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Read an excerpt from Ten Tomatoes That Changed the World

Attack of the Heirloom Tomatoes

A revolt against the tomato, hybridized, gassed, and commodified almost beyond recognition, was inevitable. But who suspected that the vegetables themselves would lead it? Yet this is exactly what happened when, in 1978, angry tomatoes bent on revenge descended upon us.

On drive-in movie screens, that is.

Described by its publicist as “a musical comedy horror story about hybrid tomatoes that terrorize a community,â€� the ultra-low-budget ($90,000) Attack of the Killer Tomatoes became an instant cult classic, cementing the tomato’s place in American pop culture, spawning three sequels (including one starring a young George Clooney) and a cartoon series, while launching the career of — well, no one. In fact, the actors were just happy to get out of the production alive. Shooting nearly started and ended on the same day, when a spectacular helicopter crash nearly beheaded half the cast.

In the script, the helicopter was supposed to have been piloted by a tomato. It might as well have been, because the human pilot, while attempting to land in a field near two actors playing detectives, allowed the tail rotor to dip, striking the ground and sending the chopper spinning wildly out of control, like a rotating guillotine, until flipping over and going up in flames. All in all, a spectacle worthy of a big-budget Sylvester Stallone action movie.

With the cameras continuing to roll, the actors, ever the consummate professionals, did some quick improvisation while crawling away from the smoldering wreckage that destroyed the rented $60,000 aircraft. Their witty repartee included:

Detective 1: “The pilot’s still in there!�

Detective 2: “Forget about the pilot.�

In fact, the pilot was pulled to safety by the director and survived with only minor injuries, which seems remarkable if you’ve seen the footage. And you can. It appears in the first five minutes of the movie. Just promise you’ll come back when you’re done.