“Matango, Fungus of Terror” (1963): Attack of the Mushroom People

I’m not terribly proud of this but I can’t get enough of the show Survivor. The basic premise is that they strand a boatload of regular folks, by which I mean mostly hot twenty somethings, on an island and they have to fend for themselves, surrounded only by snakes, rats, cameramen, spiders and other assorted vermin and invertebrates. Every few days they have to vote off one member and the last one left on the island gets a cool 1 million dollars cash. Since the castaways are divided into 2 groups who are then forced to play ridiculous summer camp games against each other for valuable prizes (like fishing hooks and my famous Rat Soufflé recipe), it behooves the members to vote off the smaller, weaker, less useful members, while at the same time remembering that anyone too competent will likely end up as a major threat for one’s fortune.

Naturally they all turn into a bickering mob of cutthroats–after only a few weeks I’m rooting for a Perfect Storm to send a tsunami about the size of Mt. McKinley to wash over the island and sweep them all to a watery grave. Wouldn’t that be GREAT! Big ratings for CBS and a general warm feeling of cosmic justice for humanity.

Matango, Fungus of Terror

I’d love to sign up for the next season and use my science teacher savvy and expert people skills to absolutely dominate the show but I’d probably end up being stranded in the Australian Outback. Think that would end well? Australia has 8 of the 10 most poisonous snakes, a spider that can bite through boots, sharks whose main source of protein seems to be Australians, and jellyfish that can make you look like you just fell into a molten glass furnace. Pass.

In the meantime I finally tracked down a copy of this, one of the few Japanese monster movies directed by Godzilla’s  Ishiro Honda that I hadn’t seen. There was a time when this was a staple of the late late late show but then it sort of vanished. Why? For that matter, when was the last time Attack of the Crab Monsters, Not of This Earth or The Cape Canaveral Monsters ever got shown? Did Channel 5 in New York own the only copies?

My copy of Attack of the Mushroom People came from the great folks at Something Weird Video, and I can;t know if this is the absolute best copy available. You have to expect a certain level of imperfect quality when dealing with obscure grey market films. The color may change from scene to scene or even shot to shot, and occasionally a conversation might end with a rough edit, like the film broke or something. Yeah, but it’s not like they just cut 40 minutes out of the Magnificent Ambersons or anything. I mean, you gotta take what you can get.

Matango, Fungus of Terror

So we open up with our hero in an insane asylum. His back is too us which alerts the more clever among us (ie any of the fine readers of this website) that something is up.

We follow up with seemingly endless footage of a yacht sailing in the ocean. Sailing, sailing, sailing. Where is it going? Who is on it? The tension becomes near unbearable, leavened only by the very bouncy score that practically screams “There are Mushroom People! And they are going to attack!”

The lovely Kumi Mizuno slinks around the boat and sings. Her character is named Maemi but we will call her Ginger, because I’ll be running a Gilligan’s Island gag throughout the review. She sings what fans of the movie have come to call “The La La Song”. It goes like this:
“La La
La La La La
La-LA-La La”

I’d like to think that this was just cheap American dubbing, that she was actually singing something that means something in Japanese like “Yokohama Mama” or “Baby Got Back” but her lip movements seem to indicate she really is saying “La La La”. Wow, really makes you appreciate “Save The Earth” from Godzilla Vs The Smog Monster. Hell, it makes me appreciate that Paul McCartney song where he keeps telling us to “listen to what the man says” and when we finally find out what the old fool says it’s just “NA NA NA, NA NA NA NA NA”.

We meet the crew out on this 3 hour tour–assorted goof crewmen, a disgruntled skipper, the rich guy in charge, a mystery writer, his hussy girlfriend (the aforementioned Ginger) and our hero from the prologue and his girlfriend (Mary Ann). Obviously the two women set up a classic Betty/Veronica good girl/bad girl dynamic.

The weather starts getting rough, tossing the tiny ship. Thoroughly trashed, they drift for days living on limited provisions and endless bickering. At this point a serious problem with the movie emerges–nobody is particularly likable. Also at this point I am beginning to get very itchy for some Attacking Mushroom People to show the hell up and get things moving.

They run aground on the shore of an uncharted desert isle. They find water and a deserted ship that is covered in mold. The ship was evidently studying radiation because radiation ALWAYS shows up in these Japanese movies. Well, you can’t exactly begrudge them that, what with Hiroshima and all. They also discover a crate that contains a giant mushroom. It’s labeled “MATANGO” but unfortunately it is not also labeled “FUNGUS OF TERROR” so our stalwart crew doesn’t know the trouble they are in.

Matango, Fungus of Terror

The crew finds food and digs right in without so much as a domo arrigato. Clearly the social structure is breaking down, a theme reinforced by a flashback to when they all met at a nightclub and got matching necklaces. My wife immediately points this out to me and we agree that this will undoubtedly become a major plot point somewhere down the line like when somebody turns into one of the by now eagerly awaited Attacking Mushroom People and his former friends know that it is him because he is wearing the necklace. However this never actually happens so the symbolism of the necklaces is totally lost on me.

It takes for freaking EVER before we even get a hint that there might be Attacking Mushroom People on this island. It should have been called ISLAND OF THE ENDLESS BICKERING AND DISINTEGRATION OF POST WAR SOCIAL HIERARCHY but that title was apparently alreadyused by Lina Wertmuller. Anyway, a fleshy headed mutant peeps through a window and scares one guy as he tries to steal food. Cut to next morning and, predictably, our “heroes” are arguing about the mushroom man! If this were Survivor  it would be real hard to pick which person would be the first to get voted off the island. Screw the million dollars, I’d volunteer to leave these losers.

After their morning bitch session, they finally agree to get off their asses and go forage for food. You’d think that being Japanese they’d have no problem eating all kinds of stuff that namby pamby western devils would have trouble digesting–raw squid eyes in fermented seaweed could be a main dish on any Iron Chef episode–but the best they come up with are turtle eggs and some roots. The guy who finds the turtle eggs hides them from the rest of the crew and barters with the rich guy for money. It’s all very socially conscious. Meanwhile, two guys fight over Ginger and one eats the mushrooms that are plentiful on the island, goes nutso and is subdued.

The writer steals a gun and shoots somebody. He gets kicked off along with Ginger. “So go eat Mushrooms!” they are told. THAT ought to teach them a darn good lesson.

It rains. Mushroom sprout from the earth.

Him: It’s been raining for a whole week now.”
Her: “It must be the rainy season.”

Ginger comes back for the boyfriend she dumped. She encourages him to gorge himself on mushrooms, which he does. The poor sap. He immediately has hallucinations of strippers and showgirls. Could be worse.

Obviously, director Inoshiro Honda never came within 200 miles of an actual acid trip. Needless to say, the hallucinations are nothing that would have kept Dali awake at night. Ginger chimes in with “I didn’t tell you that once you’ve eaten you become a mushroom too!” Hey, thanks for the belated safety tip, bitch.

Matango, Fungus of Terror

He tries to run and is (finally) ATTACKED BY MUSHROOM PEOPLE!!! Which, unfortunately, look like they wandered off the same island that H.R. Puffnstuff lives on. Boy, THERE was a weird show. I’m guessing that Sid and Marty Kroft could have taught Honda a few things about hallucinogenic qualities of certain fungi.

Our hero and Mary Ann are alone on the ship when the Mushroom People attack and one must admit that the shots of their moldy hands crashing through rotted timber has a nice Night Of The Living Dead quality to it. The hero fights off the shambling mumbling mutants but Mary Ann gets snatched. By the time he catches up to her she has eaten the mushrooms and urges him to do the same. He is surrounded by the laughing giant mushrooms and goes mad in a classic HP Lovecraft manner. He staggers off and leaves in the semi-repaired yacht

Back to the beginning of the movie. He finally turns to the camera for the entirely unpredictable shock ending, revealing his mushroomy face. For years I was told that the ending of the movie revealed that he had, in fact, eaten his friends (the mushroom people) but actually he just ate the mushrooms. Oh well. The revelation has very little impact and will probably come as a major letdown to those who saw it when they were more easily impressed (around the age of 7 or so).

So what can we say about Matango, Fungus of Terror? Well, it’s one of Honda’s attempts to tell a socially relevant story within the fantasy film framework–I’m sure it has something to do with social upheaval in Japan at the time and the rise of the drug culture but like pretty much EVERY drug film from the sixties it has not aged well. It’s still better than the drug films Hollywood made when they let Mr Youth Culture himself, Otto Preminger, embarrass Hollywood with stuff like Skidoo. For that matter, have you tried to watch Easy Rider lately? “Hey, man, we did it, man.” “No, man, we blew it, man.” 15 minutes of this and you’re begging for the rednecks with the shotgun racks in the back of the truck to show up, man.

1963, Japan. Starring Akira Kubo, Kumi Mizuno, Hiroshi Koizumi, Kenji Sahara, Hiroshi Tachikawa, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Miki Yashiro, Eisei Amamoto, Haruo Nakajima, Katsumi Tezuka. Directed by Ishiro Honda.

Bill Mulligan
Bill Mulligan's earliest movie memory is of watching THE BLACK SCORPION on a black and white TV with a level of definition that barely qualified as "static". This initiation served him well in his subsequent quest to see as many marginal genre movies as possible, under any conditions necessary. If they contained stop motion animation, all the better.

A half century of watching movies has given him the perspective that comes with encroaching death. He will gladly tell you of the sublime chars of Mario Bava, Paul Blaisdell, Ray Harryhausen, and Roger Corman, as well as the good old days when there were only 3 channels on TV but ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS was on at least once a month, as opposed to now when there are approximately eleventy billion channels and no crab monsters of any kind. Also, the music of these kids today is just noise.

His love for practical special effects and makeup has, to his utter amazement, yielded great results as, for the last decade, he has been able to live his dream of making low budget horror films with like minded lunatics in the great North Carolina indie film community. Four feature films and over a dozen shorts, as effects technician, actor, writer and director. His work can be seen in KNOB GOBLINS, THE FOREVER DEAD, FISTFUL OF BRAINS, A FEW BRAINS MORE, FIX IT IN POST. CACHE ME IF YOU CAN and 400 WAYS TO KILL A VAMPIRE, which he will either make into a novel or die trying, either option sounding as good as the other.