(Unrated, 89 mins., Ascot Films, U.S. release date: May 30, 1986)
"The sleep of reason gives birth to monsters."
A nervous schoolgirl named Cheryl (Natasha Hovey) steps off the subway train headed to West Berlin, uncertain of where to go next and too choked up to ask for directions from strangers. Her anxiety only gets worse when she hears the faint sounds of what she presumes to be a stalker headed her way, a badly scarred man with a metallic face plate, swinging a canister. Fearfully, Cheryl runs towards the upper platform of the station and encounters her silent pursuer, whose only interest is handing her a golden comp ticket to a 6:00 P.M. screening at the Metropol cinema. She sweetly asks if he can offer a spare ticket for her friend as well as whether or not his costume is simply promotional. He says nothing, but Cheryl does meet up with her chum, Kathy (Paola Cozzo), and the two agree to take in a flick for an innocent diversion.
It's the perfect set-up for a movie like Demons (Demoni), the kind of reliably sensationalist splatter flick one would conceivably skip school for, or at least partake in on a sick day. Even better is that this Italian effort has a big-name pedigree which involves the son of a legendary genre icon, Lamberto "il figlio di Mario" Bava, as well as the iconic Dario Argento, here branching out as a producer in the wake of several renowned forays into lurid, gruesome murder mysteries such as Deep Red, Suspiria and Tenebre. Argento's involvement alone puts it in a higher tier than the kind of cheap marinara massacres one would expect from such an industry. However, the story goes that Argento climbed aboard this primarily for securing the finances to finish off his current passion project, Phenomena (Creepers), which starred Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasance and vast swarms of flies.
The swanky Metropol turns out to be a previously rundown site newly renovated, and a crowd gathers to experience its grand re-opening. Among the patrons are a diverse lot which includes a bickering middle-aged couple on their anniversary, a blind man and his seeing-eye wife (who goes off to shag a random man behind the curtains) and, the fan favorite, Tony the Pimp (Bobby Rhodes), all gruff and tuft with his chrome dome, unshaved side burns and mile-long moustache. Cheryl and Kathy are even given a couple of studly date fodder in the form of buddies George (Urbano Barberini) and Ken (Karl Zinny). The movie they're watching is some schlock about a group of curious kids bent on uncovering the tomb of Nostradamus, but an isolated incident in the lobby, wherein one of Tony's lady friends scratched herself on a prop mask, starts to take on an eerie significance when the exact action occurs in the film.
Said hooker, Rosemary (Geretta Geretta, here credited as Geretta Giancarlo), goes to bathroom to freshen up when her wound resumes bleeding, but it becomes a pustule and her flesh starts to mutate into something inhumanly gross. And with that one sickening Sergio Stivaletti special effect, Demons starts a jaw-dropping crusade to raise the rafters in unrelenting chaos. Rosemary's possession proves contagious as countless theatergoers are mauled by and morph into slime-spewing, glowy-eyed maniacs, leaving the young quartet at the center to desperately barricade themselves from the threat in the manner of a Romero zombie film.
Written by the team of Bava, Argento, Phenomena co-writer Franco Ferrini, and the prolific Dardano Sacchetti, Demons has quite a lot of parallels to the Pittsburgh iconoclast's undead oeuvre, something unavoidable given Argento's involvement with Dawn of the Dead. There are also echoes of Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead in the roving "force" POV camera movement, fresh-faced young protagonists and its unwavering devotion to the goopy, grimy carnage on display. However, the movie's most novel twist involves the juxtaposition of manufactured monstrosities (here represented in the exhibited film as simply knife-wielding psychos, hardly demonic in the purest terms of folklore) with the unspooling violence in the Metropol. The most bracing example occurs when Rosemary's friend, Carmen (Fabiola Toledo), takes a claw to the throat and screams for help from behind the movie screen, the timid Kathy being the only one who senses danger (Ken assures her "It's just the Dolby system," a nod to the fact that this was the first Italian film with a proper Dolby Stereo mix).
This gimmick would be recycled by the late Spaniard Bigas Luna in Anguish (Angustia), wherein Michael Lerner's serial compulsion to carve out and collect human eyes is rendered hypnotic and contributes to the dementia of innocent teens and disturbed adults. But Luna was more portentous in trying for an artsy kind of meta-commentary, whereas Lamberto Bava doesn't kid himself that his Grand Guignol glee has any higher ambitions than the typical movie house of your fancy, be it the inner-city grindhouse or middle-of-nowhere drive-in.
Carmen's extended transformation also invites comparison to Rick Baker's game-changing prosthetics from An American Werewolf in London, with its inflating pockets of flesh, red-tinted contact lenses, ginsu press-on fingernails, and lingering close-ups of demon fangs bursting from the gums of the possessed. But DP Gianlorenzo Battaglia lends an atmospheric lighting scheme that helps to mesh with Stivaletti's queasy make-up designs in a pulpy if puke-worthy form of elegance, something missing from the film's hurried-up sequel Demons 2 a year later. In quick succession, necks are torn apart, eyes are gouged out and scalps are ripped off as the audience members run for their lives, only to find all of the exits mysteriously bricked off.
And then there's the coterie of punk caricatures, straight out of a Return of the Living Dead rip-off, cruising around in a stolen car with the likes of Go West and Billy Idol blaring on the radio (they must have hot-wired a 1963 Chrysalis), passing around a Coke can which they sip through their noses. "Coke adds life," like they say…or to put it more bluntly as the alpha of the bunch, a charming fellow named Ripper (Pasqualino Salemme), enthuses, "This shit‘d wake up the dead!" Ripper doesn't take kindly when his sidekicks spill their narcotic refreshment, demanding they scrape up every gram from the upholstery. This leads to the unforgettable gag, one which trumps Lucio Fulci (The New York Ripper), wherein the hambone goonie Baby Pig (Peter Pitsch) teases the exposed, powdered tit of Nina (Bettina Ciampolini) with a razorblade, her face scrunched up in a vaguely stimulated sneer.
Watching Demons, you can't proclaim Lamberto Bava a master of horror on the level of Mario Bava or Dario Argento, both of whom he clearly tries to emulate to an uncertain degree, but you end up admiring his unrelenting, spartan tastelessness. Tony the Pimp rallies up the frightened survivors into the mechanically-operated projection booth only to suggest they "Smash everything!" thinking that the film itself is to blame. Leave it to the blind man, now officially with holes where his failing orbs once resided, to declare like a Greek oracle, "It's the theater!" Two heavy-petting youths (one of whom is played by Fiore Argento, leaving Asia to pick up the nepotistic slack for part two) split apart from the group and crawl through a vent shaft looking for an escape, with unexpected, disastrous results. And the Outlaw of Gor himself becomes a one-man army with the aid of a motorbike and katana on loan from the foyer, cutting down most all of the ghoulies until salvation rears its untimely (and unbelievable) head.
Like Dario Argento's own Phenomena, Demons is unmistakably a transitional film in terms of 1980s trends creeping in to the aesthetic choices, case in point being the pop song-studded soundtrack. Well, not exactly pop (as evidenced earlier in what the punks are listening to), but more heavy metal as you can clearly hear the likes of Motley Crue, Accept and Saxon crunching up the show with their own "instruments of evil." Rick Springfield and The Scorpions are also listed in the credits, but they only use a droning, instrumental sample of the former's "Walking on the Edge," and the latter's "Dynamite," used in the original Italian track when the panicked patrons try to break free, was replaced entirely by Pretty Maids' "Night Danger" in English-language versions. The incidental music, meanwhile, are original compositions of Goblin vet Claudio Simonetti, whose electronic grunts and growls are just dandy.
Also worth noting are the appearances of former child star Nicoletta Elmi, who appeared in Bava's Bay of Blood (or Twitch of the Death Nerve) and Argento's Deep Red, as the ginger-haired usherette who's introduced caressing her stocking-clad leg, and another key figure in the Italian horror boom, Michele Soavi, in a dual role as the creepy Phantom of the Metro and one of the characters in the movie-within-the-movie. Soavi would soon graduate from minor acting roles and assistant directing gigs, like on this one, to making a splash with the body count thriller Deliria (Stage Fright), the official third Demons entry known mainly as The Church and the surrealist zombie classic Dellamorte Dellamore (Cemetery Man).
Demons is in the grand tradition of proudly illogical Italian horror cinema, replete with stubbornly archetypical characters, a plot more interested in sensory provision than sensible progression and an apocalyptic dénouement which sets the town ablaze and leaves you with one more jolt which makes you wonder why they even bothered with a Demons 2. That film was a beat-for-beat rehash which had all the thrill of a roller coaster trolley going up the peak, only to retreat and return to its starting position. The original Demons is pure amusement park spectacle, loopy and loud and demanding you just go with the flow. And like all the best strange entertainments, it keeps you coming back for more.
Sentimental me, I can recall seeing this for the first time on VHS via New World Video when I rented it in a video store in Zephyrhills, Florida, about 30 miles or so away from my birth town of Port Richey. Oh, sweet Jesus, did I feel like this was the movie of my dreams! The funny thing is this new Blu-Ray/DVD combo release from Synapse includes the American monaural soundtrack that has noticeably alternate dubbing compared to the English stereo mix familiar to the digital video market. You'll notice the voices and dialogue between Ripper and his gang are the clearest anomaly when you compare the two. Was that the version I saw as a teen boy? I'm betting that it's so, based solely on Baby Pig's jokey invocation of "Count Dracula" when the gang concern themselves with the noises coming from the theater.
Anyway, the two BD versions of Demons available now that are worth seeking out are either Synapse Films' 3000-limited Collector's Edition Steelbook, which has yet to be an official release in the typical Amaray case format, or Arrow Video's own in Britain. Both films offer solid high-definition transfers from archived negatives, but the Synapse team sunk in a lot of money to color-correct the film and remove transfer flaws. In fact, their Herculean efforts can be researched on their official site, which also delves into some specifics about the aforementioned mono track that further perplexes me. Oddly enough, barring the purist impulse to listen to the film in its native tongue, the mono mix, which is exclusive to the Synapse release, feels like the more natural option than the English stereo track. Still, couldn't they have found someone better to speak for Urbano Barberini? It's like hearing Christopher George talking over William Zabka.
The extras are also quite different between the US and UK editions. Synapse wins out with exclusive interviews from Lamberto Bava, Dario Argento and stuntman Ottaviano Dell'Acqua, alongside the more scholarly musings of both Luigi Cozzi, who also appears on Arrow's disc to recount his ten favorite horror films, and Alan Jones. Arrow films imported the old Anchor Bay audio commentary track with Bava and Sergio Stivaletti, which was always an awkward sit seeing as how they needed English-speaking moderators to carry them along. Luckily, a second, subtitled commentary shows Bava and Stivaletti more relaxed and abetted by Claudio Simonetti and Geretta "Ciancarlo." Synapse have opted to include the latter, thankfully, which needs the looser presence of Bava and the giddy humor of Geretta.
The Arrow version somehow skimped out on the original trailers, a problem not lost on Synapse.