You know how I first heard about Matango?
Through the Swamp Thing comic book, appropriately enough. The Matango entity was this hive-mind of fungus spores that infected people and turned them into giant walking mushrooms until they eventually died a horrible, horrible death. Of course, I just thought Matango was nothing more than a bizarre villain for Swamp Thing to battle and nothing more.
Then, many a year later, I discovered that DC Comics ripped the idea off of one of Toho’s cult classic horror flicks from the 60’s, Matango (better known as Attack of the Mushroom People in the US, or as both titles squished together with a colon in-between). I’ve always considered myself something of a Toho fanatic, but in reality, I never ventured very far outside of their giant monster movies. Let me say, Matango is very different from what you’d expect from a Toho monster movie, but very, very good.
And weird. Fucking bat-shit weird.
Seven spoiled rotten members of the Japanese social elite have just taken their new yacht for a spin when a fierce storm strands them on a fog enshrouded, uncharted island. Nothing lives on the island save for a species of giant, toxic, gross-looking fungus called “matango”. Professor Murai (Akira Kubo) warns his friends not to eat the mushrooms, as their effects are unknown but certainly dangerous. As tensions between the friends begin to build, and food rations begin to wear thin, several of the crew decide to throw caution to the wind and taste some of the mushrooms. Bad idea; they turn you into giant, walking, chortling fungus people. Should’ve listened to the professor.
Director Ishiro Honda is best known for directing 1954’s Godzilla as well as most of Toho’s other giant monster output going into the 60’s. As a matter of fact, I’d never seen any of the man’s other work, operating under the impression that he simply didn’t make movies without skyscraper-sized reptiles punching each other in the face. Matango proved me wrong, being a straight-up horror movie and a tremendously bleak one at that. While Honda’s giant monster flicks always end with the good guys winning and the beasts being killed or driven back into the sea, this film does a marvelous job of playing with the audience’s heads as well as their expectations.
When the film starts out, the seven friends are just that: friends. However, once they become stranded and food turns scarce, their relationships strain very quickly. This encompasses most of the film’s plot, with the shipwrecked buddies constantly going at each other’s throats, double-crossing one another and so on. The actual mushroom people take a bit of a backseat until the ending. While this might sound dull, Honda plays with the idea really well. The characters you thought were going to turn out to be good guys wind up doing a 180 when you least expect it, surprising both the other characters and the audience. Some really great twists in that regard.
As for the actual mushroom people, well, they’re completely insane. Exactly what they are and how they exist is a bit of a mystery. Honda has fun with the idea of ‘shrooms having mind-altering aspects, leaving the scenes involving the mushroom people to be really out there and surreal. The reveal of the mushroom people is a slow build-up that works toward mounting the tension and passing a creepy feeling onto the viewer. You start out seeing weird mushroom-shaped things running around behind the brush in the forests, getting only glimpses. Then, the mushroom people appear in the characters’ shelter, looking more like shambling zombies with bad acne. But then, when you finally see the giant walking toadstool creatures at the end… holy crap.
Let me lay it out for you. By now, you’ve probably seen images of what the mushroom people look like. Maybe even this one:
Yeah, they look ridiculous. But the atmosphere Honda crafts around the silly costumes actually gives them an eerie, skin-crawling quality you’d never expect. The mushrooms laugh. That’s right; they laugh. And it sounds so fucking creepy you won’t believe it. The haunting, echoing, disembodied laughter is accompanied by the characters who have eaten the mushrooms gradually mutating as spores sprout up all over their bodies and the one main character trying to make it out alive totally losing his shit and going insane (and screaming like a six year-old girl, which is kinda funny).
Matango is just a really weird movie with a surprisingly depressing finish, at least when compared to Honda’s other output. The film’s very modern and ahead of its time with a superb use of atmosphere to make up for some rather goofy special effects. Matango is one of Toho’s more overlooked classics, what with it not having Godzilla or anything, but definitely worth the effort to pick up. You can find Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People via Amazon or through Region 1 DVD by Media Blasters in its original Japanese language version with English subtitles. And cheap, too. Don’t pass it up.