That quintessential eighties Italian splatter ‘classic’ “Demons” finally makes it to (limited edition) Blu-ray courtesy of UK genre specialists Arrow Video, and from the moment Claudio Simonetti’s hammering, headache-attack synth-pop soundtrack clatters intrusively on to curiously artless Italian credits superimposed across the opening U-Bahn carriage ride sequence (the array of dayglo styled poster punks, New Romantics and girls with unruly perms who make up the passenger list among the bored-looking male and female shoppers comes over now more like a parody of those eighties fashion cliques than the real thing), we’re instantly taken back to one of the most tasteless periods in Italian horror -- but also the moment when the genre was at the height of its popularity: box office returns on “Demons” in Italy were ridiculous at the time after it opened at Halloween in 1985, which was why an even crazier sequel soon hit screens only a year later. This film had Dario Argento’s bloody fingerprints all over it, despite the fact that directorial duties were firmly handed over to Lamberto Bava here: a capable journeyman who had been a second unit director on a number of Italian classics made down the decades by both his father Mario (“Diabolik”, “Lisa and the Devil”, “Rabid Dogs”) and Argento himself (“Four Flies on Grey Velvet”, “Inferno”, “Tenebrea”), but who had never really made good on the promise shown in his superior psychological thriller directorial debut “Macabre” and the blood-drenched ‘80s giallo “A Blade in the Dark”. Veteran screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti came up with the ‘idea’ for the film as a favour to the floundering Lamberto when it originally still formed only one part of three segments in a proposed anthology collection. Lamberto liked this first idea so much that he decided to expand it to feature length; but after Dario Argento’s newly formed DAC production company took up the reins on developing the project, Sacchetti declined any further involvement (Argento and Sacchetti had fallen out during the making of “Inferno”) and Argento’s new scriptwriting collaborator on “Phenomena” (then his most recent film) came on-board to co-write the screenplay alongside Bava and Argento himself.
Since it was now at the mercy of three minds as constitutionally averse to such standard screenwriting mainstays as characterisation and logical plot development, it is little wonder that “Demons” turned out to be the bewilderingly illogical and perverse joy ride down the byways of bad taste contemporary horror that it is. Everything about the film is unrepentantly over the top, tasteless and garish to the max -- from the fashions and the preposterous acting, to the mix n’ match eighties ‘jukebox’ soundtrack and Sergio Stivaletti’s cartoony splatter effects and animatronics (for which the film acts as a veritable showcase). The mid 1980s was also the period when everyone suddenly discovered ‘postmodernism’ en masse -- which, simply put, meant that movies and TV shows developed an overtly knowing, self-reflexive, ironic attitude to their own content, and a tendency to smugly reference other works constantly, not in a subtle and understated way (which was how filmmakers and writers had always done it before) but in a shriekingly blunt and gratuitously obvious one. “Demons” is a set-piece movie in which genre fans could make a fast-inebriating drinking game out of the number of references to other films that crop up during the course of the proceedings; even Simonetti’s title theme re-cycles a riff from his own work for “Tenebrea” for goodness sakes! Mainly though, Lamberto uses the opportunity to homage the work of his patron Dario Argento at every conceivable opportunity (minus the elegance and baroque stylisation, of course). Thus the film is splashed in the dp Gianlorenzo Battaglia’s “Suspiria” imitation red and blue gel lighting and Argento’s daughter Fiore is even cast as a victim-turned-demon, although she lasts considerably longer here than she did in her father’s previous film, in which she was decapitated at the end of the very first reel.
The opening scene delivers us into standard Argento territory, with a naïve-looking young female music student arriving in Berlin, alone and scared and being menaced by a robotic man dressed in black and wearing a silver demon half-mask (played by another Argento protégée, Michele Soavi, who was also the assistant director on the film) as she attempts to exit the deserted underground labyrinth at the Heidelberger Platz of the Berlin ‘U-Bahn’ system. It turns out the mystery man (who is never explained, even after he appears again at the end -- although Bava informs us on the commentary that he represents the Devil) is handing out tickets to a screening at a place called the ‘Metropol’ – an incongruously baroque-looking Gothic theatre house dumped in the middle of an otherwise neon-glazed urban landscape of concrete & glass office blocks. The student, Cheryl (Natasha Hovey), teams up with her pal (Paola Cozzo) and they skip their Bartok music lesson in the city in order to attend the preview screening. Beyond the entrence, the interior Tanz Akademie-esque black & white art deco foyer of the Metropol is decorated with classic film posters (Argento’s own “Four Flies on Grey Velvet” shares wall space with Werner Herzog’s remake of “Nosferatu” and Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”) and a strategically-placed display of snazzy rally bike and model figure wielding a Samurai’s Katana -- both of which might just as well come with a placard stating ‘only to be used in the event of over-the-top finale sequence’.
A bad omen, that only dedicated fans of Italian horror will probably pick up on, is that the cinema’s statuesque beauty of an usherette, seen sporting magnificent cascading red pre-Raphaelite (and pre-Rebekah Brooks) curls, is the grown-up version of Nicoletta Elmi, who formerly appeared in “Deep Red”, “Baron Blood” and “Bay of Blood” as’70s Italian cinema’s most unnaturally creepy kid, but is now transformed here into a sultry, willowy starlet. A plethora of thinly sketched audience members are also introduced as later demon-fodder: from the suave, Saturday Night Fever-style, white suit-wearing black pimp and his two ’employees’, to the suited elderly blind man (in a role originally written for Vincent Price) who takes his glamorous niece along to the screening so that she can provide him with a running commentary on the film, unaware that she has arranged an assignation with a lover, who then continues to grope her in the next seat along while the blind gent requests clarification on plot details! Two smarmy casuals (Urbano Barberini and Karl Zinny) try to come on to Cheryl and Kathy with a display of their knack for taming the lobby’s Cola machine, but their efforts are interrupted when the film starts in the auditorium and it turns out to be a horror movie about the lost burial site of Nostradamus. One of the female audience members earlier scratched themselves on the demon mask prop in the foyer, and when someone does the same thing in the film and suddenly becomes possessed by a drooling, fanged demonic entity as a result, the transformation is mirrored by the one that simultaneously happens to her, and the demonic plague erupts from the screen into the real world.
This rather direct reference to the-then current Video Nasty controversy, in which screen violence ‘causes’ its likeness in reality, is initially rather cleverly satirised, as the efforts of the on-screen killer in the film-within-a-film to slice his way through the canvas of the tent which a prospective victim has taken cover in, corresponds with the atmospheric demonic transformation going on behind the screen, so that the tearing of the tent canvass maps onto the demon tearing through the projected image with its elongated fingernails. Stivaletti’s make-up and animatronic effects are more cartoony than scary, with cinema patrons becoming snaggletoothed, hissing, boggle-eyed gargoyles, attended by postulating, swelling and exploding cankers which erupt from their faces and mouths in a sickly rainbow spectrum of green and violet puss & bile, as well as the expected bloody reds.
The aesthetic is very different, for example, from Lucio Fulci’s gritty, sordid way of lingering his shots on putrefying guts and maggoty gore, although there are still a few sequences which pack a nasty punch all these years later, including a gruesome ‘scalping’ scene and the sequence in which the blind man has his already useless eyes graphically gouged out of his skull by the grinning, long-fingered demon played by Geretta Giancarlo. The carnage in the theatre, which takes up most of the rest of the running time as the audience members form groups and attempt to find a way out through the labyrinth of garishly lit screening rooms and foyer corridors, avoiding the expanding army of transformed demons while finding out along the way that the projector room is apparently being run automatically without human oversight (in another jokey self-reflexive moment, when they smash the projector up and the theatre film finally stops dead, the moment is used as the real film's intermission break point!) – all this action is broken up with trips outside where we join some coke-snorting hoods and their punkette girlfriend on a night ride through the city in a stolen hot-wired vehicle (the gang members even snort their cocaine from a Coca Cola can -- surly the company’s most ill-judged acceptance of a product placement endorsement ever!) who end up breaking in to the theatre in order to escape some pursuing cops, and inadvertently let the demon plague outside.
The completely meaningless plot never stoops to even attempting to explain any of the catalogue of crazy events which make up the pretext for its gory set-pieces, all crowned by the inevitable motorbike ride down the cinema isles and across the seating, with sleeveless Rambo-like hero ludicrously shown decapitating sundry drooling demons by the cartload, and an end reel involving a helicopter crashing through the theatre roof into the auditorium. It’s relentlessly daft and enjoyably brash, a bad taste extravaganza in every conceivable way soundtracked by a relentless bombardment of awful ‘80s music by the likes of quintessential Hair Metal meisters Mötley Crüe, clod-hoping Yorkshire Metal gods Saxon, and then-current automated pop tosh by the likes Go West and hairspray & bleach punk rocker Billy idol. It’s a slick package of ‘80s obsessions that shows its age more than most films from the era, but remains nonetheless superficially enjoyable, even if it does technically represent the near nadir of Dario Argento’s ‘80s output, arguably having far more of an influence on the feel and style of his later work than one would ever have countenanced or thought healthy, such as the recent, almost equally hokey “Mother of Tears”, for instance.
Re-mastered from original camera negatives by the archive foundation Cineeteca di Bologna, “Demons” now looks pristine and vibrant, especially in the Suspiria-esque colour-drenched sequences shot in the cinema interior near De Paolis Studios in Rome. Optional mono English and Italian soundtracks (both with their own English subtitles) are included, and both sounding loud and strong. The film is restored to its glossy former glory and fans of this cheesy opus will be very happy with the results. We also get two commentaries, both of them featuring Lamberto Bava and Sergio Stivaletti. The first is a slightly stilted affair with journalist Loris Curci moderating. This gets going after a while but the funniest moments (although unintentional) come when Curci tries to get clarification about what is meant to be happening in certain areas of the plot, to which Bava’s only answer is a hesitant mumble and then embarrassed silence! The second commentary also features Bava and Stivaletti but is a lot more fun and full of much more information and anecdote, mainly because the two are also joined by actress Geretta Giancarlo (talking in both English and fluent Italian) who turns out to be extremely ebullient and a much abler moderator, full of interesting questions and observations about the shoot. The whole thing benefits from being almost all in Italian with English subtitles, and is much more free flowing and fluent since Bava isn’t forced to rely on his own limited grasp of English or on others to translate for him.
“Dario’s Demon Days” is a 10 minute interview with producer Dario Argento, who talks about how he became involved with the project and how easy he found collaborating with Bava on the writing of the first film, but that the second was much more difficult. He contrasts Lamberto Bava’s driven approach to his work to Bava’s father Mario’s much more laid back attitude and claims that his name was only prominently attached to the films (Dario Argento presents!) because of the distributors’ wishes.
“Defining an Era in Music” is a 9 minute interview with Claudio Simonetti talking about his first full score (for “Demons”) under his own name, and how Dario left him to his own devices during the writing process because their past collaboration on Argento’s own films inclined him to feel Simonetti could be trusted to work alone. He contrasts the techniques and synth sounds he was interested in back in the mid-80s with the approach he would take now, but likes the fact that he can attach a specific decade to many of his scores because of the evolving methods he uses in his work -- which often tie them to specific innovations in technology from a certain year.
Finally “Luigi Cozzi’s Top Italian Horrors” features the producer and friend of Argento listing his personal high points from the Italian Horror genre, starting in the 1940s with a rare film by Mario Soldati called “Malombra” and ending with Michele Soavi’s “Dellamorte Dellamore” -- with special mentions for “The House with the Laughing Windows” and “The Mill of the Stone Women” along the way.
“Demons” gets the full Arrow treatment here with five alternative sleeve images, a fold-out poster, a booklet of writings by journalist Calum Wadell and the first part of a two-part collector’s comic book -- “Demons 3”, in which writers Stefan Hutchinson and Barry Keating attempt to provide the ultimate prequel/sequel to the two films, which starts in 16th century France with Nostradamus’ visions of the demonic future to come. This highly collectable addition comes with artwork by Jeff Zornow and Peter Fielding.
A suburb presentation with a mighty package of extras -- both with the disc as well as on it -- “Demons” is a must-have release, available in a limited edition Blu-ray and a DVD version, and as a Limited Edition Blu-ray Steelbook combining the release of “Demons” and “Demons 2” in one package. Highly recommended.