Tagline: They will make cemeteries their cathedrals and the cities will be your tombs.
Director: Lamberto Bava
Writers: Dardano Sacchetti, Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava, Franco Ferrini
Starring: Urbano Barberini, Natasha Hovey, Karl Zinny, Fiore Argento, Paola Cozzo
18 | 1h 28min | Horror |
Budget: $1,800,000 (estimated)
If you’re an old school horror fan you’ll know all about the censorship crusades of the MPAA and BBFC during the early 1980s. In fact, I’ve covered the subject many times over, most notably in an article entitled Scream and Scream Again: A Brief History of Video Nasties, which outlined the various machinations behind a tabloid-driven crusade that would tar modern horror with the dirty brush. This was a subject covered in a collection of essays edited by Martin Barker entitled The Video Nasties – Freedom And Censorship In The Media, a rare, out-of-print gem that can go for as much as £150 on the second-hand market, and a tattered paperback copy at that. In short, independent filmmakers were criminalised, movies were banned outright and widespread moral panic ensued, a fact that played into the hands of a UK Conservative government who under ‘Iron Lady’ Margaret Thatcher were promoting a ‘return to Victorian values’. Personally, I don’t know which was scarier.
It all seems just a little silly in hindsight, but at the time it was deadly serious. Of all the ‘nasties’ subjected to such puritanism, perhaps the most famous is Ruggero Deodato’s startling mockumentary Cannibal Holocaust, the tale of a New York anthropologist who ventures into the ‘Heart of Darkness’ in search of a missing crew, only to be confronted by a cannibal tribe in the Amazon. The shoot was a testing experience for all involved and Dedodato was labelled a sadist by cast and crew members. As well as killing real animals during production, native extras were unpaid and subjected to highly dangerous situations, leading actor Robert Kerman to claim, “[Deodato] was a sadist. He was particularly sadistic to people that couldn’t answer back, people that were Colombian, [and] people that were Italian but could be sent home.”
After its Milan premier, Cannibal Holocaust was immediately confiscated by local magistrates and Deodato was arrested and charged with obscenity. So unprepared for the movie’s realistic depictions of death was the movie-going public in the early ’80s that French magazine Photo claimed that certain deaths in the movie were real, insinuating that Deodato had actually taken the lives of cast members for the sake of a $100,000 movie, a claim that led authorities to amend the charges to include murder. It didn’t help that cast members had signed a contract that prevented them from appearing in anything else in order to enforce the film’s sense of realism, a fact that did not escape the courts, who now saw Deodato as a deranged killer who had actively made a ‘snuff’ film. The charges were ultimately dropped due to a lack of evidence, but this incident highlights just how deep the moral panic ran.
In many ways, Lamberto Bava’s Demons is a playful affront to censorship hysteria, perhaps a direct rebellion to the above controversy since Bava acted as assistant director on Deodato’s jungle-bound monument to tasteless slaughter and was almost certainly affected by such events. The movie revels in an almost ceaseless tirade of breakneck, borderline-ridiculous horror, ramping up the gore and indulging in the Thriller-led practical effects revolution of the mid-1980s. That period saw the rise of MTV-inspired filmmaking, the kind made famous by the likes of Top Gun and Flashdance, and for the most part the movie is presented like an extended pop video: its characters are just as pretty and one-dimensional, the premise is just as tenuous and events are presented with a similar detachment from anything even closely resembling reality. If Cannibal Holocaust was an advocate for distressing realism, Demons is the complete antithesis. It makes light of extreme violence. Every frame stresses that what we are experiencing is fiction in the purest sense, and despite its overtly graphic nature it is hard to be offended.
The plot is a simple, yet perplexing one. The movie begins on Berlin’s U-Bahn. A woman exits a subway train in Cold War Germany and senses someone following her. Though this character, played by none other than Dario Argento protege Michelle Soavi, is directly involved with the movie’s climax, we never find out anything about him or his beautiful female counterpart. Both are there as visual embellishments, the latter chic supermodel eye candy, the former a curious avant-garde specimen in a silver half-mask right out of The Phantom of the Opera. When he finally catches up with the girl, the mysterious man hands her a ticket to a local theatre. No more information is given to her, which is presumably why she chases after him and asks for a second one. It turns out that this mysterious man has been handing out tickets all over the city, and an eclectic gaggle of stereotypes turn up to see what all the fuss is about. Once at the theatre, a braided black woman tries on a decorative mask that slices her skin, turning her into the demonic equivalent of Rick James after a month chasing the dragon.
The 80s were a hedonistic decade, and Demons fits right in there with its stylish flourishes and conceptual decadence. The film’s basic plot is mirrored in the feature presentation consumed by the movie’s fictional audience, which acts as a kind of self-reflexive gateway for evil. In our film within a film, four teenagers descend into a mysterious crypt with the kind of vacuous abandon that can only spell trouble, and when one of them tries on an almost identical mask to the one in the theatre, all hell breaks loose within both realities and Bava’s life imitating art concept is complete. So transparent is the film’s commentary on censorship that at one point a newly turned demon wanders behind the screen and tears right through it — the trigger for the movie’s quite incredible descent into all-out bedlam.
Once that conceptual nugget is out of the way, all depth and insight are flushed down the proverbial toilet. Bava’s point having been made, the rest of the movie is all about mindless indulgence, and the melodramatic acting and lousy dubbing is often priceless. So quickfire and without motive is the violence that you become desensitised to it almost immediately. As scalps are torn off and eyeballs are gouged with lavish, bilge-pumping consequences, you consume the almost ceaseless visual tirade like fast food, the occasional belch of incredulity immediately wiped out by the next visual eyesore. Bava possesses obvious visual flair, events often bathed in familiar swathes of primary colours, but everything else is completely haphazard, and for the most part enchantingly so.
There is also a tacked-on sub-narrative involving a gang of no-good punk rockers who cruise the neon-lit streets of Berlin for no other reason than to cram in a few modern pop hits — the ultra-rebellious, Billy Idol led soundtrack is superb — but the fact that they rock out to Go West’s corporate pop hit We Close Our Eyes only serves to detract from their street cred, even if they do snort cocaine from an empty Coca-Cola can through a straw. Get it? No, me neither. But if you’re looking to establish any kind of logic you’re in the wrong place. After all, this is a movie which contrives to get a motocross bike and a helicopter inside a theatre for a couple of bizarre set-pieces as more and more of our cast succumb to the film’s gory madness.
The movie ends on an apocalyptic note, one that Bava curiously neglected to follow-up on in 1987‘s Demons 2, an almost straight-up retread with some of the same cast members which I must admit I enjoyed even more, partly because it continued the self-reflexive angle in a manner reflecting 1998‘s monster-through-appliances, Japanese horror Ringu, but mostly due to the movie’s superior practical effects and an absolutely ludicrous sub-narrative involving a gang of gym-sweating muscleheads that makes the original appear logical by comparison.
Would a post-apocalyptic flick reminiscent of Romero’s Day of the Dead have been a better route to go down? It’s really hard to say because the revelation comes out of nowhere and is over in the blink of an eye with characters who have only just appeared and seems to exist for no other reason than to provide a pre-credits jump-scare. A more pertinent question would be: how many cans of Coke did Bava and his crew get through during production? If I was to guess, I’d say they probably had it shipped to the set by the truck load.
After the screenplay somehow manages to get a helicopter inside the theatre (don’t ask), protagonist John uses the propeller to take out a gang of marauding demons, slicing the tops of their heads clean-off in a cute nod to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.
Most Absurd Moment
Boy are we spoilt for choice in this department! Mysterious masked figures, superfluous punk-rock narratives, ludicrous melodrama, ridiculous dubbing, ostentatious practical effects, absurd plot devices; Demons is a veritable loony bin of a production. Since I can choose only one, I’ll go for the scene in which John and love interest Cheryl mount a motocross bike and rip through the theatre like a wild horse galloping into battle, John wielding a sword and decapitating anything in sight.
Most Absurd Dialogue
Here is just one example of the ludicrously inaccurate dubbing found in Demons. While joyriding through Berlin high on Coca-Cola, two of our stereotypical punks get into a rather heated debate over some spilt cocaine.
Ripper: Shut up! Unless you want me to break your head?
Baby Pig: (in camp voice) Ooooh, that’s Rambo talking, Baby. Oooh, yeaaah. Tough Ripper.
A cavalier, puss-ridden assault on the senses, Demons puts a match to the pressure cooker and runs wildly for the hills. Asides from a cute commentary on censorship hysteria, the movie is a relentless deluge of fast food gore, but if you’ve acquired a taste for pure, mindless horror, this is certainly one for the menu.