This was the first major film helmed by Lamberto Bava; a man with quite the horror pedigree—his father Mario being the godfather of Italian horror and his apprenticeship occurring on Argento’s sets as well as Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust—Lamberto went into this project a mature filmmaker. Besides, he had help from his friends, borrowing Fulci’s longtime screenwriter, Dardano Sacchetti, as well as Argento’s writing talents and the soon-to-be-renowned effects maestro of Phenomena, Sergio Stivaletti. The animatronic transformations are still some of the best in the genre and the makeup and gore effects are equally consummate. These demons are far more terrifying than anything Romero ever dreamt up. They run, climb, crawl, vomit, leap and have the strength to lift their prey, tear scalps and punch through just about anything—all the while foaming a pea soup green about the mouth.
The plot is fatalistic and loopy in every sense of the word. Theater patrons sit down to watch a film (shot by Bava in Rome) that invokes the presence of demons who possess and terrorize them. They further realize that they’ve been walled up in the theater; there are no exits. They wreck the projection booth and destroy the film, but it doesn’t diminish the slaughter. A blind audience member (his already empty eye-sockets further clawed at by a demon) tells them presciently, “it’s not the movie. It’s this theater,” a hope-puncturing revelation. In futility they try to isolate the infected and barricade themselves on the balcony with the theater chairs.
It’s clear that Sacchetti and Bava are primarily responsible for the narrative. Argento has always been a scenarist; he doesn’t really understand long-form narrative (usually to his and our benefit), his films being episodic—episodes that are an excuse to convey the sort of moods and violence (against women) he’s interested in. He paints his scenes with anatomical reds, phantasmagoric blues and yellows. Bava borrows his primary-color palette, but he’s written and directed a film of far more far-reaching narrative possibility. There are a few Argento moments: the opening scene on the subway where the masked man (Michele Soavi) appears to be following the girl, the stabbing deaths that take place within the movie-within-the-movie.
Bava’s demons are ostensibly zombies in the way that a bite or a scratch will kill and transform like a contagious infection. Usually the contagion starts with a toxic gas, an ancient crypt or some sort of government/military/science megalomaniac meddling, but in Demons the genesis of the plague is Nostradamus. I shit you not. It starts with a bunch of disparate people who followed an advertisement to the Metropol theater for a free screening. It’s an old building with newly renovated interiors, crisp, white, oddly decorated. The centerpiece of the lobby is a strange amalgam: an armored combatant atop a motorbike, samurai sword raised in his right hand, a curious, silvered demon mask hanging from the accelerator. A hooker will try the mask on and nick her face in the process.
The movie-within-the-movie follows a group of kids on motorbikes as they infiltrate an ancient crypt. The smartest one knows a thing or two about the place, including the fact that Nostradamus is presumably buried there. “Who’s Nostradamus?” they innocently ask. He tells them what the old Frenchman predicted:
“The discovery of Neptune and Uranus, Hitler, World Wars, the coming of the demons.”
“Big deal, that hasn’t happened.”
“Not yet. Still time.”
So the same mask from the lobby is discovered in a tomb along with a book penned by Nostradamus with Michele Soavi also playing the role of the kid who tries on the mask and scratches his face. At this point, the movie and its counterpart movie-within begin to synchronize. The hooker with the oozing cut goes to the bathroom where the first transformation occurs and at the same time the murders and transformations begin in the movie-within. So old Nostradamus predicted this would happen. In other words, people become demons because there’s no way they couldn’t. It’s predestined. All of those people were fated to come to the theater that night. And the masked man, the agent of the whole scenario, was fated to screen that film.
Bava’s is an exceptionally clever film for its genre. It opts to respect its audience, asking us to use deductive logic and visual clues to understand the story. Of course, it has little moments of cheese—the redundancy of a character saying, “Look at her back!” when we’re already looking at it (and how could you not? there’s a fucking demon emerging from it!)—and generally execrable acting, but the main arc is told in a rather intelligent and surprising way.
About halfway through, the camera leaves the Metropol theater to follow four punks as they cruise around the city (filmed in cold-war Berlin) snorting cocaine out of a coke bottle with a straw! These kids don’t appear to have anything to do with the tale proper, but Bava’s insistence on cutting between them and the carnage still raging at the theater convinces us that somehow they will get involved, possibly as unlikely heroes. So they have to park the car because they couldn’t play nice and divide the snow evenly, spilling it all over the upholstery. Patrolmen spot them, give chase and corner them in the alley behind the Metropol where they somehow find a door to enter; the camera lingers for a moment as a figure can be seen furtively creeping from the theater door… It’s a demon who pounces the patrolmen when they get too close. Presumably they kill it, but the camera cuts back inside the theater where it will remain until the finale.
Then Bava presents us with another blind alley that further emphasizes the utter hopelessness of the situation. At one point, the theater patrons discover a false wall. Behind it are some leaky corridors, a few vacant rooms that lead nowhere. They explore them with trepidation, but nothing happens and they slink back to the theater to meet their demise in invariably violent and imaginative ways.
When the punks are quickly killed and transform into demons themselves we think Bava’s just been toying with us. That’s part of it, but it’s also because the escape of the demon is quickly forgotten about. Again appearing arbitrary and weird, a helicopter suddenly falls through the roof of the theater. It’s not until the remaining boy and girl make it out through the roof that we fully understood what’s occurring. The punks were only there to let the infection out of its cage so it could run amok on a much larger scale.
An interesting (if you look for these sorts of things even in genre films) metaphysical argument develops within the narrative. The projection booth is not manned, the demonic reels being spun by automated machines, pre-programmed. Perhaps Bava Jr. is alluding to his father as the architect and godhead of Italian horror with every screen conflagration in his wake a mere programmed permutation of his originals. But more likely Bava Jr. is presenting a corrosive view of religion—it may have started with the mysterious film projectors, but the carnage is out there, in the theater of the world as no-eyeball Joe alludes—a world of religious fate being one of inescapable death and inevitable apocalypse. We can assume the movie-within ends much like this one does.
But ultimately a film like this comes down to fun. In an iconic scene, sole survivor George (Urbano Barberini) straddles the aforementioned motorbike armed with the aforementioned samurai sword and the already tongue-in-cheek kills are enhanced by blistering maneuvers and choppy editing. George grinds through the theater, slicing and dicing demon flesh, lopping off demon heads and generally looking like a badass as Accept’s “Fast as a Shark” throttles him on. There’s a patina of choice and fitting European heavy metal tunes throughout in accompaniment to the most kinetic moments, including Pretty Maids’ “Night Danger” and Claudio Simonetti’s original music. The main theme is his “Demons”, a sample-laden, disco-inflected cheese metal anthem that I quite enjoy. Even a track from AOR heartthrob Rick Springfield makes an appearance, a peculiar spoken-word piece called “Walking on the Edge” that sets the tone for the Metropol’s feature presentation quite nicely.