Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them. – Pauline Kael.
The above quote from the late, legendary American film critic Kael was most certainly not referring to Lamberto Bava’s Demons (1985), but a lot of films in our beloved genre bow to this description. Demons is great trash – it wants nothing more to assault your senses with a barrage of images and sound for 88 minutes before you even know what hit you, and does so while breathing that rarified Italian air.
But I’m sure she was referring to a film like Demons – one made with a ton of style, by a filmmaker impassioned with his chosen topic, as ridiculous as that plays on the screen. And make no mistake, Demons is ridiculous; as a matter of fact, it starts there before rapidly ascending to the sublime.
A little story is in order, and a little story is all that’s proffered: We open on Berlin in the mid ‘80s, and a random group of strangers are given free tickets to the reopening of Metropol, a gorgeous movie house of art deco decadence. Our first tip that something is amiss: the tickets are distributed by a mysterious man wearing a silver half mask more apropos for a Cannon Films reimagining of Phantom of the Opera.
So off we go to the theatre with our random assemblage of characters, the only ones making an impression being a pimp played by Bobby Rhodes (Hercules), and Geretta Geretta (Rats) as one of his ladies, Rosemary. In the lobby are several props that will play an importance as the film progresses; you know, the usual – a motorcycle, a samurai sword, and a silver mask donned by one unlucky lady, leaving a nasty scrape on her cheek. As the curtains are drawn, it’s soon revealed that the film being shown is a cheesy horror flick (hey! We’re watching one too!) featuring the aforementioned mask from the lobby. Before you can say Purple Rose of Cairo the events unfolding on their screen starts to unfold on ours. The girl’s scratch starts to ooze pus, she turns full demon and pandemonium ensues. From here on out, it’s every pimp, ho, damsel, and Dolph Lundgren wannabe for themselves. (Yes, this film has one of those.)
Demons plays out like a cross between George Romero’s Dead movies and an Irwin Allen disasterpalooza – not only do the cast have to fight off the malevolent, day-glo demons but they also have to contend with a collapsing structure and exits that mysteriously disappear. However, whereas Romero’s films have a social sheen and Allen’s possess a karma’s-a-bitch vibe, Demons completely skirts these issues and focuses on the task at hand: maximum carnage, vibrantly displayed.
Which isn’t to say that opportunities aren’t missed; seeing a deeper interaction between the film within a film and the protagonists would have been a blast, and would have added a layer of surrealism and sense of depth. (People always assume depth in films about films; why not give it a shot?) But not to worry – there’s plenty here to hold the filmgoer’s attention. Eyeball extraction, neck nuzzling, katana kills and oh so much more. How about a helicopter that is a literal deux ex machina? Demons exceeds the most modest of expectations.
And expectations were definitely set high due to the involvement of Dario Argento, who at the time had his own film out, Phenomena (‘85). Here he offers his services as producer, and cowriter with Bava, Franco Ferrini, and Dardano Sacchetti. Sacchetti is of special note – he’s worked with all the greats of Italian horror’s Golden Age. He wrote the story for Argento’s The Cat o’ Nine Tails (‘71), as well as the stories for Mario Bava’s (Lamberto’s papa) A Bay of Blood (‘71) and Shock (‘77), and of course the screenplays for Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy – City of the Living Dead (‘80), The Beyond (‘81) and The House by the Cemetery (‘81). Great films one and all, and a mere portion of weird, wonderful Italian horror cinema. I think some people were expecting more plot, frankly because of Argento. But if you look back at any of his classic films, the plots (with the exception of Deep Red, perhaps) are not the most important aspect – it’s always been about mood and impact. Italian horror, at its best, resides in the visual realm; conveying thoughts most effectively through beautifully horrific imagery and sound design. Demons is no exception, and what Argento brings (besides stellar production values) is an “all wheat, no chaff” mindset mixed with a decidedly commercial ‘80s attitude. It’s there in the soundtrack; loaded with songs by popular heavy metal acts of the era such as Accept, Motley Crue, Saxon, and, um, Go West. (They had the best pyro.) This film, and he employed the same strategy with Phenomena, was geared towards putting young asses in seats in Europe and North America – and it always worked better for him across the pond than on these shores. Did it work over here? Nah. His bread and butter was the thriving video market – Demons was rolled out in Europe in the fall of ’85 and North American grindhouses and drive-ins in May of ’86, followed by the home video market a few months later. It’s a shame I never got to see this movie about a movie within a movie on the big screen – but when it comes to horror, we’ll take it any way we can.
This was Lamberto Bava’s big splash on the international scene. Son of seminal icon Mario Bava (Black Sunday, Blood and Black Lace, Planet of the Vampires, and so many others), little Bava started as assistant director on a couple of Mario’s greatest films – Kill, Baby, Kill (‘66) and the aforementioned A Bay of Blood before making his first theatrical directorial effort with 1980’s Macabre. He made three more after that (and A.D.’d a couple for Argento in between) before taking on Demons. And the experience paid off – this is a very assured effort; Bava muscles his way through ludicrous set pieces, making sure to bath them in the delicious hues and primary color palette perfected by Bava Sr. He corrals the actors the best he can, shepherding them from scene to scene with as little embarrassment as the meager character development will allow.
And really, in a film like this, character development is non essential: For instance, I could care less about Robert Wagner’s torrid affair in The Towering Inferno (’74); I’m much more enamored with watching him doing a flaming tango before he crashes through the window and plummets to his fiery death. I’m good like that. And believe you me; you will not give a rat’s ass about any of these people except as gruesome goulash for our rabid monsters.
So, if you’re going to focus on decapitations, drooling demons, and eviscerations, you better bring your ‘A’ game, which is precisely what Argento, Bava, et al did. Special makeup effects guru Sergio Stivaletti was brought on board for Phenomena, then Argento ported him over for this project, and he’s been his go to guy for several films since. Michele Soavi also later used him for The Church (‘89) and Dellamorte Dellamore (‘94). (Soavi himself is A.D. here, plays the stranger with the mask, and a character in the inner film. This is a tight knit community, yes?) In keeping with the bright, comic book aesthetic and tone of the film, Stivaletti gives his effects a cartoonish luster; exaggerated, bigger than life, and twice as nasty, these demons are all buffoonish business – and business is very good indeed.
Demons did well enough to warrant a sequel – no small feat; at that time if you weren’t a franchise (Halloween, NOES, F13TH) you didn’t get a second helping – and Demons 2 (’86) quickly followed. But not all trash is created equal, and the sequel is mostly remembered as an unnecessary serving.
So, while some cinephiles are content to spout “We’ll always have Paris”, my kinfolk are more than pleased to remember that we’ll always have Demons. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m heading back into the trash heap to search for next week’s treasure.
Demons is available on Blu-ray from Synapse Films.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1970)