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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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The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day Marathon Is Back
Shout! Factory
Shout! Factory

For many fans, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is as beloved a Thanksgiving tradition as mashed potatoes and gravy (except funnier). It seems appropriate, given that the show celebrates the turkeys of the movie world. And that it made its debut on Thanksgiving Day in 1988 (on KTMA, a local station in Minneapolis). In 1991, to celebrate its third anniversary, Comedy Central hosted a Thanksgiving Day marathon of the series—and in the more than 25 years since, that tradition has continued.

Beginning at 12 p.m. ET on Thursday, Shout! Factory will host yet another Mystery Science Theater 3000 Turkey Day marathon, hosted by series creator Joel Hodgson and stars Jonah Ray and Felicia Day. Taking place online at ShoutFactoryTV.com, or via the Shout! Factory TV app on Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire and select smart TVs, the trio will share six classic MST3K episodes that have never been screened as part of a Shout! Factory Turkey Day Marathon. Here’s hoping your favorite episode makes it (cough, Hobgoblins, cough.)

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11 Bite-Sized Facts About Cannibal! The Musical
Troma Entertainment
Troma Entertainment

Back in their film school days, the creators of South Park made a twisted tribute to Rogers and Hammerstein. Cannibal! The Musical is (very) loosely based on the life of Alfred "Alferd" Packer, an American prospector who resorted to eating his travel companions in the harsh winter of 1874. Below, you’ll find a buffet of bite-sized facts about this weirdly upbeat black comedy. Bon appétit!

1. IT ALL STARTED WITH A GAG TRAILER.

In 1992, Trey Parker was studying film at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where pretty much everyone knows all about the legend of Alfred "Alferd" Packer. Indeed, when a new restaurant opened up on campus in 1968, the student body chose to name it after this famous man-eater. The restaurant’s slogan? “Have a friend for lunch.” As a joke, Parker rounded up some of his fellow film majors and spent three days shooting a phony trailer for a nonexistent movie called Alferd Packer: The Musical. Included in the ensemble was Matt Stone, with whom Parker would go on to create South Park.

Once the Alferd Packer promo was finished, those who worked on it weren’t sure if they could turn this concept into a feature-length picture. Fortunately, the trailer was a huge hit. “People thought it was really funny,” Parker told The Denver Post, “so we went around … and said, ‘So do you want to invest?’” Thanks (for the most part) to donations from a few CU grads with wealthy parents, Parker and his co-stars amassed a $100,000 budget.

2. LIANE THE HORSE WAS NAMED AFTER TREY PARKER’S EX-FIANCÉE.

At age 21, Parker was all set to marry his high school sweetheart. “We had plane tickets, the dress was bought, the church was paid for,” Parker shared on the DVD commentary. Then, about a month before the wedding, he caught his bride-to-be with another man. Devastated, Parker broke off the engagement and came up with an unusual way to get even. “I really wrote this movie for her,” he said.

A major character in Cannibal is Liane, Packer’s beloved horse, who leaves him for another rider. The two-timing equine was named after Parker’s former fiancée. Some artistic license was taken here, as there’s no proof that the real Packer ever owned a horse named Liane—or that he ever wistfully sang about being on top of her.

3. AN AVANT-GARDE LEGEND WAS CAST IN A MINOR ROLE.

World-renowned for his experimental filmmaking, the late Stan Brakhage taught off and on at the University of Colorado, where he met Parker and Stone. The two convinced him to appear in Cannibal! as George Noon’s father, who gets about two minutes’ worth of screen time.

4. PARKER’S DAD WAS IN IT, TOO.

Just like Stan Marsh’s dad in South Park, Trey Parker’s father, Randy, is a geologist. In Cannibal! The Musical, he portrays the Breckenridge judge who sentences Packer (played by Trey) to death.

5. “SHPADOINKLE” WAS MEANT AS A FILLER WORD.

In addition to penning the Cannibal! script, Parker also wrote the film’s musical numbers. The first of these is “Shpadoinkle Day,” an offbeat tribute to “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! Parker knew that the first verse had to include a positive, three-syllable word, but couldn’t think of any that fit. So he used the made-up term “Shpadoinkle” to plug the gap until he could come up with an alternative. However, the creative team liked “shpadoinkle” so much that it stayed put and became one of Cannibal’s running jokes.

6. THEY SHOT IN THE COURTROOM IN WHICH PACKER WAS ACTUALLY TRIED.

On April 6, 1883, Packer was put on trial at the Hinsdale County Courthouse in Lake City, Colorado. Over the next few days, he admitted to dining on two of his dead travel companions—one of whom he supposedly killed in self-defense (the other died of natural causes). Packer was found guilty of murder, but avoided the hangman’s noose by fighting for a second trial, which took place 30 miles away in Gunnison. This time, he was charged with five counts of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 40 years in prison. However, while Packer languished behind bars, public opinion slowly turned in the cannibal’s favor. Under near-constant pressure from The Denver Post, Governor Charles S. Thomas pardoned Packer in 1901.

More than 90 years later, Parker filmed the trial scenes of Cannibal! The Musical at the still-standing Hinsdale County Courthouse. About halfway through the movie, the judge delivers a big speech in which he sentences Packer to death. His on-screen monologue was copied word-for-word from the court transcript of that 1883 Lake City trial.

7. AS THE MINERS SING “THAT’S ALL I’M ASKING FOR,” YOU CAN SEE PARKER MOUTH THE WORD “CUT.”

It goes by fast, but you can see Parker call "cut" to end the shot at the 3:06 mark in the clip above.

8. PARKER USED A PSEUDONYM FOR THE OPENING CREDITS.

Parker billed himself as "Juan Schwartz" in the cast of Cannibal because, according to the movie's website, "Trey doesn't like seeing one person's name plastered all over a movie's credits." Since he is properly credited as writer and director, he likely felt the additional acting credit was a bit too much. Incidentally, Packer called himself “John Shwartze” while evading the law before his arrest.

9. A FEW SONGS WERE DELETED.

The original cut of Cannibal! The Musical ran for two and a half hours, but thanks to some major-league editing, the runtime was reduced to a breezy 93 minutes. “There were fights about that from the get-go, but I give credit to Trey for being the toughest critic,” producer Jason McHugh told MovieMaker Magazine. “He had the maturity to know that a musical comedy about cannibals can’t be two and a half hours long.”

In the streamlining process, two musical numbers got the axe. The first was a quick little dirge called “Don’t Be Stupid,” wherein some nameless miners tell Packer’s group to postpone their journey until springtime. The other was “I’m Shatterproof,” a rap/funk song that Packer, hardened by his recent ordeals, delivers during a bar fight. Also deleted was a reprise of “When I Was On Top of You.”

10. COMEDY CENTRAL WOULDN’T BROADCAST IT.

Cannibal! was distributed by Troma Entertainment, an independent production company best known for creating The Toxic Avenger series. When South Park began to emerge as a major player on cable TV, Troma’s co-founder, Lloyd Kaufman, assumed that Comedy Central would jump at the chance to air some of Parker and Stone’s earlier work. Instead, the channel flatly refused to air Cannibal.

Kaufman was sent a rejection letter from Comedy Central, which read: “Thank you for submitting and re-submitting Cannibal! The Musical, but it is simply not up to our standards for broadcasting.” Troma forwarded a copy of this dispatch to Parker. Today, it’s prominently displayed in his office—at Comedy Central!

11. IT HAS BEEN TURNED INTO A STAGE MUSICAL ON MANY OCCASIONS.

Can’t get tickets to The Book of Mormon? Perhaps you can catch a live reenactment of Cannibal! The Musical instead. Since 1998, the movie has been seen more than 60 stage adaptations. There’s no “official” version of the theatrical show. As such, acting troupes that might be interested in performing Cannibal! have to write their own scripts based on the original movie. 

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