(This is another in a series of reviews of movies from the 70s and 80s, part of a small collection of horror and science fiction movies on videotape that I bought at a flea market before Christmas, some of which I haven’t seen at all, others not since they first came out)
Things to know about your Uncle Deggsy, Chapter 44: He loves his pizza. Just about every variety, every flavour, every topping (except olives, they are the Devil’s undeveloped testes), deep pan or thin crust. He loves pizza more than just about anything, except of course his loved ones – mostly. You know those cartoons characters that float on the air while following the scent of an apple pie? That’s me, but with a double pepperoni pizza.
Now, I grew up loving pizzas in America, and so when I eventually visited Italy, the home of the modern pizza, it was like a pilgrimage. But, it may surprise you to know that Italian pizzas are different to American ones: Italians typically use a lighter sauce, usually made from fresh cut or pureed tomatoes, the crust is almost non-existent, the toppings are fewer (and they never mix their meats), and you usually end up eating it with a knife and fork.
But, was I disappointed by the difference? Hell, no! As far as I was concerned, it delivered the goods! Maybe not exactly the way I was used to, but the end result was still delicious! I pity the fool who can’t appreciate diversity.
And which leads me (after a quick detour to put a pizza in the oven) to Italian horror movies, which also for the most part deliver the goods, just usually not in the way you might be accustomed to. It would take another article entirely to cover the subject, whether you focus on its beginnings with 1960’s BLACK SUNDAY (aka THE MASK OF SATAN), starring Barbara Steele and directed by the legendary Mario Bava. the giallo genre, the works of Dario Argento, the Neapolitan zombie gut munchers or the MAD MAX/ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK rip-offs of the 80s. If you’ve not seen one before, all you really need to know is that watching them can feel like you’re in a dream: non-linear, nonsensical, beautiful, claustrophobic, grotesque, and filled with bad dubbing, permed hair and a loud soundtrack.
All of this and more is waiting for you in DEMONS (1985), one of the best of my VHS collection. Directed by Lamberto Bava, son of Mario and protege of the legendary batshit-crazy Dario Argento (who produced and co-wrote this), DEMONS is one hell of a ride. Set in Berlin, it opens with Cheryl (Natasha Hovey), a student on her way to University, who keeps glimpsing a strange man (Michele Soavi, who also polayed assistant director on this, and who would later direct such movies as CEMETARY JUNCTION and THE SECT) in a mask reminiscent of Arnie’s Terminator half-cyborg face. Cheryl flees, but he catches up with her – in order to give her a complimentary movie ticket. She blags another for her friend Kathy (Paola Cozzo), and they decide to skip school and take in a film. Yeah, that’ll work out great, girls, much better than going back to the dorm and showering together (but then it becomes a movie from my other collection).
A large number of other patrons with free tickets turn up for the unnamed movie, including two preppy boys who hit on the girls, a blind guy (Alex Serra) whose daughter Liz (Bettina Ciampolini) gives him audio description of the events on-screen, at least when she’s not sneaking off to make out with her lover (Claudio Spadaro), who has secretly joined them. There’s also a stereotypical black pimp named Tony (Bobby Rhodes, who will appear as a different character in DEMONS 2) and two of his working ladies, Rosemary (Geretta Geretta) and Carmen (Fabiola Toledo), and personally I think it’s really nice that the girls’ manager is decent enough to give them some time off from doing car tricks and Half and Halfs to go to the movies.
The cinema, the Metropol, seems to have only one person running things, an usherette (Nicoletta Elmi, DEEP RED), but it’s fully equipped and even has a prop in the lobby, a working motorbike with a Samurai sword-wielding, masked mannequin. Fucking about with the demonic mask, Rosemary cuts her cheek on a sharp edge inside of it. Soon, the audience settles down and watches the movie – about a quartet of young assholes who break into the tomb of Nostradamus, initiating a prophecy about demons overrunning the Earth when one of them scratches their cheek on a demonic mask they find…
Discovering the cut hasn’t stopped bleeding, Rosemary goes to the ladies’ room, which is a good thing, because there’s more paper towels in there for when her skin bubbles and pustules and spurts goo… and when Carmen seeks out her friend, she finds Rosemary looking like all the pre-menstrual cramps she has ever or will ever have have struck her at once. Rosemary, now fully a demon, claws Carmen’s face and sends the girl stumbling in terror and agony, eventually finding herself behind the movie screen while identical scenes occur on the screen itself. She bursts through the screen, and the audience is forced to witness something even more terrible than MAMMA MIA! in 3-D.
Everyone understandably freaks out en masse, and try to flee, only to find all the doors and exits are fucking bricked up. Tony proves to be a natural leader – hey, pimping ain’t easy, but it sure is fun – and he and the two University girls and the preppy guys band together, guessing that real life is somehow mirroring events in the movie, and that everyone who gets bit or scratched by the ever-growing numbers of demons becomes a demon as well. At first they try to stop everything by shutting down the automated projector, and when that fails, they barricade themselves in the balcony and wait for help.
Meanwhile outside, some punks are driving around Berlin sniffing coke from a Coke can (hah!) and, after spilling some of the nose candy over the punk girl’s breasts (thus offering us lingering shots of the Colombian Marching Powder being gently gathered from her pert puppies with a razor blade to the tune of “White Wedding”), they flee from some cops through a door which opens for them in the back of the Metropol, and then shutting closed again… but not before something from within has sneaked out…
I have watched more than my fair share of Italian horrors, and DEMONS remains at the top of my list. Not having seen it in years, I was surprised with how potent and visceral it remains, partly due to the 100% pure practical effects involved, partly due to the energy and pace, partly due to the killer heavy metal soundtrack (including Accept, Saxon, Motley Crue, Billy Idol and, uh, Rick Springfield?), and last but not least due to the setting (acting as an inverted zombie siege story) and metanarrative plot.
Now, some horror movies will reference other horror movies (like 1991’s POPCORN) and some go Meta (like John Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS), but not to the degree that DEMONS does. There are many elements and in-jokes littered throughout the film (including the demonic mask’s resemblance to the one nailed onto Barbara Steele’s face in BLACK SUNDAY) And it continues to this day; the exterior of the cinema still stands, but as a nightclub, and its appearance in this film has brought it fame, and it’s hosted horror conventions today. What if they showed DEMONS there again, and someone in the club scratches themselves on a mask…
But hey, enough with the highbrow analysis! You want to see gory, gooey deaths? You want to see a demonic baby burst out of a woman’s back? A blind guy get his useless eyes gouged out? A couple ride up and down stairs on a motorbike slicing up demons with a sword to the sounds of Accept’s “Fast As A Shark”? Then DEMONS is for you!
(Not that it’s perfect; if you’re for deep characterisations, forget it. The only character who’ll make any impression is Tony the Pimp. The dialogue is clunky, though that could be put down to the translation from Italian. And the movies of this era had a habit of showcasing their effects, to the point where characters (and us) would literally stop and watch as creatures burst from chests or claws grow out from under fingernails and fangs from under teeth, without the characters doing the sensible thing and running away).
But these are small flaws, really.
DEMONS was followed by DEMONS 2, which was even more metanarrative than the first and upped the ante on batshit craziness. There are also numerous “sequels” out there, which in keeping with Italian tradition have absolutely nothing to do with the original movies.
The movie is available in various formats, and the trailer is below. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think my pizza’s ready…
Director: Lamberto Bava
Plot: 5 out of 5 stars
Gore: 8 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Deggsy. The D is silent. Busy eating pizza.