31 Days of Hell: Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People (1963)

While Japanese director Ishirō Honda is more well known for his kaiju films such as Godzilla (1954) and Mothra (1961) he has quite the diverse filmography. One of his darker films is Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People (1963) which despite the campy sounding premise (eating mushrooms on a deserted island turns one into a fungus creature) is treated quite seriously. Matango is based on William H. Hodgson's 1907 short story The Voice in the Night.

The film starts out on a lighthearted note as it follows seven individuals who are out on a yacht ride to enjoy a vacation. They are a mixed bunch consisting of a writer, a professor, two celebrities, a college student, and two crewmen. As they travel along in the water a ominous storm approaches. The storm wrecks the boat causing them to drift aimlessly. Luckily, the crew drifts towards an uninhabited island where they are able to set up a camp of sorts. Unfortunately, they don't seem to be the first visitors of the island and clues hint towards the previous people meeting some sort of horrible fate.

Matango has a unique atmosphere as there is a prevailing sense of dread that permeates the entire film and the set-piece of the island is oppressive and drab. As they explore the environment, they discover that everything is covered with various types of fungus--it covers the walls, the rocks, and the trees. Soon they are being stalked by a horrifying fungus monster, who is vaguely shaped like a human but is unable to communicate. As they run out of food emotions start running high and past grudges and unsavory personality quirks start rearing their ugly heads. Like the best monster movies, this one is about the humans and how dire straits can lead to either heroism or evil. As the narrative progresses, the aesthetic becomes surreal and dreamlike to match the characters also descending into madness.

The “mushroom people” are a metaphor for hedonistic tendencies, though if your options are either starve to death or become a disgusting fungus monster it kinda negates it a bit. If you take the metaphor even further in real life you can live an honest life without many frills or be forced to participate in unsavory practices to enjoy the finer things in life. Matango dabbles in body horror in the latter half of the story as it is revealed that eating the mushrooms that grow on the island causes one to slowly turn into the mushroom monsters. Once a bite is taken the victim becomes addicted to the taste and they cannot stop eating them even though they know it's causing harm to their body. Honda says the film is a statement about drug abuse saying, "It was a comment on the Rebel era in which people were becoming addicted to drugs. Once you get addicted, it's a hopeless situation. No matter how good friends people are, even if they're the very best of friends, under certain conditions things can get very ugly."

As an aside, Matango was almost banned in Japan due to the makeup on the mushroom people resembling the disfigured Hibakusha (person affected by the atomic bomb). This theme is often an undercurrent of sci-fi/horror films from this era of Japanese film, and understandably so, as it changed the lives of so many. The fact that atomic explosions are called "mushroom clouds" and the monsters in this film are covered in mushrooms is an interesting correlation as well. Those looking for something grim and nihilistic from Ishirō Honda will be intrigued by Matango.

--Michelle Kisner