This was in the early ‘70s, so there were no videos, no DVDs, no electronic resources to draw from; you had to wait until something came on TV—and there was no cable, just about a half-dozen channels to choose from.
But one of those channels was KCOP, Channel Thirteen, and they would show marathons of Japanese monster movies, often the same movie repeated every day for a whole week, and whenever my best friend and I saw in TV Guide that another marathon was coming, it was like manna from heaven.
Destroy All Monsters was our favorite because it had everything: rocket ships, flying saucers, sexy alien women, and just about every monster in the Toho Studios pantheon.
Monster Zero was second-best, because it still had the same good stuff, just less of it, yet its minimalism and its space-age sets gave it a moody, stark quality that was unusually creepy, evoking the lunar desolation of 2001.
Most of the other Godzilla movies were more or less equal, we thought, though our least favorite was probably the original one, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, with Raymond Burr spliced in for American audiences (though I like it better now—particularly the Burr-free Japanese version, Gojira).
To a lesser extent we were fond of Gamera, the giant flying turtle, whose series of films had a peculiar combination of kiddy corn (“Gamera is a friend to all the world’s children!”) and gory dismemberment. The people making the Gamera movies really understood that kids love a good gross-out, and never failed to deliver plenty of spurting wounds (on monsters, never on people), nasty parasites, and brain-eating alien babes. The problem was that the production values of these movies were not high, and even as kids we thought the special effects looked pretty crappy.
Not that that affected our enjoyment of the movies at all.
Then there were stand-alone creature features such as War of the Gargantuas, which was a tale of two giant sasquatches, one good and one evil, who battle over the fate of the world. This movie has a great scene in which a woman is singing an awful song called “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat,” when she is suddenly grabbed and eaten whole by the bad Gargantua--who then spits out her chewed-up dress!
This is why I love the Japanese.
Since there were no toys based on our favorite monsters, my friend and I would make our own out of paper mache, painstakingly reproducing every little detail of Godzilla or King Ghidorah or Rodan or Mothra, and building a breakaway cardboard city in which they could battle.
You see what kids can do when they don’t have videogames?
These punks today, I tell you.
As much as I loved these movies as a kid, I have to admit they pretty much bore me now—all except one: Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, or to call the beast by its right name, Godzilla vs. Hedorah.
I still remember very clearly the first time I saw this film, because the whole experience was like some kind of weird nightmare. My best friend had just moved away, and I was in bed with the flu, when a TV commercial came on for a new Godzilla movie—Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster.
It was playing right down the street! Just my luck to be sick on the day it opened.
As I was cursing my fate, there was a knock at the door—it was a kid I barely knew from school, asking my mother if I could go to the Godzilla movie with him.
Where had this mysterious kid come from?
How did he even know where I lived?
Conflicted, I heard my mother telling him I was sick, but before she could shut the door I was out of bed screaming, “Wait! I’m coming!”
We went down to the local movie palace, the Belmont Theater (long gone now), and joined a crowd of other kids going to the Saturday matinee.
And then the weirdness began.
For years I wondered if I had hallucinated some of it. This was like no Godzilla movie I had ever seen—it was like no movie I had ever seen, period. It began with surreal, hideous images of polluted seas, polluted skies, the world drowning in toxic smog and poisonous gunk.
This was just in the disturbing opening credits montage, with a Shirley Bassey-like singer belting out a showstopping tune called “Save the Earth!”
The rest of the movie was just as apocalyptic and psychedelic, with Yellow Submarine-ish cartoon elements and an LSD head-trip like the one in Midnight Cowboy. It was ugly, amazingly dark, with Godzilla fighting a disgusting sludge monster sprung from industrial pollution, while a little boy somberly narrates.
Throughout the movie, Hedorah keeps growing and morphing into different forms, like a precursor to the creature in Alien, and Godzilla seems overmatched, at one point even losing an eye before being buried in what looks like raw sewage.
It’s nasty—but there is also something fantastic about the sheer ballsiness of it all.
As a kid I could not believe what I was seeing, and it’s still pretty outrageous--no wonder it was rarely shown on television. In order to beat the thing, Godzilla literally has to get his hands dirty by (literally) beating the crap out of it, ripping the noxious creature apart and burning its gooey innards to ashes.
Oh, and Godzilla also flies. So there’s that.
As a kid reeling from the effects of fever, I had no idea what to make of all this…except that it had a powerful impact on me. It was disturbing, yet I was not traumatized, just exhilarated. WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED? And as the years went by, I began to realize why this film still interested me while the rest of the Godzilla series was relegated to the kiddy aisle:
Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster is a genuine work of Art.
The movie’s director, Yoshimitsu Banno, clearly wanted to break out of the juvenile niche he had been assigned to and go for something more ambitious, more challenging…and to the degree that the film is fascinating, grotesque, and completely original, he succeeded.
Unfortunately his attempt to shake up the Godzilla formula was not appreciated by Toho executives, who made sure he never directed another Godzilla picture—and certainly not the epic Smog Monster sequel he had planned.
The fact that Godzilla fans are deeply divided on this movie is the surest proof that it was not made for them—it is a deliberate provocation, an auteur’s attempt to raise the bar right over the heads of teenyboppers and into a realm of stylistic excess that would years later be embraced by directors like Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill, Oliver Stone in Natural Born Killers, and even Jane Campion in The Piano. Not that any of these people ever saw Smog Monster (although Tarantino probably did), just that the movie was ahead of its time.
If director Banno failed to fulfill his grand ambitions, it was not because Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster is no good, but because it was marketed to ten-year-olds instead of being sent to Cannes. Its intended audience of cineastes never saw it…and probably never will.
Walter Greatshell is the author of the Xombies trilogy of novels, and the thriller Mad Skills, published by Ace Books. He is also the author of Enormity (under the name W.G. Marshall), and Terminal Island, both published by Night Shade Books.