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PopWatch Rewind Week 3: 'Return of the Killer Tomatoes'

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George Clooney. Oscar winner, former People‘s Sexiest Man Alive, international superstar with a new movie in theaters, and, finally, star of the sequel to a no-budget movie about evil tomatoes that try to take over the world. Perhaps Clooney would like to forget that last title, or at least the mullet he sported for it, but we sure won’t let him. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the produce aisle, this week we’re taking a look back at one of the craziest and schlockiest horror-comedies of the 1980s, 1988’s Return of the Killer Tomatoes! Whether they’re vegetables or fruit, it’s pretty clear this film’s a bomb. But a bomb filled with mad scientists, product placement, sexy plant women, and vine-ripened hilariousness.

Keith Staskiewicz: The theme song has remained the same, the plot itself has hardly changed…

Darren Franich: [Humming theme song]

KS: Let’s start at the beginning. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! was a low-budget, goofball parody of monster movies.

DF: And the sequel is an even lower-budget, gooferballier venture. It has a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which boggles my mind.

KS: Especially since you’d think that, of anyone, the tomatoes would love it.

DF: I haven’t seen Attack. Was the first one as farcical, or was this an Evil Dead/Evil Dead 2 kind of thing?

KS: The first one was already a wacky parody, but the second one is where it really started going cuckoo bananas cocoa puffs. The better comparison I think would be Gremlins/Gremlins 2. And Return would later inspire a kids’ cartoon series.

DF: It was part of that same era of Saturday morning programming as Little Shop of Horrors, another weird horror-comedy that for some reason people thought would be a good idea to turn into a six-and-under Saturday morning cartoon.

KS: It was a strange time for kids’ TV. “Wow, this bloody, subversive comic book about homeless turtles who are ninjas would make a great kids’ show!”

DF: There’s the notion of the so-bad-it’s-good movie, and this movie clearly lives in that uncanny valley. There are plenty of bad movies, like Jonah Hex, or even the old Ed Wood movies, where a lot of the enjoyment comes from mercilessly making fun of how bad the whole thing is.

KS: But the key to that is the fact that Ed Wood was so quixotic and saw himself as such a filmmaker. It was earnest. Return manages to pull off the feat of actually, genuinely being comedy and making you laugh on its own terms, as well as being absurdly cheap and gonzo. It is that anarchic, MAD Magazine kind of comedy. Like the regatta/warship TV show they’re constantly watching. That’s legitimately hilarious.

DF: This movie weirdly reminded me of Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, which did not do very well in theaters. Do you think people just don’t like movies that are truly ridiculous? And I don’t mean spoofs, or comedies that seem ridiculous but actually have a pretty regular plot. I mean movies that are utterly chaotic. Like when the fat guy comes in dressed as Muammar Gaddafi.

KS: We should describe the scene, because it’s great. They’re at a pizzeria, and they’re having some conversation tangentially related to the plot, when a man dressed like Muammar Gaddafi walks in. The pizzeria man jumps over the counter, yells out, “It’s Muammar Gaddafi” and wrestles him to the ground. Cowboys run in, and then ninjas, and they’re all fighting each other while George Clooney holds a box of Corn Flakes. It’s literal madness and it’s beautiful.

DF: With a lot of movies, even some really incredible films, it feels like, once they started actual production, everyone was just trapped in place like flies in hair-gel. With Return of the Killer Tomatoes!, however ridiculous it was, and however stupid the vast majority of people involved in it might have been, you get the feeling that the vibe on set was boundlessly energetic. Like, “What are we gonna do today to make this a little bit zanier?”

KS: They’re trying when they don’t need to be trying. And they’re trying so hard. Even if you’re not laughing, it’s hard to dislike it. Whereas it’s easy to dislike something lazy like Epic Movie. Although, I imagine there might be people who would watch a movie like Return of the Killer Tomatoes! just stone-faced, thinking “Oh, this is so lame.” But that’s probably because they have no souls or reflections.

DF: One of the best parts is getting to see George Clooney before he was any kind of star at all, but still looking entirely too good for this movie. He manages to be George Clooney even under the burden of an enormous mullet.

KS: It’s funny to realize that, with a few terrible exceptions, he never really went the comedy route. Instead, he manages to leaven the actual serious movies that he’s in. Although I can’t speak for The American, which looks serious as a heart attack. This is an old comparison, but to me George Clooney is so clearly the successor to Cary Grant. He’s got that super cosmopolitan charm, that twinkling wink, and also that sense that it’s always him in whatever movie they are in.

DF: He’s practically the more perfect version of Cary Grant, because Grant was born Archibald Leach and went through Vaudeville, and he had certain peculiarities like a fear of public speaking. Also, the five marriages. Conversely, George Clooney was born into showbiz royalty, and you get the sense that he must have been born with the knowledge that he’d be a star, so he got used to it quickly. And that’s why in a movie like Return of the Killer Tomatoes!, you feel like he’s Prince William having a lark, putting on natty clothing and a fake Cockney accent and hanging out with his gangster pals for a weekend before going back to the palace.

KS: I’m curious about what George Clooney thinks about this movie. He takes Batman and Robin in stride, which is at least as campy.

DF: On the scale of Kevin Bacon starring in Friday the 13th or Kevin Costner in Sizzle Beach, U.S.A, this movie looks like a masterpiece.

KS: Although he might be ashamed of the mullet.

DF: I wonder if he’ll do the commentary for the Criterion edition.

Next week: In honor of the deflowering extravaganza The Virginity Hit, we flash back to Losin’ It, the charming 1983 teen sex comedy about four dudes going to Tijuana. Sound trashy? It is…but it was also directed by future L.A. Confidential auteur Curtis Hanson, and stars Jackie Earle Haley and a little fellow named Tom Cruise.