I’ve been dancing around this subject for years, referencing it in throwaway paragraphs that have done little to capture its supreme mega greatness. Today, finally, I’m going to give Dinosaurs Attack cards everything they’re owed.
Dinosaurs Attack (formally styled with an exclamation point, but we’ll ignore that) was released by Topps in 1988. To this day, I can’t think of another trading card series that’s nearly as gripping — or gory.
The 55-card set told the terrible tale of dinosaurs accidentally summoned from prehistoric times to present day. Instead of being the dangerous but “natural” nuisances you might expect them to be, the dinosaurs in this card set were singularly focused on the bloody annihilation of the human race. As the title suggests, all they did was attack, in unforgettably macabre fashion. It wasn’t just the story of dinosaurs set loose in modern times — it was the absolute worst case scenario.
Cited as a parody of decades-old creature features, the gore was heavier here than in any movie I’ve ever seen. It’s not so shocking now, but as a nine-year-old who hid under the pillow at the first sight of an Elm Street promo, these cards seemed downright EVIL. (Of course, that only made them all the more interesting!)
The thing with Dinosaurs Attack cards was that nobody really “collected” them. At least, not in the same way that we collected, say, Marvel Universe trading cards. I think most kids discovered the series purely by happenstance. You’d be at a corner deli that didn’t have baseball cards or Garbage Pail Kids, and a pack of murdering dinosaurs was better than nothing.
If you were anything like me, it took a few tries to really “get” the series. I obviously noticed that the cards were violent and brutal on my first look, but it wasn’t until really investigating the story — and discovering those few extra horrible cards — that I came to put Dinosaurs Attack on some kind of twisted black pedestal.
Summarizing its story is easy enough. Scientists mess around… scientists fuck up… dinosaurs arrive in present day… dinosaurs eat us. Doesn’t sound too bad, but the scenarios they came up with were just so bizarre and devastating.
One card showed a dinosaur breaking its head through a school wall to eat several students at once. Another featured a plesiosaur cracking the Statue of Liberty in half. Still another had several dinosaurs attacking a bootleg McDonald’s and treating its patrons like animated french fries. And those were the gentler ones!
The backs of the cards had various gimmicks to help further the story. Some had simple paragraphs. Others were designed like newspaper articles or declassified documents. Still others used goofy “real life” photos, with word balloons and lots of fake mustaches. If you were a kid who wrote off the backs of trading cards as “boring filler,” Dinosaurs Attack changed your tune in a hurry.
I mentioned that the set had some “extra horrible” cards. Totally true, but I guess determining which ones were “extra horrible” depended on your own sensibilities. After all, some are more likely to be bothered by the sight of an ankylosaurus separating a farmer from his entrails than others. Same with the card that had a dinosaur’s giant foot casually crushing a golden retriever.
But here are a few of the cards that always hit me harder than the rest:
Card #33 (“Manhattan Island Swamped!”) showed us how dragging prehistoric life into present day had more ramifications than just “killer dinosaurs.” Here, a New York secretary enjoys her lunch break by becoming lunch for a giant dragonfly! (Yeah, sometimes Topps fudged what prehistoric life was really like.)
The excessive amount of blood suggested something beyond just “biting.” It’s as if the dragonfly had some kind of secret acid capable of instantly liquefying skin and bones. If I ever get a direct Google hit for the second half of that last sentence, I should call the cops.
Look close and you’ll notice that the primary dragonfly just one of hundreds swarming the island. I think “giant man-eating bugs” could have carried a trading card series just as well as the dinosaurs.
Card #41 (“Entombed!!”) may have been the most haunting of them all.
The deal here was that the dinosaurs just appeared in present day as if from nowhere. They didn’t come from outer space. They didn’t regenerate from fossilized bones. They just “blinked” from the past into the future, and if you’ve seen/read your share of science fiction, you know that that stuff’s tricky.
Sometimes, it could’ve worked in our favor. Maybe a few dinosaurs materialized within mountains or steel support beams, effectively disabled before they could eat anyone.
But there was a darker flipside to that, as this card shows. One of the dinosaurs popped into our timeline right over a human being, eerily merging into a Hellraiser-esque monstrosity. This is some “last 30 seconds of a really good Tales from the Darkside episode” shit, here.
The back of the card somehow makes it even worse. A blurb explains how the trapped man was “put out of his misery” with a gunshot fired by own best friend. This one single 1988 trading card tells a story arguably as horrifying as anything I’ve ever heard.
There were hints of “supernatural” horror throughout the set, but card #46 was the true game changer. Just as the scientists were on the cusp of getting rid of those dinosaurs, out came their god… THE SUPREME EVIL.
Referred to as “the life-force that watches over the dinosaurs,” it’s pretty clear that this was intended to be the dinosaur version of Satan. A horned, winged, six-eyed beast that was many times larger than even the largest dinosaur. Unfuckingbelievable.
The arrival of the Supreme Evil also led to what I consider the most darkly memorable card in the whole set…
The front of card #52 (“The Ultimate Sacrifice”) shows a scientist in the paw of that giant demon, but the back is where the real action is. There we see a real picture of a real guy, surrounded by flames and covered in burns, bluntly accepting his fate.
The scientist sacrifices himself to buy Helen — another scientist and also his wife — enough time to mess with the machines and send the dinosaurs back to the past. The trick works, leaving the remaining humans left to rebuild their ravaged world. (The more I describe this series, the more disappointed I become about Tim Burton picking Mars Attacks over this. We were SO CLOSE.)
This card wrecked me as a kid. Every time I came upon it, I’d stare off into space for a minute, daydreaming about terrible things and becoming physically paralyzed by the thoughts of them. Doesn’t sound so nice, but that was part of the appeal. People look at these cards now and kind of just take them as a hilariously violent satire, but if you were the right age in 1988, they were more than that. Dinosaurs Attack was as good as any ghost story or horror movie.
Oh, and each pack came with a sticker. It never occurred to me that teachers or other students might be offended by the image of a plesiosaur biting a skin diver in half, so on the marble notebooks they went!
Here’s a Flickr album showing what I assume to be the entire set, if you want some fun nightmare fuel. Garbage Pail Kids got all the press, but in my opinion, Dinosaurs Attack cards were secretly even worse.
(Sometimes, “worse” is a compliment!)