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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Killer Tomatoes
by Sylvia Tiersten

Ketchup rules—when tomatoes turn homicidal and threaten the good citizens of San Diego. Bumbling government officials are powerless to stop the mayhem. “I know I’m going to miss her. A tomato ate my sister,” croons an off-key chorus of amateurs.


It’s Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, the 1978 sci-fi spoof that former Bonita Vista High School buddies John DeBello, Muir ’75, J. Stephen “Steve” Peace, Muir ’76, and Costa Dillon, unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Their 35-millimeter clunker, which cost less than $100,000 to make, garnered a bumper crop of rotten reviews—plus the “worst vegetable movie of all time” award at New York’s 1980 Worst Film Festival.

Youthful indiscretion, you say? Well, not exactly. “Attack” became a musical comedy cult classic—spawning a Killer Tomatoes franchise of three low-budget sequels, product tie-ins and a kiddy cartoon series on the Fox Children’s Network. Ancillary merchandise such as To Die For Roasted Garlic Tomato Salsa, Eat Your Veggies T-Shirts, and Killer Tomato Beach Towels boosted the bottom line.

Steve Peace produced all four Tomato movies and is shown here as Wilbur Finletter in Return of the Killer Tomatoes. He graduated from writing lame political satire to writing state law and wound up spending 20 years in the California statehouse—first as an assemblyman and later as a senator. He currently is a lobbyist for the San Diego Padres.

“Nobody got rich, but we made money on all four films—and so did our investors,” says Peace. And so did a number of UCSD faculty, staff and alumni—not-to-mention dozens of San Diego movie extras—who exploited the Killer Tomatoes franchise for fun and profit and advancing their careers.
“ It still keeps going. These Killer Tomato films never die,” marvels Martin Lopez, Muir ’84, who worked briefly last year on music and sound mixing for a foreign distribution version of the original film.

To outfit scientists for Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, DeBello and his cronies went into empty UCSD offices and “borrowed” lab coats that were hanging on the racks. The late actor and UCSD instructor Eric Christmas assumed
the role of Senator Polk. Some of the footage was shot in University parking lots and administrative offices, which were housed in trailers at the time.

Next up was Return of the Killer Tomatoes (1988), which featured then-unknown actor George Clooney as young Matt Stevens delivering the unforgettable line, “That’s the bravest thing I’ve ever seen a vegetable do.” And then two years later, the Geisel Library exterior got to play the juicy part of a research lab in Killer Tomatoes Strike Back.

For Killer Tomatoes Eat France, (1991), production designer Robert Brill, Muir ’87, created huge castle interiors on the princely budget of $7.43. The award-winning designer has since moved on to bigger and better budgets on Broadway.

DeBello’s entrepreneurial instincts surfaced early on. At age 12, he acquired a Super 8 camera and a taste for visual storytelling. To support his moviemaking habit, he shot grainy home movies and charged friends and neighbors for the privilege of acting in them.

At UCSD, DeBello majored in American history, Peace opted for political science, and both of them dabbled in moviemaking. “These were the days before film school became de rigeur,” DeBello recalls.

After their high school buddy Dillon graduated from UC Davis, he joined them as the third partner. They launched Four Square Productions to make sports films and plowed some of the profits into the first Killer Tomatoes movie. To cover the remaining production and distribution costs, they relied on credit card charges and two limited partnership investments totaling about $120,000 from doting family members and friends.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes began as a title and became a movie,” says DeBello, who directed, co-wrote and co-produced the film.

John DeBello played Charles White in Return of the Killer Tomatoes. He directed all four Tomato movies and Black Dawn. His video production company, Loma Media, Inc., produces motion media projects for corporate clients and broadcast advertising.

It was a takeoff on all those gloriously horrible 1950s Japanese horror movies—and it had no redeeming social value whatsoever. Jaws had just come out—so we made fun of that too.”

Peace co-produced, co-wrote and starred as the inept Lieutenant Wilbur Finletter, while creator and co-writer Dillon dreamed up the Killer Tomato name. His inspiration was Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People, a Japanese monster flick.

By retaining their ownership rights and hiring a network of regional sub- distributors, DeBello and Peace were able to place Attack of the Killer Tomatoes in over a thousand Southern California theaters. Its inclusion in Michael and Harry Medved’s satirical Golden Turkey Awards in 1980 launched the second marketing wind and gave the film a New York presence.

“I think Attack of the Killer Tomatoes took hold partly because of the great title and the timing,” says Joe Kane, The Washington Times DVD columnist and publisher of The Phantom of the Movies VideoScope magazine ideoscopemag.com). “It arrived at a time when mainstream audiences were more aware of the notion of cult movies like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Eraserhead.”

Johnny Carson riffed on the title on The Tonight Show. Subsequent sequels gave the franchise a new lease on life during the VHS boom of the ’80s and ’90s. “By that time cult movies had mostly moved from midnight theater showings to video,” says Kane.

“That’s The Bravest Thing I’ve Ever Seen A Vegetable Do”: George Clooney as Matt Stevens (second from the right), is nestled behind a gun-toting Steve Peace, playing Wilbur Finletter in the 1988 Return of the Killer Tomatoes.

Cutting corners is the name of the B-movie game. “You have to cheat a lot and find ways to do smoke and mirrors stuff. It forces you to be inventive and work in multiple roles,” says Martin Lopez, who doubled as unit manager and supervising sound editor for the Killer Tomatoes sequels. “You never do that on a mainstream film.”

Lopez, whose credits as a Hollywood sound designer include John Tucker Must Die, Fast Food Nation and Spiderman, graduated from UCSD with a communications visual art degree and zero experience in sound work. Four years later, DeBello hired him as unit manager for Return of the Killer Tomatoes.

“It was a non-threatening, non- specialized training ground,” Lopez says of San Diego and DeBello’s Four Square Productions studio. “San Diego film production wasn’t as intimidating as L.A., and you could learn as you earn.”

Return was his introduction to movie sound work and a leg up on his future career. “I asked John if I could do the
little tomato sounds, and he said yes. I ended up doing the whole soundtrack,” says Lopez.

KPBS film critic Beth Accomando, Warren ’82, who worked on film editing and publicity for the Killer Tomatoes franchise, enlisted her brother as a tomato wrangler for one of the films. His job description was to throw tomatoes at cars and people.

ADR (automatic dialogue replacement) is the re-recording of dialogue by actors in a sound studio during a movie’s post-production phase. But when it came to filming the crowd scenes for Killer Tomatoes Eat France, ADR was an unaffordable luxury.

Hiring SAG (Screen Actors Guild) actors and paying for a day of studio time “could easily run you $15,000,” says Lopez.
Instead, he ran an ad in The San Diego Reader, paid 40 people $25 for showing up, crowded them into an office space at Four Square Productions and set up a cluster of microphones. “I had the movie on a videotape, played routines, told people to do things and recorded it all,” says Lopez.

Victoria Petrovich, M.F.A. ’88, who currently heads UCSD’s design faculty, fondly remembers her costume design work for Killer Tomatoes Eat France, “only they called it wardrobe in the credits,” she says. “I was responsible for all the clothes in the show, I had one assistant, and I was literally washing the principals’ underwear at midnight for the morning cues.”

To outfit the French Legion army for the film, Petrovich borrowed identical uniforms from an L.A. supplier. Despite he liberal use of tomato juice during the pre-production phase, the film’s creative geniuses assured her they were developing a special kind of gel so as not to destroy the clothes. “Based on that promise,” she says, “I called in every favor owed to me out there in production land.”

Midway through a shoot at San Diego’s Bazaar Del Mundo, she realized “there were all these scenes of blood and gore—and it was all tomato juice.” Assuming the scene was finished, she and her assistant attempted damage control by dumping the white-pantaloon, period costumes into cold ater. “Of course the director came back and wanted to do retakes,” Petrovich recalls.

“I can go anywhere in the world and find people who have heard of this movie,” says DeBello. “You can say the title to anybody anywhere and they smile.”

Petrovich just happens to be one of them. After a 15-year hiatus, “I found myself looking at those old clips and laughing,” she says. At the time, she was too overwhelmed to even smile. As for the juice-stained pantaloons: “I imagine a lot of bridges were burnt that day.”

A lot—but not all. From college kids who embrace the sophomoric humor, to the kiddy cartoon set, to pop culture vultures, to Clooney fans, to Internet bloggers, the franchise hasn’t lacked for an audience. “Killer Tomatoes has its own legs and seems to reinvent itself every seven years or so,” says Peace.

Despite the schlocky execution, “there are real ideas hiding behind the jokes,” Lopez contends, particularly in the original film.“ It’s about the inability of government to contain catastrophe,” says Peace. And post-Katrina, we have to admit that’s an idea whose time will never go away.

Playing Ketchup in the Senate: UCSD instructor Eric Christmas, seated in the middle, played Senator Polk in the 1980 Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. He is probably best known as Mr. Carter in the two Porky's films of the 1980s, or Roland the Butler in Warren Beatty's Bugsy (1992).

Sylvia Tiersten is a freelance writer based in San Diego.


Killer Tomatoes Website


Steve Peace, '76


John DeBello, '75


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