The Film: 4/5
If you happen to be my age or hovering around that magical number you might just be old enough to vaguely recall the time when the best (when it comes to being completely lurid, stupid, and nonsensical) exploitation films known to civilized hominids emerged from the wondrous and archaically sexist land of Italy. However when the home video boom started to wipe out the drive-in and grindhouse theaters of the world the market soon dried up faster than the talent reserve of Gerardo Mejía. The movies got less sexual, less violent, and eventually just less. No genre of Italian cinema felt the impact of this sea change deeper than horror; by the mid-point of the 1980's Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento were starting to produce films nowhere nearly as memorable as the masterpieces that provided the foundation for their status as gods of the genre. As for the grand master of them all, the legendary Mario Bava... well he died just as the decade was beginning. Thus he was spared the saddening image of watching the genre in which he found his greatest success in his native land disappear into a dark chasm of despair, lousy gore effects, and crudely unintentional hilarity
The task fell to Bava's son Lamberto, who had previously co-written his father's cinematic farewell Shock (aka Beyond the Door II) and written and directed his debut feature Macabre as well as the unexceptional giallo A Blade in the Dark and the pretty damn cool actioner The Blastfighter, to give Italian horror a proper send-off. Teaming up with Argento (who also produced) as well as Dardano Sacchetti (The Beyond) and Franco Ferrini (Once Upon a Time in America), Bava hashed out the script for what would become the most popular and enduring film of his career - 1985's Demons, a highly derivative but nonetheless shamelessly entertaining protein shake of a motion picture that tosses the high-speed horrors of the original Evil Dead and several George Romero zombie flicks (which were beloved in Italy - Dawn of the Dead was also produced by Dario Argento!) into a blender and adds in some insane action sequences and a soundtrack loaded with fist-pumping hard rock and New Wave junk for extra flavoring.
Demons didn't set the international box office on fire in '85 but it did well enough in theaters and on video to warrant a sequel - titled Demons 2, naturally - that was rushed into production and onto cinema screens barely a year after the release of the original (and I use that term quite loosely) and about the same time Demons was premiering in U.S. video stores. The law of diminishing returns (and ticket receipts) dictated that Demons 2 be practically a carbon copy of the first movie with a change in location and a reduction in graphic carnage to qualify for a more finance-friendly rating in those all-important moviegoing markets. The result is one of the most disappointing sequels ever made for a horror classic.
I'm getting far too ahead of myself here. Demons gets things off to a rousing start when Cheryl (Natasha Hovey), a student attending college in Berlin, receives an invitation to a mystery film screening at the grand Metropol theater by a man whose face is half-concealed by metal (Michele Soavi, the future director of The Church and Dellamorte Dellamore). She manages to snag an extra pass for her friend Kathy (Paola Cozzo). That evening at the theater the patrons assemble in the Metropol lobby to gaze at original props from the film they're about to see, including a creepy metallic mask that scratches Rosemary (Geretta Geretta) when she tries it on. When the screening begins the audience begins to realize that they're watching a horror movie about a group of inquisitive youths who venture into the tomb of the prophet Nostradamus and unleash a horrific evil when one of them tries on a mask found in the tomb and becomes possessed when it scratches him. The same thing happens to Rosemary in the theater bathroom and pretty soon the moviegoers are under attack by a legion of slobbering, murderous ghouls with world domination on their minds.
If that wasn't enough, Bava also cuts away during the mayhem to a group of car thieves lead by Ripper (Lino Salemme) on a coke-fueled joy ride around the city. After all how else could he get a scene featuring a blonde punkette getting Peru's finest marching dust snorted off of her exposed gazongas to the tune of the Billy Idol classic "White Wedding" (a song I used to associate with the tattoo parlor scene from True Romance until I first saw Demons) into his carefully-crafted narrative? As Bill Maher might say, oh I kid Lamberto Bava! Back at the Metropol the chaotic bloodshed continues to mount as one by one, and later ten by ten, the theater patrons become flesh-ripping demons. Eventually only Cheryl and her unlikely date George (Urbano Barberini, and no he wasn't one of the original Sweathogs) remain to fight off the growing horde of horrendous hell babies with the use of convenient motorcycle and sword props and the best choice of demon-slaying music imaginable - "Fast as a Shark" by Accept from their 1982 album Restless and Wild. What follows is hard to describe to the unprepared mind but regardless is one of the most badass scenes in the history of horror cinema, and it's just the beginning of a crazy finale whose parting shots could have set the stage for a sequel to rival The Empire Strikes Back and Troll 2 in terms of sheer awesomeness.
Instead we got Demons 2, which is sort of like hiring Metallica to play a private concert in your backyard and getting Creed by mistake. And instead of having the events of the sequel follow those of the original, everything that happened in the first Demons lives on as a movie being broadcast one evening to the inhabitants of an apartment high-rise. Spoiled brat Sally (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni) decides to catch a bit of the movie on TV after throwing a hissy over her boyfriend not showing up for her birthday party. A demon in the film notices Sally and takes the initiative of crawling out of the idiot box (in an image that both recalls Cronenberg's Videodrome and pre-dates Ringu) so it can possess a few genuine idiots. Before long most of the apartment dwellers are demons and only a few are left to mount an effective defense against yet another army of hellspawn. When I say "effective" what I really mean is "abject fucking failure" and it is then left to pregnant marrieds George (David Knight) and Hannah (Nancy Brilli) to save the day.
Demons has outrageous gore, atrocious English dubbing, comical Italian machismo, and enough left-field plot twists to make Berlusconi celibate. Demons 2 has.... atrocious English dubbing. And terrible characters you will never give a shit about. The Pope would want these sorry fuckers to die gruesome deaths. You know, Pope Francis. The cool Pope. It also has some really goofy shit happening that shouldn't, like possessed kids, a possessed dog, and a weird-ass puppet demon in a pathetic attempt to belatedly cash in on the success of Gremlins. Kids will just love it! Demons 2 won't make you hate life itself because there's enough residual lunacy held over from the original to keep this a strictly lightweight but no less entertaining affair. Both movies feature inspired special effects sequences overseen by Italian FX great Sergio Stivaletti, whose work on Argento's late-period movies were usually the highlights of those godawful affairs. The first Demons has plenty of spewed bile and shredded flesh to give it a deserved place in the Italian horror hall of fame (if one exists) and some gloriously repulsive transformations where Bava is wise to keep his camera focused on even when the effect becomes all too obvious. Such is the risk you take when you watch a movie like this in high-definition.
Even when the plotting of the Demons movies is shaky and full of enough holes to qualify as a Republican pork project Bava's energetic direction keeps things from getting dull. In certain scenes the man proves he is his father's son by valuing the establishment of atmosphere and bathing his spectacularly horrific sights in lurid primary colors. The quality of the acting is at best serviceable and at worst so bad not even the humor unexpectedly generated by the mismatched English language dialogue can do it much justice. The great Bobby Rhodes appears in both movies as aggressively macho assholes who step forward to assume a leadership position when the demon shit goes down. In the first he's an abrasive pimp complete with a handy switchblade and a hilarious loud white suit that Iceberg Slim might think was too much. When he returned for Demons 2 Rhodes was cast in the role of an obnoxious musclehead gym manager who rallies his fellow numbnut beefcake bozos into battle against the demonic hordes. In both roles Rhodes is a legendary trip, bringing plenty of campy bravado and rightfully earning his place in the pantheon of unlikely cult film icons. The female characters in both Demons movies don't put up much of a fight and overall are there to cower and scream, but then again these are Italian flicks and "the Boot" loves for its celluloid sausage parties to be extra meaty and spicy. And fuck decades of progress for women all over the world, right?
Goblin keyboardist Claudio Simonetti composed the propulsive score for Demons, while Simon Boswell's musical contributions to Demons 2 is a decidedly more Gothic and guitar-and-sax-driven soundtrack. Both scores fit the dark yet goofy proceedings of their respective features perfectly. The composers remain active on the international genre film music scene to this day, with Simonetti's scores for many of Argento's later films standing out while Boswell has become a noted creative collaborator of celebrated filmmakers like Richard Stanley (Dust Devil), Clive Barker (Lord of Illusions), Álex de la Iglesia (Perdita Durango), and Alejandro Jodorowsky (Sante Sangre). Their music intermingles beautifully with the eclectic soundtracks for both movies: Demons gets a line-up that includes tracks from Rick Springfield, Motley Crue, Go West, and Saxon, while the sequel is saddled with a rather Goth-y selection featuring Dead Can Dance, The Cult, and Love and Rockets.
I own a steelbook Blu-ray release of the first two Demons films released by Arrow Video back in 2012 and their video and audio presentations were fantastic and far exceeded any of the U.S. home video editions released to date. Leave it to Synapse Films, which first unleashed their long-awaited restorations of Demons and Demons 2 late last year in snazzy steelbook editions available in limited quantities exclusively at their website, to outclass the competition once again. Between the double Demons onslaught and their recent Blu-ray releases of Curtains and Prom Night Synapse has become the gold standard of home video horror in America.
These editions of Demons and Demons 2 I'm reviewing are standard retailer discs that feature the same cover art used for past DVDs released by Anchor Bay, rather than the cool new artwork created for the 2013 Synapse steelbooks. They are also lacking in other departments (keep on reading) but both discs retain the outstanding transfers framed in their original 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio. For each transfer the original 35mm negatives were scanned in 1080p high-definition and personally color-corrected by Synapse, and the results speak for themselves. The vibrant color schemes and rich filmic texture in the cinematography of Gianlorenzo Battaglia (Miami Golem) look sharper and more alive than ever before and the brightness and black levels have been properly balanced. Maybe you wouldn't consider these transfers perfect, but in my estimation they're as close to perfect as we're likely ever to see for these films.
For these "movie only" Blu-rays Synapse has dropped the Italian stereo tracks while holding on to both the International and U.S. English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 tracks on Demons and a solitary English track for Demons 2. Purist that I am, it would have been nice for the original Italian language audio to make the cut on both releases, but fortunately the English tracks perform their task well and with little trace of permanent damage or distortion. The dubbed dialogue on Demons' International English track sounds too muffled most of the time so the U.S. track wins out with a much clearer audio mix that also does admirable justice to the hard rock soundtracks. English subtitles have been included for both films.
Sadly Synapse chose not to include any of the great new extra features they produced for the steelbook Blu-ray editions of Demons and Demons 2, including a commentary track for the first film and featurettes for both produced by Calum Waddell's High Rising Productions. Instead all we are given here are trailers for each movie. Seriously?
Synapse Films is to be commended for the extraordinary job they did on their restoration efforts for Demons and Demons 2 because these movies look better than ever, and that is no easy boast. Unfortunately the absence of the great supplements from the 2013 steelbook editions of both features compel me to give these no-frills Blu-rays a very marginal recommendation. If you want to see an 80's Italian horror classic and its decent-but-flawed sequel in their greatest home video presentations without the benefit of worthwhile bonus features to back up the A/V upgrades, then at least these discs won't set you back as much as the steelbooks. That's the best I can do, folks.