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10 Saucy Facts About Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

A cheesy, self-aware genre parody, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes did to creature features what Airplane! would later do to disaster movies. Today, we’re looking at how this absurd film took root and flowered into a franchise. Now would someone please pass the ketchup?

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY A KILLER MUSHROOM MOVIE.

By the early 1960s, Toho Studios had become a monster movie factory. In 1954, the Japanese company introduced the world to Godzilla, a city-smashing reptile who has starred in more than two dozen movies (and counting). To ride Godzilla’s massive coattails, Toho unleashed an onslaught of creature features—the strangest of which might be 1963’s Matango. A twisted survival tale, it’s about five people who get shipwrecked on an island that’s dotted with radioactive mushrooms. Eat one, our heroes learn, and you’ll be transformed into a violent humanoid fungus.

Matango never saw a theatrical release in the U.S., but a dubbed version of the film was broadcast on American television every so often under a different name: Attack of the Mushroom People. One night, a San Diego high school student named Costa Dillon caught the flick on TV, and that ridiculous title struck a chord. “I saw Attack of the Mushroom People and thought, ‘How dumb is this?’” Dillon said. Suddenly, he found himself thinking of ways to make the concept “even sillier,” and ended up writing Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. “I don’t know why tomatoes came to mind first, maybe because they’re so innocuous,” he said.

2. IT BEGAN AS A STUDENT FILM.

Dillon went on to attend the University of California, Davis, where he enrolled in a film course with two of his high school buddies: John De Bello and James Stephen Peace. To complete an assignment, the trio worked with two other students to turn Dillon’s “killer tomatoes” idea into a 10-minute movie. Shot with a Super 8 camera, the short film has unfortunately landed in the dustbin of history, as no known copies exist. On the plus side, though, Dillon and his classmates received an “A” for their efforts.

3. ONE OF ITS STARS LATER BECAME A STATE SENATOR.

Upon leaving college, Peace and De Bello founded Four Square Productions, which Dillon later joined. Based in San Diego, the company specialized in taping high school and junior college football games. In 1977, Four Square began production on a full-length Attack of the Killer Tomatoes movie. Funded by a combination of savings and investors, the film’s budget amounted to roughly $120,000. On top of co-writing the script, Peace was cast in the movie as Lieutenant Wilbur Finletter of the government’s Tomato Task Squadron.

Eventually, Peace found himself working for taxpayers in real life. From 1982 to 1993, he served as a Democratic legislator on the California State Assembly. Afterwards, Peace was elected to California’s Senate, where he remained until 2002. Every so often, his B-movie roots would prompt a few jokes around the State Capitol. In 1983, Peace sponsored a bill that would require California food-sellers to put labels reading either “vine picked” or “artificially ripened” on their tomatoes. While covering this story, journalists couldn’t resist bringing up Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. As the Associated Press dryly noted, “Peace ... owes a debt to the tomato.”

4. BOTH REAL AND (VERY) FAKE TOMATOES WERE USED.

Executing the film required lots of fruit—much of which was “executed” in the literal sense. As Costa told Bon Appétit Magazine, the produce that appeared in the final cut fell into two main categories: “We had what I called ‘stock tomatoes’ and ‘star tomatoes,’” he recalled. The former were rotting or blemished specimens bought on the cheap. By and large, these mainly ended up getting smashed or thrown at things during the shoot. Conversely, the more photogenic “star tomatoes” appeared in close-ups. Costa’s movie also features some unnaturally large, obviously man-made fruits. After experimenting with PVC and papier-mâché, the team opted to build these monstrosities out of the soundproofing material normally found in BART cars.

5. THE HELICOPTER CRASH WASN’T PLANNED.

In one early scene, in which a group of local policemen and government employees face off against some tomatoes, a helicopter was rented to intensify the sequence—and it did just that. The helicopter spun wildly out of control when its tail accidentally touched the ground. A spectacular crash ensued, totaling the $60,000 chopper. According to the official Attack of the Killer Tomatoes website, this snafu “cost more than the rest of the movie combined.” But no one was killed or seriously injured, and the footage made it into the final film.

6. JAMES STEPHEN PEACE ALMOST DIED IN THE CAR CHASE SCENE.

That helicopter sequence wasn’t the only one in which things went dangerously awry. During another action scene, Peace’s Finletter gets his trusty parachute caught in a car door, which then proceeds to drag him around for quite some time. Here, Peace did his own stunts. Unfortunately, this left him at the mercy of some very poor planning. “When we were towing Steve behind the car, we didn’t have a mechanism for letting go,” Dillon explained. Midway through a practice run, Peace crashed into a parked truck. The accident knocked him out and shooting was halted until he came to.

7. MANY SCENES WERE SHOT AT THE UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SAN DIEGO.

UCSD alumni might get a feeling of déjà vu as they watch Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. The crew filmed extensively at the school’s assorted parking lots and administrative facilities. In 2007, De Bello—who directed the feature—admitted that he also “borrowed” a few lab coats from some empty offices he snuck into on-campus.

8. “PUBERTY LOVE” WAS SUNG BY PEARL JAM’S FUTURE DRUMMER.

What’s the one thing that can wipe out a killer tomato epidemic? A screeching ballad called “Puberty Love.” Halfway through the movie, we find out that the murderous fruits cannot stand the grating pop song—and this very specific weakness is what ends up doing them in. To record the vocals, De Bello recruited his then-14-year-old neighbor, Matt Cameron, to sing “Puberty Love.” Since his voice was audibly changing at the time, Cameron seemed like an ideal choice. Fortunately for grunge fans, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes didn’t kill the teenager’s music career. As the elite drummer of both Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, Cameron’s become a superstar. Today, he has warm memories about his horror movie debut. “It was a big neighborhood project,” Cameron recalled (both his brother and sister had cameos in the film).

9. WHEN JOHN DE BELLO MADE THE FIRST SEQUEL, HE ADVISED ONE ACTOR AGAINST WATCHING THE ORIGINAL.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’ early reviews were pretty rotten. Released in 1978, it was widely dismissed as one of the most inept motion pictures ever conceived. For his part, De Bello remained philosophical. “I’m greatly honored by the fact that somebody had to make the worst vegetable movie, why couldn’t it be us?” he said. Despite some bad press, the picture gained a huge cult following that’s growing strong to this day. The first of three sequels was released in 1988. Directed once again by De Bello, Return of the Killer Tomatoes famously stars a young George Clooney. Veteran actor John Astin also joined the ensemble as Professor Gangreen, a role he’d reprise in the series’ third and fourth installments. As he prepared for the role, Astin asked De Bello if he should see the first Attack of the Killer Tomatoes flick. “Don’t bother,” said the director. “There’s a lot of publicity about it being the world’s worst movie. Well it really is.”

10. THE THEME SONG HAS BEEN PLAYED IN OUTER SPACE

On January 13, 1990, the original film’s operatic theme song was played aboard NASA’s Columbia Space Shuttle as a morning wake-up call to the crew. [PDF] This was an inside joke, as Columbia was ordered to recover 12.5 million tomato seeds that had been sent into space in 1984. These were subsequently given to schools all over the world and experimented with by children. Young scientists overwhelmingly agreed that NASA’s space tomatoes were just as tasty as those grown here on Earth, if not more so.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Steve Martin
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images
NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images

Is there anything Steve Martin can't do? In addition to being one of the world's most beloved comedians and actors, he's also a writer, a musician, a magician, and an art enthusiast. And he's about to put a number of these talents on display with Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life, a new comedy special that just arrived on Netflix. To commemorate the occasion, here are 10 things you might not have known about Steve Martin.

1. HE WAS A CHEERLEADER.

As a yellleader (as he refers to it in a yearbook signature) at his high school in Garden Grove, California, Martin tried to make up his own cheers, but “Die, you gravy-sucking pigs,” he later told Newsweek, did not go over so well.

2. HIS FIRST JOB WAS AT DISNEYLAND.

Martin’s first-ever job was at Disneyland, which was located just two miles away from his house. He started out selling guidebooks, keeping $.02 for every book he sold. He graduated to the Magic Shop on Main Street, where he got his first taste of the gags that would later make his career. He also learned the rope tricks you see in ¡Three Amigos! from a rope wrangler over in Frontierland.

3. HE OWES HIS WRITING JOB WITH THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS TO AN EX-GIRLFRIEND.

Thanks to a girlfriend who got a job dancing on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Martin landed a gig writing for the show. He had absolutely no experience as a writer at the time. He shared an office with Bob Einstein—better known to some as Super Dave Osborne or Marty Funkhauser—and won an Emmy for writing in 1969.

4. HE WAS A CONTESTANT ON THE DATING GAME.

While he was writing for the Smothers Brothers, but before he was famous in his own right, Martin was on an episode of The Dating Game. (Spoiler alert: He wins. But did you have any doubt?)

5. MANY PEOPLE THOUGHT HE WAS A SERIES REGULAR ON SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Martin hosted and did guest spots on Saturday Night Live so often in the 1970s and '80s that many people thought he was a series regular. He wasn't. 

6. HIS FATHER WROTE A REVIEW OF HIS FIRST SNL APPEARANCE.

After his first appearance on SNL, Martin’s father, the president of the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, wrote a review of his son’s performance in the company newsletter. “His performance did nothing to further his career,” the elder Martin wrote. He also once told a newspaper, “I think Saturday Night Live is the most horrible thing on television.”

7. HE POPULARIZED THE AIR QUOTE.

If you find yourself making air quotes with your fingers more than you’d really like, you have Martin to thank. He popularized the gesture during his guest spots on SNL and stand-up performances.

8. HE QUIT STAND-UP COMEDY IN THE EARLY 1980S.

Martin gave up stand-up comedy in 1981. “I still had a few obligations left but I knew that I could not continue,” he told NPR in 2009. “But I guess I could have continued if I had nothing to go to, but I did have something to go to, which was movies. And you know, the act had become so known that in order to go back, I would have had to create an entirely new show, and I wasn't up to it, especially when the opportunity for movies and writing movies came around.”

9. HE'S A MAJOR ART COLLECTOR.

As an avid art collector, Martin owns works by Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, and Edward Hopper. He sold a Hopper for $26.9 million in 2006. Unfortunately, being rich and famous doesn’t mean Martin is immune to scams: In 2004, he spent about $850,000 on a piece believed to be by German-Dutch modernist painter Heinrich Campendonk. When Martin tried to sell the piece, “Landschaft mit Pferden” (or "Landscape With Horses") 15 months later, he was informed that it was a forgery. Though the painting still sold, it was at a huge loss.

10. HE'S AN ACCOMPLISHED BLUEGRASS PERFORMER.

Many people already know this, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that he’s an extremely accomplished bluegrass performer. With the help of high school friend John McEuen, who later became a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Martin taught himself to play the banjo when he was 17. He's been picking away ever since. If you see him on stage these days, he’s likely strumming a banjo with his band, the Steep Canyon Rangers. As seen above, they make delightful videos.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Tina Fey
Jenny Anderson, Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions
Jenny Anderson, Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

Tina Fey has transformed modern comedy more than just about anyone else. From the main stage of Second City to the writer’s room of SNL to extremely fetch comedy blockbusters, Elizabeth Stamatina Fey has built a national stage with a dry, eye-popping sarcasm and political satire where no one is safe. She has a slew of Emmys, Golden Globes, SAG, PGA, and WGA awards to prove it—plus a recent Tony nomination (her first). But, more importantly, she’s the closest thing we have to a national comic laureate.

Here are 10 facts about a fantastically blorft American icon.

1. SHE DID A BOOK REPORT ON COMEDY WHEN SHE WAS 11.

Fey got a very early start in comedy, watching a lot of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Bob Newhart, and Norman Lear shows as a kid. Her father and mother sneaked her in to see Young Frankenstein and would let her stay up late to watch The Honeymooners. So it’s no surprise that she chose comedy as the subject of a middle school project. The only book she could get her hands on was Joe Franklin’s Encyclopedia of Comedians, but at least she made a friend. "I remember me and one other girl in my 8th grade class got to do an independent study because we finished the regular material early, and she chose to do hers on communism, and I chose to do mine on comedy," Fey told The A.V. Club. "We kept bumping into each other at the card catalog."

2. THE SCAR ON HER FACE CAME FROM A BIZARRE ATTACK THAT OCCURRED WHEN SHE WAS A CHILD.

Fey’s facial scar had been recognizable but unexplained for years until a profile in Vanity Fair revealed that the mark on her left cheek came from being slashed by a strange man when she was five years old. “She just thought somebody marked her with a pen,” her husband Jeff Richmond said. Fey wrote in Bossypants that it happened in an alleyway behind her Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, home when she was in kindergarten.

3. HER FIRST TV APPEARANCE WAS IN A BANK COMMERCIAL.

Saturday Night Live hired Fey as a writer in 1997. In 1995 she had the slightly more glamorous job of pitching Mutual Savings Bank with a radical floral applique vest and a handful of puns on the word “Hi.” In a bit of life imitating art, just as Liz Lemon’s 1-900-OKFACE commercial was unearthed and mocked on 30 Rock, the internet discovered Fey’s stint awkwardly cheering on high interest rates a few years ago and had a lot to say about her '90s hair.

4. SHE WAS THE FIRST WOMAN TO BE NAMED HEAD WRITER OF SNL.

Four years after that commercial and two after she joined Saturday Night Live’s writing staff, Fey earned a promotion to head writer. Up until that point, the head writers were named Michael, Herb, Bob, Jim, Steve. You get the picture. She acted as head writer for six seasons until moving on to write and executive produce 30 Rock. Since her departure, two more women (Paula Pell and Sara Schneider) have been head writers for the iconic show.

5. SHE’S THE YOUNGEST MARK TWAIN PRIZE WINNER.

Established in 1998, the Kennedy Center’s hilarious honor has mostly been awarded to funny people in the twilight of their careers. Richard Pryor was the first recipient, and comedians who made their marks decades prior like Lily Tomlin, Whoopi Goldberg, and George Carlin followed. Fey earned the award in 2010 when she was 40 years old, and the age of her successors (Carol Burnett, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, David Letterman ...) signals that she may hold the title of youngest recipient for some time.

6. SHE WROTE SATIRE FOR HER HIGH SCHOOL NEWSPAPER.

Fey was an outstanding student who was involved in choir, drama, and tennis, and co-edited the school’s newspaper, The Acorn. She also wrote a satirical column addressing “school policy and teachers” under the pun-tastic pseudonym “The Colonel.” Fey also recalled getting in trouble because she tried to make a pun on the phrase “annals of history.” Cheeky.

7. SHE MADE HER RAP DEBUT WITH CHILDISH GAMBINO ON "REAL ESTATE."

Donald Glover (a.k.a. Childish Gambino) first gained notice as a member of Derrick Comedy in college, and Fey hired him at the age of 23 to write for 30 Rock. Before jumping from that show to Community, Glover put out his first mixtape under his stage name. After releasing his debut album, Camp, in 2011, Gambino dropped a sixth mixtape called Royalty that featured Fey rapping on a song called “Real Estate.” “My president is black, and my Prius is blue!"

8. SHE VOICED PRINCESSES IN A BELOVED PINBALL GAME.

Between the bank commercial and Saturday Night Live, Fey has an intriguing credit on her resume: the arcade pinball machine “Medieval Madness.” Most of the game’s Arthurian dialogue was written by Second City members Scott Adsit (Pete Hornberger on 30 Rock) and Kevin Dorff, who pulled in fellow Second City castmate Fey to voice for an “Opera Singer” princess, Cockney-speaking princesses, and a character with a southern drawl. (You can hear some of the outtakes here.)

9. SHE USED MEAN GIRLS TO PUSH BACK AGAINST STEREOTYPES OF WOMEN IN MATH.

Tina Fey and Lindsay Lohan in 'Mean Girls' (2004)
Paramount Home Entertainment

There’s a ton of interesting trivia about Mean Girls, Fey’s first foray into feature film screenwriting. She bid on the rights to Rosalind Wiseman’s book that inspired the movie without realizing it didn’t have a plot. She initially wrote a large part for herself but kept whittling it down to focus on the teenagers, and her first draft was “for sure R-rated.” Fey also chose to play a math teacher to fight prejudice. “It was an attempt on my part to counteract the stereotype that girls can’t do math. Even though I did not understand a word I was saying.” Fey used a friend’s calculus teacher boyfriend’s lesson plans in the script.

10. SHE SET UP A SCHOLARSHIP IN HER FATHER’S NAME TO HELP VETERANS.

Fey’s father Donald was a Korean War veteran who also studied journalism at Temple University. When he died in 2015, Fey and her brother Peter founded a memorial scholarship in his name that seeks to aid veterans who want to study journalism at Temple.

"He was really inspiring," Fey said. "A lot of kids grow up with dreams of doing those things and their parents are fearful and want them to get a law degree and have things to fall back on, but he and our mom always encouraged us to pursue whatever truly interested us." Fey also supports Autism Speaks, Mercy Corps, Love Our Children USA, and other charities.

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