Face-Off: Attack of the Killer Tomatoes vs. The Stuff

Last Updated on August 3, 2021

It’s the week of Thanksgiving in the United States, the time when we get together and chow down until our clothes tighten and our stomachs threaten to burst. As we’re surrounded by all the savory foods and desserts, we don’t usually have much more on our minds than how delicious that stuff is going to be as we gobble it down. We don’t stop to think how dangerous food could be if it decided to turn against us – a possibility that filmmakers John DeBello and Larry Cohen tried to warn us about with the films ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES (1978) and THE STUFF (released in 1985). Both wrap their ideas in humor – a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. But which of these films serves as the better warning, and offers a better solution to the problem?
If you look at it one way, the secret experiments conducted to create a bigger, healthier tomato were a major success, because these tomatoes certainly are bigger and healthier than the norm. Unfortunately, they have also become sentient creatures that roll and grumble and growl, and they seem to have only one thing in mind – the eradication of the human race. Tomatoes look harmless, but ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES proves that they could wreak some large scale havoc if every tomato around turned into a bloodthirsty monster.
The stuff of the title is a white substance that is found bubbling out of the ground, and the first instinct of the person who discovers it is to taste it. And he finds that it’s delicious. Soon The Stuff is the country’s new dessert sensation, competition for ice cream. Problem is, this substance is a living entity that can move on its own and isn’t nearly as healthy as its nutritional facts would lead you to believe. It soon becomes clear that eating too much of this addictive Stuff has a severe impact on the mind and body of its consumer.
The Department of Agriculture assembles a special task force to get to the bottom of this killer tomato epidemic and try to put a stop to it. Most of the agents don’t accomplish much – the master of disguise, the underwater expert, the Olympic swimmer, they’re really only there for sight gags and to be tomato fodder. Our heroes are team leader Mason Dixon, who manages to solve the case while also falling for reporter Lois Fairchild, and military man Wilbur Finletter, who proves to be a capable tomato fighter even without ever detaching his deployed parachute. There’s not much to them, but they’re fun characters to watch.
Former FBI agent turned industrial spy Mo Rutherford starts investigating The Stuff before he even knows it’s dangerous – he has been hired by its competitors to find out its secret ingredients. He is aided by Chocolate Chip Charlie, whose cookie factory was bought out by The Stuff’s distributors and whose hands are lethal weapons; his love interest Nicole, who was behind The Stuff’s marketing campaign; and Jason, the first kid to realize The Stuff isn’t what it seems. Mo discovers the harm the substance can cause and his goal switches from doing some dirty business to the noble cause of taking The Stuff off the market and saving the world.
Don’t think a tomato could kill you? You’d be surprised. Moving across the land in herds, these little red monsters can murder people in any number of ways, leaving behind corpses covered with juice. They roll up on their victims, pop up in the water around them, fly themselves into helicopters people are riding in, smash themselves across car windshields. Some of these tomatoes get so large they can crush people by rolling over them. People are bombarded by flying tomatoes. They die from drinking tomato juice that has turned poison. They’re even eaten by sandwiches.
Too much of any sweet and creamy dessert can be a bad thing, we all know this. But The Stuff doesn’t harm its consumers through disease and weight gain. Instead, it alters their minds and bodies in a way that turns them into dedicated servants of this organism. They are addicted to The Stuff, they want others to consume it, and will even resort to violence to get some Stuff down your throat. Sometimes this leads to death. Feed a dog some of The Stuff and its addiction can drive it mad. If someone reveals they’re an enemy to The Stuff, it will start acting like The Blob, enveloping them and trying to smother them.
This film’s sense of humor is evident in its title – it’s going for complete absurdity and nails it. This is the sort of movie where characters could break out in song at any moment, where ridiculous news reports are always playing on the soundtrack, where one character will never take off a diving suit regardless of where he is, an athlete can be seen eating Steroids cereal, a human can go undercover as a tomato, and there’s even an implied cameo by Superman. The concept of killer tomatoes would seem to be better suited for a short, but the comedy is so enjoyably silly that it works as a feature.
THE STUFF isn’t just the story of food gone wild, it’s also a satire that takes aim at food corporations, marketing, and consumers’ willingness to eat or drink things without knowing their contents. It balances its comedy and horror elements well, with a lot of the laughs coming through the well written dialogue, Mo Rutherford’s cool demeanor, and character interactions, whether it’s Mo’s partnership with Chocolate Chip Charlie or his exchange with a random gas station attendant. This one never goes too far with its silliness, it always keeps sight of the seriousness of the Stuff situation.
KILLER TOMATOES has an ending so good and dopey that Tim Burton re-used the concept for MARS ATTACKS! Instead of the Slim Whitman yodeling that Burton chose to torment Martians with, the song that can neutralize the tomatoes, shrinking murderous giants down to normal, harmless fruit, is the smash hit “Puberty Love”, sung by screechy voiced adolescent Ronny Desmond (a song created specifically for this movie). Realizing the effect Desmond’s vocals have on the tomatoes, our heroes lure the killers to a stadium, where the song is blasted over the P.A. system. The world is saved by the musical aspirations of a Donny Osmond knock-off.
THE STUFF goes in an unexpected direction, you might even think it goes off the rails, when Mo Rutherford enlists the third act assistance of the eccentric Colonel Spears, who has always feared Communists would alter American minds with food or drink. When Spears hears that The Stuff is doing something like that, he and his personal army become dedicated to bringing the business down, raiding the base of operations and trying to get the word out about the dangers of the substance. Although the endeavor is largely successful, the ending feels more awkward to me than satisfying. And The Stuff is still out there, wanting to be eaten…
John DeBello and Larry Cohen put very different types of humor into their killer food movies, and while I may have given Cohen’s more grounded, balanced approach the win in that category, that doesn’t mean that KILLER TOMATOES doesn’t keep me laughing throughout. As cool as the concepts, characters, and special effects of THE STUFF are, I still find KILLER TOMATOES to be the more entertaining and satisfying movie overall. Despite both being about killer food, these aren’t movies that would go head-to-head very often, but when they do I have to give the win to ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES. And then continue singing the theme song that gets stuck in my head every time I watch the movie.

Do you agree with the result of this Face-Off, or do you think THE STUFF is the better killer food movie? Share your thoughts on these films in the comments section below. If you have suggestions for future Face-Off pairings, you can send them to me at [email protected]

About the Author

Cody is a news editor and film critic, focused on the horror arm of JoBlo.com, and writes scripts for videos that are released through the JoBlo Originals and JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channels. In his spare time, he's a globe-trotting digital nomad, runs a personal blog called Life Between Frames, and writes novels and screenplays.