Vegetable, fruit, or girlfriend: that isn’t the question Return of the Killer Tomatoes asked in 1988, but maybe it should have been.
The original Attack of the Killer Tomatoes came out in 1978 and reached cult status after clips of the parody film aired on an episode of Muppet Babies. Fozzie was assaulted by silly tomatoes, and the rest was history. Ten years later, another unexpected attack occurred, with Return of the Killer Tomatoes, and everyone was, well, perfectly safe. There’s no real threat here because instead of embracing the “giant monster threat” type of movies the first was spoofing; this entry is more of a character piece about love, sex, understanding, and a mad scientist—and it’s better for that.
We all love a good classic mad scientist, and for this story, that’s Professor Mortimer Gangreen, played beautifully by John Astin, who most remember as Gomez from The Addams Family. He’s revealed to have been the mastermind behind the Great Tomato War (the events of the first film), and now, along with his assistant, appropriately named Igor (Steve Lundquist), he has a new plan. Using music and toxic waste, he’ll create a new breed of beefy henchmen and sexy tomato servants, but one of his minions is done taking the abuse. Tara (Karen Mistal, aka Karen M. Waldron) is Gangreen’s sensual maid and lover, but when the created concubine sees the doctor mistreating a fuzzy tomato, who she lovingly calls FT, the young vegetable escapes to the local pizza parlor and tries to shack up with the delivery boy who had been hitting on her.
That’s Chad Finletter (Anthony Starke), the nephew of the Great Tomato War hero Wilbur Finletter (J. Stephen Peace, aka Rock), who has made a living figuring out how to craft horrible pizza combinations without the use of tomatoes since they are outlawed now and he has vegetable-based PTSD. Tara’s appearance kicks things off with some confusion and transformation shenanigans, almost like a romantic comedy, until she’s kidnapped and now it’s up to the two Finletter men and Chad’s roommate, Matt Stevens (played by some no-name actor, George Clooney) to save the day, but thankfully, Wilbur has a few old war buddies he can call in to help stop Gangreen’s plan.
The plot sounds a bit silly, and it is. Don’t worry about having to see the first movie either, as there is a decent bit of recapping in Return and some footage from the original shown. There are a couple of nuanced jokes that work better for people who have seen both films, but it isn’t necessary and this humor isn’t going to work for everyone anyway.
The best way to describe it is as an ‘absurdist’ comedy, but Return of the Killer Tomatoes feels so different than its predecessor. Ten years had passed after all, and the landscape changed. Attack was similar to the movie Airplane, but it came out two years earlier. However, a sequel to this late in the game would need a new approach. This installment was irreverent in a different way, extremely horny, and instead of dropping musical numbers or leaning on classic bits, it opted for continual gags and bringing everything (and I do mean EVERYTHING) back around in the end. Most parts work within this new school, but there are portions of the movie where it feels like two comedic styles are still dueling over common middle ground.
Even I have to admit that this isn’t the normal type of humor I go for, and I’m skeptical about recommending it. The film begins by starting off with another fake production, Big Breasted Girls Go To The Beach And Take Their Tops Off, a title that is guaranteed to get some attention and right to the point. There really is no fourth wall in this movie. They drove through it and waved hello without stopping. At one point, the director yells, “Cut!” and the shoot is almost shut down due to budget issues, so there are a ton of product placement gags going forward. The characters need something to write on at one point, so Matt uses a page from his script. Furthermore, the credits are interrupted by the director’s mother, who insists people stay through them to show some appreciation for everyone who worked on the film.
The low-budget and cheapness of the movie is a long comedic yuk that keeps coming back up, as they aren’t just mocking other schlock, but themselves as well. The creators know what the original was and how this one needs to work even harder, so Return of the Killer Tomatoes stays incredibly self-aware and never tries to be serious. Some jokes go deep as well, like having Clooney hold up a Playboy magazine that Steve Ludquist, who plays Igor, actually appears in, via a Vidal Sassoon ad. With that in mind, some of the humor works, probably more for me since I saw it first as a kid, but also because the actors truly wanted to sell it.
Everyone in the cast looks like they’re having fun with their parts, even if most of them thought no one would ever see Return. There’s a lot of chemistry being thrown around, and not just in the lab. Chad, Matt, and Tara all work excellently off of each other, and according to the Blu-ray commentary, the actors improved several of the scenes they were in together and were allowed the freedom to try things differently. Clooney supposedly had fun with the film as an experience but was glad it didn’t do so well that he got stuck in the genre.
“I speak perfect English. I also cook 815 international dishes, perform 637 sexual acts, and use all the popular home appliances.”
Everyone is extremely horny, which fits in with the tone and audience they were most likely going for. Matt holds a fake contest that promises a date with Rob Lowe in order to try and sleep with the women involved, we get a classic shower scene and even some side boob, as well as Tara just offering a blowjob at one point. Her character is such a created sexual object that her minimal arc comes off as more confident and sexually positive in some ways. Either way, she’s stunning and steals quite a few scenes.
The biggest problem Return has, even for those who want to be in on the jokes, is the lack of traditional killer tomatoes. The ridiculous images of these creatures rolling down the streets to attack people or sitting around a campfire plotting their next move is hilarious, and the sequel doesn’t have that or the over-the-top corny deaths, not enough of that, at least . It finds that type of charm in different places now, letting Gangreen, Igor, and the muscle-bound Rambo knock-offs fill that gap, but it’d have been nice to get both.
There is a legacy here. Return is the second film in the series, but there are two more, and many people seem to remember this one more thoroughly. The poster artwork for these projects is iconic, and there was a cartoon spin-off, one that is mostly forgotten, but helped to pioneer animation at the time and continued the story largely taken from Return.
It’s an entertaining sequel that most would say wasn’t needed, some even try to put it on their worst movies of all time lists, but they don’t understand or can’t get into it. Return of the Killer Tomatoes is a minor classic, even though it felt more like DLC for the first film, smaller scale and capturing the essence of the franchise in a new way. I argue that this is one of those few instances where the sequel is better than the original, especially for those willing to take a chance on something that was never meant to be taken seriously. This isn’t the movie that taught me to love vegetables, but it does have me appreciating their curves more.