If you’re an old school horror fan you’ll know all about the censorship impositions of the MPAA and BBFC during the early 1980s, a tabloid-driven crusade that would, in a somewhat duplicitous fashion, tar modern horror with the dirty brush. The slasher genre, in particular, came under scrutiny in the United States, the release and subsequent banning of 1984’s festive slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night proving the straw that broke the reindeer’s back after parent groups took to the streets in protest. Influential critics and Jason Voorhees detractors Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel also played their part, going as far as reading out the names of those responsible for the film on TV. This led to an immediate cull of blood and guts suburban horror, one that saw the genre exploring supernatural avenues or resorting to self-parody.
Over in the UK, the efforts of hard-line social conservative Mary Whitehouse led to an almost puritanical onslaught on creative freedoms. The subject was initially 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. 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’ during a period of industrial upheaval. Personally, I don’t know which is scarier.
It all seems just a little silly in hindsight. Of all the ‘nasties’ subjected to such prudery, 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, Dedodato labelled a sadist by cast and crew members during a remorseless shoot that pushed ethical boundaries to the absolute hilt. As well as killing real animals, the filmmaker neglected to pay native extras while subjecting them 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 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.
Originally planned as part of a three-story anthology but ultimately developed as a separate feature by co-screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti, Lamberto Bava’s Demons is in some ways a playful affront to censorship hysteria, perhaps a direct reaction 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 with a ferocity that leaves you gasping for air.
That period saw the rise of MTV-inspired, medium crossover 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. It’s also a consciously fashionable movie shot on location in Berlin and Rome. 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 on any serious level, even if some of Sergio Stivaletti’s gloriously repugnant practical effects are enough to push the bile to the tip of your tongue and then some.
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 protégé and future Stage Fright director 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. An effective, if almost meaningless tension-fuelled chase follows. When the man finally catches up with the girl, he hands her a ticket to a local theatre. No more information is provided, but the man has been handing out tickets all over the city, and soon enough an eclectic gaggle of fashionable 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.
Adopting a concept that draws parallels between fiction and ‘reality’, the film’s basic plot is mirrored in the feature presentation shown to the movie’s fictional audience, which acts as a 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 disaster, 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 toys with some interesting ideas, but the rest of the movie is all about mindless indulgence, the melodramatic acting and lousy dubbing only adding to its glorious B-movie charm. So quickfire and without motive is the violence that you become desensitised to it almost immediately. As scalps are torn off and eyeballs gouged out 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 neon swathes, but everything else is completely haphazard, and for the most part enchantingly so.
Adding to the movie’s narrative dissonance, there’s a tacked-on sub-narrative involving a gang of no-good punk rockers who cruise the neon streets for no other reason than to cram in a few modern and wildly inappropriate pop hits, quarrelling and pushing the limits of decency by snorting cocaine from an empty Coca-Cola can through a straw. Get it? Me neither. But if you’re looking for 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 gore-laden insanity.
Demons loses its way pretty rapidly, beginning as an avant-garde fashionista with high-brow conceptual flourishes and descending into pure, visceral madness like a hopeless psychotic dipped in acid-laced amphetamines. Your best bet is to abandon all hope for conventional storytelling, engaging characterisation, even basic logicality. Demons barely works as a traditional horror, with few attempts to build any genuine tension. It’s a fun, all-out splatterfest designed to disgust at a furious, unapologetic rate, and in those terms it has very few peers.
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 re-tread with some of the same cast members which I enjoyed even more, partly because it continued the self-reflexive angle in a manner reminiscent of 1998’s iconic Japanese horror Ringu, but mostly due to the addition of a ridiculous demon dog, a seriously evil demon child, and an absolutely ludicrous sub-narrative involving a gang of musclebound gym rats 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 a betting man, I’d wager he had them shipped to the set by the truckload.