"They will make cemeteries their cathedrals and the cities will be your tombs"
A pair of students decide to ditch their evening class after being given two free tickets to an unknown movie at the recently re-opened Metropol Theatre in Berlin. During the screening of the movie about people turning into demons after opening a tomb, one of the attendees cuts themselves on a prop metal mask from the film that is being displayed in the theatre foyer. This causes them to be transformed into a demon and they start slaughtering members of the audience, who in turn become demons too. When the other people in the audience try to escape, they find that the exit doors have been sealed and that they are now trapped inside the theatre with a horde of demons after them.
Demons was one of my first forays into Italian horror – I think Zombie Flesh Eaters was first – and I certainly had no idea what to expect. Growing up on a strict diet of British (good old Hammer) and American horrors, it can be a little jarring to dive into the world of Italian horror cinema, where plot is less rigid, logic is not as strictly adhered to, and writers aren’t confined by well-established tropes. Demons is the perfect embodiment of everything that made the Italian horrors of the 80s so ridiculously entertaining, yet so perplexing and puzzling at the same time.
Director Lamberto Bava cited this as his personal favourite out of all of the films that he has directed and it’s easy to see why. The simplistic plot, sort of like a Night of the Living Dead-style siege flick with demons instead of zombies, is easy to follow though incomprehensible to fathom out. Its utterly absurd, with the writers using literally anything they can think of to write themselves out of a hole and expecting the audience to buy it (the helicopter crashing through the roof for no other reason than to provide the survivors with a way to escape is the obvious example). Even the characters make no sense – a shifty-looking usherette appears to be ‘in’ on the whole thing at the start with a load of dodgy close-ups only to fall victim to the demons like everyone else, whilst don’t even get me started on why there’s a blind character going to the cinema. Even the story itself radically changes direction at the end, from a Night of the Living Dead-style siege flick with demons to a post-apocalyptic nightmare in the final scenes. But until you get to that point, Demons has a cracking pace and is full-throttle for the majority of its running time. It does sag a little in the middle once the demons have taken over the theatre and killed off a lot of people but picks the pace back up considerably towards the end where everything-but-the-kitchen-sink is thrown at the screen.
Bava does creating some striking images throughout the film. Used on many of the film’s posters and DVD covers, there’s a brilliant slow-motion shot of the demons walking up the stairs, shrouded in dry ice and eerie blue lighting; their yellow eyes glowing in the dark. The filmmakers used a closed-down movie theatre to shoot inside and it really adds to the production, giving it a sense of scale and grandeur that studio sets would have inhibited. Bava clearly learnt a lot from his famous director father, Mario Bava, and his cinematography is generally atmospheric. Neon lighting, dry ice and shadows and darkness are all used effectively to create plenty of tension and suspense within the confines of the theatre. It’s hardly a film that is going to be known for its atmosphere though and Demons has become an ultimate crowd-pleaser in the gore stakes.
Demons is gruesome and gory, with violence being the name of the game. People don’t just instantly turn into demons, but the transformation is slow and painful. Close-ups of fingernails being forced out of cuticles and teeth being brutally pushed through by sharp fangs will have you squirming. The demons are slobbering monsters, dripping blood and green goo, with pulsating neck wounds, and that scratch and claw away at their victims, ripping apart throats and, in one particularly nasty scene, the eyes of a victim and the scalp of another. The gore is cheesy in some places, but it’s far more convincingly brought to life than plenty of the zombie and cannibal films that Italy was churning out during this time. The body count is high, and the kills are all evenly paced out to keep things exciting and unpredictable. Some characters meet earlier demises than you’d expect. A standout set piece involves a demon hatching through someone’s back – certainly as impressive as any sort of transformation sequence you’d get from Rob Bottin or Rick Baker.
The energetic performances from the cast are embodied by the scene-stealing turn from Bobby Rhodes as a pimp who is only too quick to take charge when things go from bad to worse. I’m not sure whether it’s just the dubbing job done to his character but he’s so aggressive and assertive right from the first scene until his last. Rhodes would return as an unrelated character in the sequel and steals the show again. The two young couples who form the bulk of the main cast are all decent in their roles given the circumstances – trying to comment on acting in a film which is dubbed is a tall order.
Demons not only has a terrific original soundtrack from Claudio Simonetti, one of my favourite Italian composers, with some really catchy tunes (including the title music which is a real earworm), but it also has a bizarre collection of 80s rock and heavy metal from the likes of Motley Crue and Billy Idol which doesn’t quite fit in with some of the sequences they’ve been matched up with. There is an extended sequence featuring a guy on a motorbike with a samurai sword whilst a thundering heavy metal song blasts away in the background.
Like many Italian horror films of the late 70s and 80s, Demons has spawned a ridiculous number of ‘sequels’ – only one true sequel but a whole host of other films which have alternate titles using ‘Demons’ in them. I'll do my best to flag them up in future reviews.
Demons is one of my favourite guilty pleasures – an immensely entertaining horror film with lots of spark and ideas, utterly ridiculous and beyond fathoming at times, and buckets of blood and grisly special effects. A roller coaster ride of epic 80s Italian splatter at it’s finest.
Director(s): Lamberto Bava
Writer(s): Dardano Sacchetti (original story), Dario Argento (screenplay), Lamberto Bava (screenplay)
Actor(s): Urbano Barberini, Natasha Hovey, Karl Zinny, Fiore Argento, Paola Cozzo, Fabiola Toledo
Duration: 88 mins