The mid-to-late ‘80s was the end of the road for a lot of Italian genre filmmakers. With television on the rise in Europe, both stars and filmmakers moved into series and made-for-t.v. movies. That said, there were still some bright spots on the theatrical side of things during this time. Demons is a noteworthy example as it’s an Italian horror film from this time that not only did well at home but managed to cross over to American theaters and home video. A close look reveals why: its creative braintrust figured out how to weave American horror elements and a certain amount of MTV gloss into its Neapolitan shock-stew.
The plot of Demons isn’t so much a plot as a loose structuring device for a series of gruesome, ever more chaotic setpieces. Cheryl (Natasha Hovey) is gifted with a ticket for a screening at a new theater called the Metropol and snags an extra one for her pal Kathy (Paola Cozzo). They meet up with potential dates in George (Urbano Barberini) and Ken (Karl Zinny) when at the theater — but things get weird when the film unspools.
As a narrative about a haunted, murder-inducing mask unspools on screen, a patron (Geretta Rosemary) who fooled around with a similar mask in the lobby and got cut develops a fast-moving infection that transforms her into a demonic, bloodthirsty killer. As she starts attacking fellow patrons, it causes a psychosis-inducing contagion to spread as our heroic foursome fights to get out of the now mysteriously-locked theater. But if they survive, what if the demonic contagion spreads outside?
Don’t go into Demons looking for classical storytelling values: the characterizations are as deep as a sheet of paper and the film never really bothers to explain the why and how of the demonic contagion. Like many Italian horror films, Demons is best approached as an exercise in macabre style — and on that level, it delivers the goods.
Director Lamberto Bava doesn’t attempt to clone famous father Mario’s style (even though the demon mask is a nice nod to Black Sunday). Instead, he goes for the hard-hitting shock approach of The Evil Dead: Demons is to a certain extent an Italian Evil Dead. He applies the vivid primary colors of producer Dario Argento’s films to a snappily paced, brutal set of killings and attacks that escalate in size and complexity as the film progresses.
It’s interesting to see this approach mixed with an Italian go-for-broke surrealism, like a stunning bit where one hero uses a motorcycle and a samurai sword (!) from the lobby to take on some demons, all underscored by rousing heavy-metal guitar soloing. Bava takes a cue from American horror films by playing up transformation effects with the demon disease. Sergio Stivaletti masterminded the effects for these scenes and they work nicely, including a showstopping sequence where a demon erupts from the back of one unlucky patron. Bava also makes a very American use of music — a beat-heavy, unexpectedly hip hop-tinged score from Claudio Simonetti is offset by songs from Motley Crue, Billy Idol and Saxon.
Though acting is not the primary draw in a film like this, there are a few performances in Demons worth mentioning. For instance, Hovey does a nice version of the kind of wide-eyed, reactive acting that Jessica Harper provided in Suspiria. However, the scene-stealers are Bobby Rhodes as a Fred Williamson-esque patron who fights the demons with street-level toughness and Geretta, who brings a powerful physicality and a frightening visceral intensity to her work as the first of the film’s demon-infected killers.
In short, Demons is a raucous, gory roller coaster ride for horror fans who like that approach. If you can roll with its minimalist/cryptic storyline, the setpieces and the intriguing blend of American and Italian stylistic elements make it a fun shocker. It’s one of the last real highlights of Italian horror from this era and worth the time for anyone doing a survey of Neapolitan frights.
Blu-Ray Notes: this title was previously released by Synapse as a limited blu-ray/DVD steel book edition with extras. More recently, they have done a general release version. The only extra it has is a trailer but it features the same excellent transfer they did for the limited release: it features color correction and other tweaks to improve on the master previously used for the Arrow Films version. It has a nice celluloid texture but looks vibrant in both colors and details. It also boasts two English soundtracks: an international stereo mix and an American mono mix. Both are presented in lossless form and sound great, particularly the stereo version.