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.Demons-blu

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 goDemons-01 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 Demons-02nice­ly, 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 sDemons-03hort, 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.