallone character). Complicating matters is the young Chad (Anthony Starke) who falls in love with Tara Boumdeay (Karen Mistal, whom I fondly recall from The New Adventures of Beans Baxter, first and foremost; I don’t know about you), arguably one of the sexier creations to emerge from the bad doctor’s apparatus.
Arrow Films have released yet another great edition of a film which, at first blush, may not have been most people’s first choice for bluray upgrade. Aside from the fantastic transfer (featuring the original uncompressed stereo mix), there is also a nice interview with star Starke (to no one’s surprise, George Clooney, here in one of his earliest feature films, didn’t participate in this release). As usual, the slip cover art is reversible with a new piece by artist Matthew Griffin on one side and the original poster art on the other. Further, there’s a booklet featuring writing by James Oliver. I honestly don’t know how you can expect more, especially from a film of this caliber.
When I first saw this film, I believe it was on USA Up All Night (hopefully one of the episodes hosted by Caroline Schlitt; I just was never that much into Rhonda Shear, sorry), and I recall thinking that it was pretty much a waste of time. I had, of course, seen Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, and it was a favorite of mine way back when, but with the sequel, things had changed. The original was a send-up of Fifties monster movies, more or less. Here, it’s a love story, albeit a very odd one. Yet, it still pays homage to Sci Fi and Horror (and even a little Film Noir) movies of the Forties and Fifties. Gangreen’s lair is a classic mad scientist lab with lots of bubbling beakers, archaic power switches, and so on. Astin plays Gangreen like any number of arch villains of that bygone time, his hair bedraggled, his mannerisms both manic and pseudo-rational. There is panic in the streets whenever a tomato rears its ugly head, calling back to scenes from crowds running from monsters in the Godzilla franchise, etcetera.
When Tara first appears, she’s framed in a doorway with smoke billowing out behind her. Some Noir-y sax plays on the soundtrack. She’s a perfect femme fatale for the Eighties. In fact, her character is a satire of the classic portrayal of feminine domesticity of the Fifties. She’s always dressed up in chic gowns and outfits while she does housework. She says that two of the three things she does very well is cook and clean. The third is sex, and this points to how women were broadly viewed way back when as simultaneous servants and objects of desire (this is a blanket statement; of course, there were strong women and women’s roles, but this film is very general in its reference to a general viewpoint, i.e. “the perfect woman”). Interestingly, Tara is open about sex. When she first approaches Chad, she asks if he wants to make love. It’s Chad who doesn’t immediately jump at the chance, being a “virtuous” kind of guy (have no fear, this hurdle is quickly surmounted by our hero). Later, Tara says that “sex is good, sex is normal.” Moreover, she’s not afraid to get a bit kinky, eyeing a pair of handcuffs in a sex shop like she may a new set of pots and pans. The big change in the film takes place with Chad, who has to adjust his worldview about tomatoes (both fruit and women), sex, and modern relationships. Tara, a relic of the past, is the arbiter of this, ironically enough.
The thing I found most charming about Return of the Killer Tomatoes on this second viewing isn’t its sillier moments but its more absurdist ones, specifically, its self-reflexivity. De Bello and company constantly refer to the fact that this is just a movie, and you’re supposed to be having fun. The film opens with a television host introducing the film (mistakenly, the picture that starts rolling is Big Breasted Girls Go to the Beach and Take Their Tops Off). Later, said host will intervene in the middle of a scene with “the” word of the day so some viewer can win the $9.22 prize. Most inventive, however, is the product placement gag that comes about halfway through the runtime. The director calls “cut” and states that they don’t have enough money to finish the movie. Clooney (as Clooney) says that the solution is product placement. The rest of the film contains flagrant instances of this practice, with everything from Moosehead beer to Crest toothpaste to Oh Henry! candy bars being shilled. This visibly irritates the actors who have to deliver ridiculous dialogue to sell this crap. For my money, it’s these more subversively self-conscious elements that play way better than any of the more sophomoric ones (though I do have a certain appreciation for those as well). Even though this is a slicker and more conventional outing than the first film, I have to admit, it’s just about as entertaining, and that’s really all the filmmakers want you to get out of it. Mission accomplished.
MVT: As stated, the self-reflexive elements. They’re sly and blatant at the same time.
Make or Break: You’ll know from the film’s introduction whether you’ll be into the film overall.