(1985) Directed by Lamberto Bava; Written by Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava, Dardano Sacchetti and Franco Ferrini; Starring: Urbano Barberini, Natasha Hovey, Karl Zinny and Fiore Argento; Available on DVD
I wanted to start off by expressing my sincerest thanks to Kevin J. Olson at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies for hosting this third annual Italian Horror Blogathon. This is my second go-round, after last year’s review of Cemetery Man, and I don’t feel that I’m any closer to cracking the enigma of Italian horror cinema, but I’m enjoying the ride. This beguiling, often frustrating category keeps me returning for more like some virtual Stockholm Syndrome. This year, I chose to discuss the seminal 1980s gorefest, Demons, from director/co-writer Lamberto (son of Mario) Bava.
Demons doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It plays more like a fever dream than a coherent narrative, with everything rushing by in a sort of hazy blur. I practically hurt my brain, straining to find the subversive social commentary before coming to the realization that there was none to be found. There, I said it. I feel better getting that off my chest. Let’s move on, shall we?
The opening scene takes place in the Berlin subway, where a mute man in a silver mask (Michele Soavi*) hands out passes to a free screening at the Metropole movie theater. Most of the film takes place in the theater, as we observe the patrons clambering for a way out, wishing that they’d stayed at home. There’s something instantly compelling about watching people in a cinema watching another movie, like staring into one of those trick mirrors that show an endless series of mirrors within. The movie-within-a-movie concept has been done before, but never to such gory effect. The audience members derive vicarious thrills by watching a movie (the title is never mentioned) about demons and an ancient prophecy by Nostradamus, until everything gets a little too real on the other side of the screen. Everything quickly devolves into chaos as the action in the theater mimics the atrocities in the film.
* Mr. Soavi (who coincidentally directed Cemetery Man) really earned his paycheck with this movie, by playing two roles in the film, and serving as the assistant director.
Bava commented that he wanted to set his demons apart from the zombies in George Romero’s Living Dead films. Indeed, Demons is faster paced and more frenetic than most other zombie flicks, with the titular creatures possessing a sort of rabid energy. While short on logic or believability, many of the scenes convey a certain manic je ne sais quoi, where absurdity rules supreme. You can’t predict what’s coming next. Some highlights include a fully grown demon emerging from the back of one of the unfortunate theater patrons, and film’s nominal hero, George (Urbano Barberini), riding a motorcycle down the theater aisle while slicing demons apart with a katana. We also witness a group of coke-fueled punks * stumble into the theater, despite the fact that none of the theater-goers seem to be able to find an exit. In another mind-numbingly inexplicable scene, a helicopter suddenly crashes through the theater’s ceiling (asked why, Bava simply replied that he liked the idea).
* In this case, it’s not mere hyperbole. No, really. We witness four punks snorting cocaine from a can of coke. Frankly, I’m surprised the Coca-Cola Company didn’t sue because of that scene. Ahh.. but those were the 80s.
(Spoiler alert: If you want to remain spoiler free, I recommend skipping ahead to the last paragraph.)
In the film’s climax, it’s revealed that the demons are not confined to the theater, but outside (presumably everywhere) as well. This seems to suggest a cause-and-effect relationship between the demon infestation inside and outside the theater, with the movie within a movie being the common link. Is it art imitating life, or life imitating art? Or was everything predestined to happen this way from the start? Demons is short on answers, and doesn’t provide any solace for those who are accustomed to a clear resolution. The only thing that appears certain, by the film’s conclusion, is that there’s nowhere safe to run to.
There’s not a lot to be said about the characters, but that’s probably not the point. The story is told in broad strokes, in which the frenzied audience could be seen as a single character. They react to the demons as one large organism would react to an infectious disease.
Demons works on a primal level, achieving its modest goals successfully. Audiences didn’t go to this for nuanced performances or insightful social commentary. They wanted to see lots of goopy monsters run amok, and their victims meet horrible ends. In this respect it succeeds admirably. It won’t likely change your views about Italian horror and its excesses, but you probably know where you stood with this genre already. Gorehounds and fans of 80s horror will find much to love here; all others need not apply.