Images swim forward, shimmering into distorted focus. They are thick with the horizontal scan lines of a rough technology in an age of black and white. Everything moves slowly inside a seemingly endless, inexplicable fog, as though traveling through a deep portal to another place, where memories long buried are dredged up and re-examined. They are from early childhood and as such resemble artifacts covered in the dust of television static — a transmission coming over a long distance, its signal weakening as it moves through space.
This part of memory is populated with rubber-skinned monsters and female vampires in flimsy negligees who have a late-night silver quality to them.
One of the movies that echoes within this space is Matango, better known in the U.S. as Attack of the Mushroom People. I remember it as a slightly worn Japanese horror movie that fell ambiguously between the kaiju (monster) and kaidan (ghost) genres. I haven’t seen it since I was very young, the age range would be between 4 and 8 years old and I prefer not to revisit it, living instead with the fragmented effects of a distantly remembered fear.
The movie begins with a group of pleasure seekers on a short cruise who encounter a battering storm that destroys their ship. They drift for days in a thickening fog that delivers them to a small, seemingly uninhabited island. Once there, they discover a second shipwreck that is being claimed by a virulent fungus. The group begins to clean up this boat, using it as a base from which to explore the rest of the island.
The world at this time was still large, disconnected and unobserved enough to get lost in. Film explorers would often wander into territories untouched by the civilizing forces of the modern era, discovering pockets of the earth where dinosaurs rule or the patriarchy has never come to dominate.
In Matango, our travelers soon find what appear to be man-made pools for collecting fresh water and realize the landscape is rich with all manner of mushrooms. Fearing the fungi are poisonous, the group resists eating them, at least until their food supplies begin to run low.
Naturally there is an unstable character within the bunch, who quickly goes mad with hunger. Once eaten the mushrooms become an addiction. The consumer is infected, growing lesions on his skin, disfigured by his own appetite. Finally, the group discovers — too late — that there are other people on the island who have already succumbed to the mushrooms and are overgrown with them. The group is attacked and absorbed into the fungi.
Although it turns out this film was in color, I only remember ever seeing it on a black and white TV set. I mostly recall the film’s dreamy, ghost-like quality. And also a sense of relief that, though I found the movie frightening for reasons I cannot explain, it was preferable to the alternative, usually a kung-fu movie, which would have lead to additional late-night rough housing among whoever was at the sleepover.
The film delivered a serious sense of foreboding — alongside the above-mentioned relief. This might have been due to the reality of horrible mutation that still emanated from Japan post World War II, which populated Japanese cinema with a whole series of mutant creatures during the late 1950s and early ’60s.
If Wikipedia is to be believed, the film was almost banned in Japan because “some of the makeup used resembled the facial disfigurements characteristic of those who survived the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Perhaps Matango transmits that psychic trauma, a loss of control felt by helpless humans against the forces of nature unleashed. This is where I first learned the feeling of dread, later cemented by Night of the Living Dead.
Matango and the zombie genre generate two equally powerful fears. First, a virus or mutation creates a group of voracious, insatiable monsters. Second, the infection is highly contagious, even the smallest contact transforms the victim into a member of the ravenous horde.
What does it mean to become the thing you fear? To lose your individuality and turn into an agent of endless proliferation and mindless hunger? What about that period when you have become infected and have not yet turned, but know that your fate is sealed? What is it like to be in the grip of an inevitable and unalterable destiny?
This dread is intertwined with a growing sense of isolation that I experienced even at a very young age. The world was full of irresistible forces aligned to absorb the individual into the group. The mob is powerfully motivated by the basest functions of satiation and reproduction. The mushrooms want to spread. The zombies must feed.
Our heroes will spend days or months resisting the will of the mob, only to be overcome in the end. As they feel themselves changing, their unique identities slowly bleed away. They are both becoming that which they oppose and morphing into a catalyst for its multiplication. At the end of Matango, one infected survivor, whose account is the flashback that bookends the movie, drifts toward civilization, carrying the disease he was trying to avoid. The struggle of the one against the many is futile. We are all monsters in waiting.