Doomsday Reels: Return of the Killer Tomatoes!

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Return of the Killer Tomatoes! (1988)

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The Director

John De Bello

The Actors

Anthony Starke (Chad Finletter), George Clooney (Matt Stevens), Karen M. Waldron (Tara Boumdeay), John Astin (Professor Gangreen), Steve Lundquist (Igor), J. Stephen Peace (Wilbur Finletter)

The Trailer

The Cause

Genetic Engineering

The Story

“Return of the killer tomatoes!
Return of the killer tomatoes!
The theme song still remains the same
The plot itself has hardly changed
A guaranteed bet
of fortune and fame!

Remember Herman Farbage
Who was taking out the garbage
It seems he wasn’t killed at all
He fought tomatoes to a stall
His TV show premieres this fall!

We have no fighting shoguns
No flying spaceships or explosions
No chainsaws, cars, or Top Gun jets
Or real expensive fancy sets
But a deal we’ve cut, for big cassettes.

Sit back as now the show starts
Part two of only two parts
But if this film does well you see
We’re sure you know predictably
It won’t be long until part three!” - Love Theme from Return of the Killer Tomatoes!

The Rundown

10 years after Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!, director/writer John De Bello returned to the world of his cult-classic property. A lot had changed since 1978, the sort of movies that Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! parodied were a cultural relic and comedies had changed rather significantly as well.

The film opens up with a fake segment that makes it seem like it’s playing as a Saturday afternoon matinee on some rinky-dink regional television network. We then go into the world of the movie where ten years have lapsed since The Tomato Wars depicted in the original film. Tomatoes have been outlawed in the United States in fear of another uprising and Jim Richardson has been jailed for his crimes against humanity.

The tomato war is over but Professor Gangreen (John Astin), the true mastermind behind the killer tomatoes, is restructuring his plan. Since the obnoxious song Puberty Love caused the tomatoes to revert to their natural forms, making them easy prey to be stomped by the heroes at the beginning of the first film, Gangreen has devised a way to turn the tomatoes into human beings via music so that he can use them as sleeper agents. His prime specimen is Tara (Karen M. Waldron) a painfully attractive young woman who serves as his cook/maid/lover. But when Gangreen throws out a failed experiment, a furry tomato that Tara names "F.T.”, she takes her deformed brother and runs to the home of Chad Finletter (Anthony Starke), nephew of Tomato Wars hero Wilbur Finletter (J. Stephen Peace, the sole returning cast member of the original film.)

Chad has suspicions that something is weird about Tara. She’s a tomato sympathizer, she’s obsessed with making toast, and her little red dog looks suspiciously like a tomato, but his best friend Matt (George Clooney) reassures Chad that she’s way out of his league so he should just let it be. Meanwhile, Gangreen’s henchman - who’s only doing the henchman thing until a news anchor position opens up - Igor (Steve Lundquist) is on the hunt to find Tara and bring her back.

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If the comedy of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! was along the same lines as Airplane then the comedy of Return of the Killer Tomatoes! is more like Wayne’s World or Top Secret. Gone are the genre pastiches, goofy musical numbers, and knowing winks to low-budget cinema. The sense of humor is more of an ‘80s horndog sensibility (apparently in 1988 a character could ask someone if he wanted a blowjob and you could still score a PG rating). George Clooney is every amorous best friend character in every sex comedy made within the decade and Karen M. Waldron’s character is objectified to such an extreme level that she manages to somehow bring it back around as an image of sex-positive empowerment.

The only relic of a bygone era is John Astin’s Professor Gangreen. Astin is in full Evil Roy Slade mode but since the writing of the character seems to end at “John Astin plays a mad scientist” he can only squeeze so much out.

The movie dips into the well of “Wilbur Finletter’s pizza parlour sells really gross pizzas” way too often and a running joke where the movie runs out of money midway through and the cast resort to absurd amounts of product placement finish the film is hit or miss but the peaks are as high as the valleys are low.

This movie is a lot more meta than the previous one and a lot of the humor centers around breaking the fourth wall so the movie feels like a bizarre mash-up of Wayne’s World, Top Secret, and Weird Science though not as good or as funny as any of them.

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One thing that may surprise you if you haven’t seen this movie before is the complete lack of killer tomatoes. There are tomatoes, and there are people who we know are tomatoes converted into human form by music but the only actual moving tomato is F.T. who’s more of a cuddly mascot (a fact alluded to in a joke late in the movie stolen straight out of Spaceballs).

The tomatoes mostly manifest as Tara and various burly Rambo-esque men with headbands and machine guns who serve as Gangreen’s tomato army. I’m not sure if this was a cost-saving measure (considering the cheapness of the tomatoes in the original film I find that unlikely) or a creative decision but it is strange that a movie called Return of the Killer Tomatoes! features no actual killer tomatoes. This movie would of course spin off an animated series that featured actual anthropomorphized killer tomatoes.

There’s no mention of Mason Dixon or Lois Fairchild, the main characters of the original movie, but it’s a solid idea making Wilbur Finletter the big hero of the Tomato Wars even if he didn’t actually do much in the original movie. Wilbur was the most entertaining character of the original by far and J. Stephen Peace can sell a comedic take with little more than a squint. Of course, the reason for Peace’s return is really the same reason that Reggie Bannister became a more integral part of the Phantasm franchise, he’s available. Peace served as producer on all four films (though he only appears in three) and wrote the lyrics of all the songs from the first movie.

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Return of the Killer Tomatoes! is fun and reasonably funny but in a lot of ways it’s even more of an oddity than the original. There’s not really anything being clearly parodied here beyond bad movies in general, the connective tissue to the original film is tenuous at best, and there’s not much of a point to anything. I highly doubt there was much money in going back to the killer tomatoes well and the tone of the movie seems alienating to anyone who would have grown up loving the original. It’s an enjoyable enough film but I have no idea why it was made or who it was made for.

The movie doesn’t even have much in the way of plot. Where the original was plodding and frequently boring, Return is mostly aimless dealing a considerable amount with Chad and Tara’s relationship and jokes about the cheapness of the movie before going back to the plot about Gangreen’s plan in the third act.

The third act is the best part of the movie. Wilbur re-dons his flight suit complete with parachute dragging behind him, there’s a funny bit about everyone riding brand new quad-bikes from a local Honda dealership for product placement, every bit gets paid off (including a fourth wall breaking joke about every joke getting paid off) and the movie goes out on maybe a bit too sincere of a note.

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Return of the Killer Tomatoes! is a big improvement over its predecessor on a technical level. The music is great, the acting is much improved, and the special effects exist (though nothing approaches the surprising quality of the helicopter crash or big battle scene in the first movie).

It’s strange hearing George Clooney’s 50-year-old voice coming out of a 27-year-old actor with a curly mullet. It doesn’t quite capture the tone or fun of the original movie and it’s ultimately a bizarre seemingly pointless movie. That said, Return of the Killer Tomatoes! is still a fun experience even if you will wonder why you watched it or why it was made.

The Shill

Return of the Killer Tomatoes! is available on Amazon Instant, DVD, and Blu-Ray.

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Next Time on Doomsday Reels

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