It ought to be hard to watch the original 1954 version of Godzilla without thinking of the succeeding decades' countless sequels, rip-offs, and parodies, not to mention that terrible 1998 American remake. But it's not. When Godzilla raises his head above the hill for the first time, it remains a moment of great power, in spite of the fact that 1) it's a scene that will be repeated ad nauseam for the next 50 years, and 2) the special effects barely rise above the level of Triumph The Insult Comic Dog.
Why it works is anyone's guess. It's fair to argue—and the film makes this argument itself, with no great subtlety—that Godzilla embodies Japan's nuclear anxieties in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But if director Ishirô Honda had sent a giant kitten to represent that threat, the series would likely have ended pretty quickly. So maybe it's the fear of lizards. Maybe it's the unmistakable Godzilla scream. Or maybe it's just a mystery.
Whichever the case, the effectiveness of the first Godzilla film remains undiminished. It's a grimmer affair than the sequels, which would flatten the giant lizard's menace and eventually turn him into a protector of humanity in general (and little Japanese kids in white shorts in particular). Here, the film's characters live in constant fear of the H-Bomb, hospital corridors are lined with injured children, and the atmosphere remains filled with dread even when Godzilla's not around. It's not just a monster movie; it's a horror film.
Godzilla first played America in a heavily re-edited version that replaced or watered down many of these elements with rudimentary dubbing, awkwardly integrated new footage of beefy American star Raymond Burr, and, however unintentionally, more than a few laughs. This re-release restores it to its original form, and with the restoration returns a sense of fear.
Rustic islanders first spot Godzilla and recognize him as a returning figure of ancient legend. Scientists conclude that recent nuclear activities have stirred him from the ocean floor, and for once, reason and myth are in perfect agreement: Now, technological progress not only has the potential to destroy humanity, but it's also found a way to summon up our oldest fears to do its work. That Godzilla scream would never again sound so much like a warning.