In 1954 Ishirō Honda unleashed a starkly realized vision of destruction with the release of Gojira. “Godzilla”, as the monster became known here in the states, was a fire breathing behemoth, evil incarnate, and a stand in for the ever-present fear of the atomic bomb. Countless sequels throughout the Showa Period (1954 – 1975) would steer Godzilla away from atomic breathing embodiment of an entire nation’s nightmare and reframe him as the cartoonish good guy all the kiddos could root for.
Don’t take this as me hating on the more lighthearted entries in the series; I absolutely adore them.
Bloodshed in the Show Era
When I was younger, TCM would run all day marathons of classic Godzilla films, and I would sit glued to my TV for every poorly dubbed, cheeseball moment. That said, even I couldn’t withstand the saccharine cuteness of Son of Godzilla. Minilla is where I draw the line, folks. Even during the later Showa era with it’s Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic (the hilarious teamup of Godzilla and “Jet Jaguar” complete with flying kicks in Godzilla vs Megalon will never be forgotten), there remained images of brutality that would stick with me as an impressionable youth.
The original Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla features some awfully bloody beatdowns. Mechagodzilla flies towards a weakened Big G, blasting eye lasers directly at the roaring beast’s jugular. A literal geyser of blood springs from the wound. This happens much later in the same film where a decoy ‘Zilla rips the jaws of C-level baddie Anguirus apart before yanking the monster’s tongue right out of his mouth in exceptionally bloody detail. Yay! Family fun!
Despite occasional displays of grand guignol dismemberment, most of the Showa era films hew pretty close to the family-friendly matinee playbook. While some might callout Godzilla vs Hedorah (AKA Godzilla vs The Smog Monster) as being nightmare-inducing due to its truly out there psychedelic imagery and stomach-churning depictions of sludge, it wasn’t until the Heisei era (1984 – 1995) that filmmakers started exploring Godzilla’s darker side once again.
Godzilla vs Biollante (1989)
After a five year hiatus from cinemas, Toho was eager to continue the Heisei era that had begun with The Return of Godzilla (AKA Godzilla 1985). Return’s aim was to bring some of the gravitas back to the character. Godzilla was no longer a hero of the people. This time around the big green machine was once again a one-track minded mechanism of destruction. Godzilla vs Biollante picks up right where Return left off before jumping forward five years. Amongst the ruins of Tokyo, a team of scientists are tasked with collecting biological samples of the main man himself. Unfortunately, there are some not so friendly folks who want to get their mitts on the genetic material as well.
These opening moments cement the more adult tone with dark cinematography, shadowy gun battles, and some surprising bloodshed. Rumor has it director Kazuki Omori wasn’t terribly interested in helming a man-in-suit production and was keen to get behind the camera of a James Bond picture. This explains Biollante’s subplot featuring espionage, spy vs spy, and shadowy assassins. Despite a lot of narrative real estate being taken over by these warring factions clamoring for “Godzilla cells,” the Bond-esque plot never really pays off. Thankfully, it’s of little consequence as Godzilla vs Biollante excels when the focus is on good ol’ fashioned mad science/creature feature mayhem.
The convoluted plot involves Dr. Shiragami, a geneticist whose daughter is killed during an attack on his lab in attempt to steal the valuable Godzilla cells. Being a geneticist and whatnot, he obvi decides it would be a great idea to splice his daughter’s DNA with that of her prized rose garden. When Miki, a telepath from the Japanese Psyonics Research Center (and a recurring character through most of the Heisei era), confirms the genetically altered roses exhibit some psychic energy, Shiragami takes things up a notch by adding some Godzilla ju-ju into the mix. Wouldn’t you know, half-plant/half-‘Zillas containing the soul of a human are ultimately a really bad idea?
Yes, the plot here is pretty wild, but for the first time since Gojira, it feels like Omori is trying to tap into national fears and exploit a genuine sense of horror. Omori banks on burgeoning fears of biochemical warfare to elevate this entry. In an equally smart bit of social commentary, the use of Godzilla cells are considered controversial and locked away tight by the government, only allowing them to be used when they see fit. The argument is made these cells could lead to huge scientific breakthroughs if access were made available…but at what cost? While the use of stem-cells were still fairly new at the time of this film’s release, it’s a curious inclusion that surely meant something to the director.
What about the horror, though? That’s what you came for, right? Biollante is one nasty piece of work. Beginning a theme that would carry over into many of the Heisei films, the monster mutates through numerous forms throughout the picture. In one of the most straight-forward horror leaning sequences, a bit of double espionage is spoiled by an all-out monster attack. As two different sets of spies infiltrate Shiragami’s lab in an attempt to steal those darn cells again, baby Biollante breaks free from her greenhouse and wreaks some true monster movie havoc. Flying tentacles erupt from wooden floorboards, wrap around their victims, and fling them around the room. Bloodied corpses and green slime ensue.
From here, Biollante grows to “legitimate threat to Godzilla” size, and the real Kaiju action begins. The creature’s second form is quite a marvel: huge vines weave together a body that is capped off with a mutated rosebud for a head. The original design was actually meant to feature the face of a human girl at its center. Now that would have been horrifying.
Biollante’s final form is nothing if not terrifying, however. The climactic battle is one of the greatest in Godzilla canon. Biollante erupts from the ground with an elongated jaw filled with rows of gnashing teeth, a giant belly of glowing embers, and an entire army of Little Shop flytrap tentacles snapping and impaling their prey. It’s one of the gooiest battle scenes in the entire franchise. The flytrap-tentacles literally burrow straight through the palms of G’s hand unleashing buckets of green slime. We even get a nice Regan pea-soup moment as Biollante literally vomits a truckload of glittering bile all over her opponent. It’s wicked stuff and is sure to tickle the fancy of any creature-feature aficionado.
Godzilla vs Destroyah (1995)
Godzilla vs Destroyah has always been one of my favorite flicks in the series. If you couldn’t tell, I’m extremely partial to the Heisei era. While Biollante set a more serious tone for the further adventures of Big G, the succeeding entries returned Godzilla to more of an anti-hero role while still having some fun with the human narratives surrounding him. We had takes on Indiana Jones-style action with Godzilla vs Mothra and a twisty sci-fi riff on Terminator with the gonzo time travel shenanigans of Godzilla vs King Ghidorah (for reals, that’s a fun one). They even brought back “Godzilla Jr,” though the little tyke is massively less annoying than Minila and proves to be fairly endearing, especially in this, the final film of the timeline.
Destroyah is quite possibly the darkest film in the franchise outside of the original. The intent with the release was to officially kill off Godzilla for at least ten years in order to make room for the planned American trilogy that launched in 1996. Well, we all know how that went down, and Toho was back at it only four years later with Godzilla 2000 in 1999. Nonetheless, there’s a finality to this entry. The opening moments reveal a glowing Godzilla rampaging like he does best. His chest pulses bright red as if something is burning inside of him. Well, that’s exactly what is happening.
Kenichi Yamane, a college student with a fascination for Godzilla, believes the giant monster carries with it an atomic core deep inside, an atomic core that is slowly failing – turning Godzilla himself into a literal walking atomic bomb that could turn all of Japan “into a cemetery.” In many callbacks to the original film, Kenichi is the grandson of Gojira’s Dr. Yamane, the man behind the oxygen destroyer that initially brought down the monster.
Destroyah exists firmly within the Heisei continuity with a subplot featuring psychic Miki trying to locate Junior and the return of hotshot Sho Kuroki from Biollante. Despite this, in many ways, it feels like the Halloween ’18 of Godzilla flicks as a multitude of parallels are drawn between the original film from 30 years prior. As this was intended to be the last Godzilla film for some time, Toho very much wanted this to be of a piece with Gojira.
In terms of frights, Destroyah feels like a mid-90’s horror film from it’s slick cinematography and ominous score to its suspenseful setpieces. The actual Destroyah in question is first established as a microscopic organism found in soil samples taken from the now-defunct “Monster Island.” It’s slowly growing, taking on similar characteristics of the oxygen destroyer of yore. A lone security guard at an aquarium is horrified to find all the fish in the tank decaying before his eyes, leaving nothing but bones. A swat team is sent in to put down the creature before it can grow any larger. This leads us to one helluva sequence that features armed men battling a horde of human-sized crab-like creatures with glowing eyes, atomic breath, and sharp claws. In a scene that feels like it was ripped from countless other Aliens rip-offs, it’s easy to forget you’re watching a Godzilla pic.
After the complete massacre of an entire swat team, it’s time for all the mini-Destroyahs to join forces as they mutate in one giant mutha’ that resembles a horned demon straight from the depths of hell. The final battle here is another for the Kaiju record books, as Big G on the verge of a literal meltdown takes on his most vicious foe yet…while sweet Godzilla Junior watches it all go down. Surprisingly, Godzilla vs Destroyah manages to muster up a bit of pathos in its final moments. The film balances reverence for the film that started it all, wild special effects monster mayhem, an emotional arch for the Big Guy, and one of the meanest villains in all of Godzilla canon. It’s the perfect bookend to one of my favorite slices of Godzilla continuity.
King of the Monsters
While, I don’t anticipate Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsterswill be a full-blown horror film, I do know the director promised some of his love for the genre would seep through. At the end of the day, we should all be celebrating the ongoing legacy of ‘Zilla. This is the type of franchise that lulls kiddos into the horror genre. Godzilla is simply the gateway drug to something like Tremors. From there…it’s nothing but George Romero zombies and Fulci gut-munchers. Okay, maybe that was only my personal trajectory, but still – Godzilla might not be all blood and guts or terribly frightening. It is nonetheless the longest running franchise in history, and it revolves around giant mo