Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

17 Mar 23 7 Comments

In 1978, a movie described as a Musical-Comedy-Horror-Show was released: Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. The movie, which is about sentient tomatoes on a rampage,

This is the trailer:

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes had a budget of $90,000, partially sourced from relatives and friends. The creators also used them for supporting rolls: most of the cast had never acted before and many never acted again. The army uniforms used by the US troops trying to vanquish the violent tomatoes were second-hand, bought from charity shops. The low budget didn’t bother the creators, who saw it as in line with the 50’s B-movies they were trying to spoof.

But then they spent two thirds of the budget on a single scene.

A police car is racing to the US Department of Agriculture experimental field and we hear gun shots in the distance. As the driver parks and gets out of the police car, a light helicopter appears behind him, descending to land in a tomato patch. The helicopter is a Hiller OH-23 Raven, a military light observation helicopter which was popular during the Korean war.

As another car comes to a halt, the helicopter’s tail rotor strikes the ground. The helicopter spins wildly, clearly out of control, and then impacts the ground, disappearing behind the police car. There is the sound of an explosion and a cloud of dust rises into the air. The police men all turn to stare at the crashed helicopter, their mouths open. Then the scene cuts to the helicopter, now burning with black smoke rising from the twisted metal. Two men in uniform are seen running away from the blaze. Then the camera cuts to two men, apparently passengers, lying in the grass.

One shouts, “My god! Did you see that? A tomato flew right into us!”

“I didn’t see anything,” says another as he runs to the wreckage to pull out the pilot.

“Forget about the pilot,” says the first. “Come over here.” They continue to argue about whether tomatoes can fly.

Screenshot from Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

The dialogue is uninteresting except for the key point that it was completely ad-libbed.

The helicopter was supposed to land in the field behind the police car. However, somehow the pilot, maybe distracted by the filming, misjudged the speed and altitude which led to, as the NTSB put it, “a hard landing”.

The pilot had 14,692 hours but only 49 on type. The full narrative isn’t available via the NTSB website but the remarks offer a one line summary: FOLLOWING TAIL ROTOR STRIKE ON LND APP, A/C ROLLED OVER.

According to the two actors were the passengers in the helicopter when it crashed.

Surprised by the sudden accident, director John DeBello moved quickly to pull the pilot and actors, Jack Riley and George Wilson, to safety. Thinking even more quickly, Riley suggested that Wilson and he crawl away from the flaming wreckage, while adlibbing appropriate lines.

  “I thought of the idea, too,” confesses DeBello, “it’s just that I didn’t have the guts to say it.”

The Hiller’s airframe was completely destroyed. They had made a good scene out of a bad situation but most accounts say that they had also just spent $60,000 of their $90,000 budget.

However, I’m hopeful that they didn’t have to pay for the helicopter out of their own cash. The director reportedly said later that they couldn’t afford such special effects so the insurance had to cover it instead.

To top it all off, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes did not do well at the box office, with many negative reviews. But by 1984, the movie had a cult following and the Disney animated series _Muppet in which Baby Fozzie imagines tomatoes attacking. This episode featured a clip from the original movie which somehow led to New World Pictures offering the creators two million dollars to create a sequel.

Return of the Killer Tomatoes made five million dollars at the box office, despite the fact that it did not feature a single helicopter crash.

TV Tropes has all the details of the Return of the Killer Tomatoes and the Saturday morning cartoon that followed it.

Called Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!, but based mostly on Return of the Killer Tomatoes!, it tones down the sex and violence, ups the kiddy antics, and adds in a huge dose of satire to make it tolerable to adults. The result is stunningly watchable, which, sadly, also meant it would be Screwed by the Network. One notable feature of the series was the large number of Fourth Wall jokes, including the regular appearance of Censor Lady, the woman charged with keeping the show suitable for children. In one memorable appearance in the episode Spatula, Prinze of Dorkness, she demanded the vampire tomato that Gangrene had created to cease talking about biting and blood, and do something more wholesome to turn victims into vampires, such as kissing them… and guess who wound up as the first victim!

(Voice off camera: As the spotlight faded away from the tomatoes, audiences were left with one burning question: could tomatoes really fly?)

I’m not sure about the tomatoes but I sure didn’t think that the poor helicopter would ever fly again. The NTSB brief says it was damaged beyond repair but then there’s another crash, two years later, also a Hiller UH-12E and also with the registration N81959. This time, the helicopter lost power on take-off and crashed into the trees. I couldn’t seem to find out anything more but I’m sure there’s a story there!

Category: Miscellaneous,


  • I can’t find a copy of the video online, but Attack of the Killer Tomatoes was referenced in a prank by Space Shuttle astronauts in 1990. The shuttle was picking up a satellite containing tomato seeds which had been left in orbit for several years. The astronauts arranged to send a picture showing the satellite apparently engulfed in tomato vines, with the movie’s theme song playing.

    Here’s at least a text description of the event:

  • Actually you mean “supporting roles”

    Dangit, my ADHD is showing again (actually typos show up tinged in red, I should have been an editor…)

    “The pilot had 14,692 hours but only 49 on type” – I wonder how many of those 14K hours were in helicopters?

    All the OH-23 variants were powered by 6-cylinder air-cooled piston engines of different makes and models. Piston engines don’t really like the power requirements of helicopters and aren’t terribly reliable. The lightweight turboshaft engine was a godsend to the helicopter industry.

  • and here was I, expecting a Sylvia article on the urban myth that a drone was brought down by a can of tomatoes.

    • contrary to what the anti-Zelensky-factiin in the USA thinks, the woman who threw the jar of tomatoes on March 7th 2022 was actualky interviewed by a Ukrainian newspaper, so it’s no legend.

      But Ukrainian news outlet Liga.Life reported that a woman got in touch saying the story is real, and described her own grandmother, who gave an interview to the outlet.

      Elena told the outlet that she was sitting on her balcony smoking just before dawn when she heard a buzzing noise and saw something floating.

      At first she thought it was a bird, but then she realised it was something else, she said. 

      The nearest heavy thing was a jar of pickles under her chair, per Elena’s account.

      Per Liga.Life, Elena was most concerned with correcting claims that the pickled vegetables were cucumbers. She said they were actually tomatoes with plums.

      This isn’t hard to find out.

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