I have a pretty good memory for idiotic things that were aimed at my demographic as a kid, even the most obscure stuff. Every few days I get the theme song to Kidd Video or Galaxy High stuck in my head. Ask me some time about my deep, sincere obsession with a short-lived series of toys called Spy Tech. Go on, ask me. I dare you.
But last weekend, my cousin reminded me of one item of my youth that I’d completely forgotten about. It’s possible this never crossed my radar, but it’s also possible I may have blocked it out of my mind as a defense mechanism. The thing I’m alluding to is Dinosaurs Attack!, a series of trading cards created by Topps in 1988.
The series was meant to be an homage to Mars Attacks!, the trading cards from the early 1960s depicting an alien invasion, which caused parental conniptions for their violent imagery (and thus became highly sought after collectors’ items). I would say Dinosaurs Attack! was a rip-off of this earlier serial, except that it was devised by the same creative team, Len Brown and Woody Gelman. Or at least it was according to Bob Heffner’s Dinosaurs Attack! Home Page, a lo-fi site dedicated to their memory, which passes for scholarship on this subject. (Bob doesn’t cite his sources, so take that with a grain of salt.)
Brown and Gelman longed to recapture the glory of their first big success. Topps must have had a lot of faith in their ability to do so, since they actually aired commercials for this series, which was unprecedented for non-sports trading cards. (Sadly, I cannot find any video of this online.) In a financial sense, the effort failed, since the cards sold poorly. If Topps hoped Dinosaurs Attack! would attract the kind of parental outrage (and resulting publicity) Mars Attacks! did back in the 1960s, they were disappointed in that regard too. They didn’t even attract the kind of tsk-tsk-ing Topps received a few years earlier for Garbage Pail Kids.
However, on the artistic front, they were completely successful, because Dinosaurs Attacks! is the most depraved, gruesome, twisted, pitch-black thing I’ve ever seen intended for children.
The story behind Dinosaurs Attacks! is set into motion by a group of scientists working on a space station who hope to catch a glimpse of prehistory. Somehow, their time-probes allow dinosaurs to return to earth and wreak havoc, indiscriminately killing, crushing, and eating humans left and right. Like in this card, where the dinosaurs attack a baseball game.
Or in this card, where the dinosaurs decimate a zoo. I enjoy this one for its layers of destruction. A man is being crushed by a lion, who is being attacked by a dinosaur, while a gorilla struggles valiantly mid-air against the pterodactyl who is trying to eat him, desperately trying to punch him in the beak, to no avail.
But not every card depicts humans completely at the mercy of these beasts. In this one, a “cat lady” turns a T. rex’s skull into jelly with a well-placed shotgun blast. Nice shootin’, grandma!
And these are just the tip of a very bloody iceberg. Other cards depicted a bride and groom being skewered by a stegosaurus, an ankylosaurus eviscerating a farmer, and an entire classroom being eaten by a hungry allosaur.
The back of these cards are usually contained fake newspaper articles describing what happened to cause the horrific scene depicted on the front. The tone was very punny and full of gallows humor, a bit like old EC Comics, thus muting some of the more awful scenes, like yanking an Army colonel in two or squishing a dog. So in certain respects, Dinosaurs Attack! wasn’t all that different from Garbage Pail Kids, even if they pushed the envelope even further on the gross-out scale.
These cards may seem a little over the top to modern eyes, especially for something aimed at kids. But keep in mind that they were produced during the height of horror movies–Freddy, Jason, and all their millions of imitators–and also during a craze of “gross toys” like Madballs. My own pop psychology says that this was either a reaction to or a subset of the aggressive optimism and Rambo jingoism of the Reagan Years. It might also be a result of the post-Black Tuesday economic slowdown, or the emerging urban hellscapes created by the rapidly growing crack epidemic, as America quickly realized that all was not well in our nation.
Or maybe kids just like to see school buses ripped apart by blood-thirsty monsters. Ya never know.
But as Dinosaurs Attack! progressed, it went beyond mere gross-out humor and into some truly dark territory. About two-thirds of the way through the story, the scientist inadvertantly responsible for this horror (Dr. Elias Thorne), working furiously to undo this terrible mistake, has a strange dream. He sees a half-man, half-lizard creature who tells him humans are different from dinosaurs because they understand right and wrong and have souls.
Heavy stuff. And it gets even heavier as the story concludes. Dr. Thorne is just about to complete a sequence that will send the dinosaurs back into the past, when all of a sudden he is gripped by an enormous scaly hand. He finds himself in the grip of The Devil himself!
The cards don’t actually say this, referring to it instead as the “Supreme Monstrosity”, but the depiction on the card below makes it pretty clear who this monster is supposed to be. The same goes for the doctor’s description of his blood boiling and flesh smoking, and his calling this beast “the enemy of every human who ever lived!”
Dr. Thorne urges his colleague/wife Helen to initiate the sequence. She hesitates, since this will kill him, but he assures her “I’m dead already!” The dinosaurs are sent back to the Mesozoic Age, ripped so violently from the modern world that they are literally torn apart. One of the last cards (“The Ultimate Sacrifice”) shows Dr. Thorne frying in the palm of the devil’s hand, but that’s not nearly as upsetting as the back of the card:
Holy crap! Even by the standards of the day, this is effed up beyond belief. It’s like Dario Argento meets Wes Craven meets Jack T. Chick. For kids!
Reportedly, Tim Burton wanted to turn Dinosaurs Attack! into a movie in the early-mid 1990s, but the Jurassic Park franchise convinced him there were too many dino flicks already, and he adapted Mars Attacks! instead. I’ve never seen any documentation for this rumor, so I have no idea if it’s true, and in any case I doubt it is. Mars Attacks! is playfully dark with goofy touches, which is more Burton’s speed (think Sweeney Todd or Sleepy Hollow or even Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure). Dinosaurs Attack! is just straight-up blood-and-entrails horror. Seems more like a Rob Zombie project. Or maybe the Saw people, since like their undying series, Dinosaurs Attack! has some feint stabs at morality but is really just torture porn.
I salute you, Dinosaurs Attack!, for your incongruous mix of Hieronymous Bosch-esque grotesques, dark humor, and Satanic imagery. You could have only existed in that unique era known as the late 1980s, when parents gave slightly less of a shit about what their kids consumed than they do now. The world shall not see your human-squishing likes again.