Part of the Italian Horror Blog-a-thon hosted by Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies
Demons in 1985, they could hardly have guessed that their little horror picture was going to open the gate (the hellgate!) to an incredible number of official and wholly unofficial knock-offs - there are, I have learned, almost as many Demons 3s as there are Zombi 3s. Meanwhile, the "actual" Demons 3 was renamed The Church. Italian cinema is magical. To save my sanity, I've decided just to stick with the pair of movies directed by Bava and produced by Argento, and save the exegesis of the entire Demons phenomenon for a grad school thesis someday.
Deep in its heart, Demons is really a zombie movie, of which there were a great many made in Italy in the 1980s; but it says that it is about demons, and I will not question its sincerity on this point. The plot is basically thus: in Berlin, a movie theater called the Metropol trumpets its grand re-opening by offering free passes to a surprise movie. That the individual handing out these passes is a solemn, black-suited fella with half of his face hidden behind a metal plate that, from all the evidence, is part of his body, and that he hands out his tickets by stalking people through the streets in an unmistakably threatening fashion, doesn't seem to bother anybody, certainly not college student Cheryl (Natasha Hovey), the girl who gets treated to this singularly unprepossessing bit of guerrilla marketing in the opening minutes of the picture. And to be fair, the only thing that makes less sense than an Italian horror movie is West Berlin in the 1980s, so we're not deep into the "what? huh? the fuck?" part of the movie yet, though it's definitely coming. That terrifying cyborg huckster, by the way, is played by Michele Soavi, the film's assistant director and a regular AD for Argento; two years later, he'd get his first chance to direct a feature and do a damn fine job of it with StageFright.
Cheryl manages to convince her friend Kathy (Paola Cozza) to come along for the fun, and then we're off to the Metropol, a rather unbecoming monolith of a building that just seems off, starting with the fact that nobody in attendance seems to have known about the theater before that morning. But only Kathy, out of the dozen or more people we meet at the start of the show, is at all concerned by all the mystery surrounding the place. It's quite a motley assortment of cinephiles, too: George (Urbano Barberini) and Ken (Karl Zinny) are there apparently to put the moves on a pair of girls, and Cheryl and Kathy fit the bill perfectly; there's a young couple, Hannah (Fiore Argento) and Tom (Guido Baldi), a blind man (Alex Serra), his daughter and guide (Enrica Maria Scrivano), her clandestine lover (Claudio Spadaro), a bitter married couple who seem to be attending the movie in some strange passive-aggressive attempt to be mean to one another, a blaxploitation pimp, Tony (Bobby Rhodes), and his two girls Rosemary (Geretta Giancarlo) and Ruth (Nicole Tessier).
The effect struck me, in the most uncanny way, less like we were meeting the expendable meat of a body count movie, and more like the cross-section of humanity you get in an Irwin Allen disaster picture, but that's of little matter. At one point, Rosemary is fooling around with a strange mask on display in the lobby, next to the absolutely inscrutable display of a dummy in leather armor riding a motorcycle and wielding a samurai sword, and she manages to cut her face a little; nobody thinks anything of it, but during the unnamed movie, the exact same thing happens to one of the characters onscreen, with a mask that looks just like the one outside; at this same moment, Rosemary starts feeling sick and her face begins bleeding again, and she excuses herself to the women's room, where her wound starts pulsing and oozing and long story short, she turns into a monster with dagger-like teeth, sharp claws, and blood-red eyes. And it's contagious - something as small as a little scratch and something as big as having a demon pull your throat out is enough to turn the victim into another one of the slavering beasts.
So, basically, a zombie movie plot, with significantly more outré zombies. And a good, healthy Italian disregard for making any sense whatsoever: we never learn what's going on (the blind man, Werner, has the best theory when he simply posits that the theater is a locus of evil), who the man with the metal face is, or much else. But it never really feels that Lamberto Bava is terribly interested in making anything but an experience - a sensory overload of some intensely persuasive gore effects (the up-close-and-personal transformation of one character into a demon, with jagged black claws splitting the fingernails and teeth rotting away to be replaced by fangs, was one of the more memorably unpleasant things I've seen in a horror movie, and I like to suppose that I'm not such a wilting flower in this regard) and a lovingly curated hard rock and heavy metal soundtrack. It's this latter that actually gives the game away: Demons is, in general, the kind of thing that people are referring to when they say things like "That's so metal!!!"* and there's an only-in-the-'80s feel to all the running around and watching people get torn in half by demons and watching demons get chopped in pieces by a man riding a motorcycle and wielding a samurai sword - hardly a spoiler, it's obviously in the wings from the instant we see that lobby display. It feels not altogether unlike an album cover, and that's even before the fantastically arbitrary introduction of a quartet of leather-clad hooligans, just because.
It is a movie that can support the descriptions "awesome!" and "stupid!" in equal measure, but by the time it was done, I was convinced that it's not quite either (though if I had to pick, my vote would be for "awesome!"). Honestly, I started to get the impression it was a comedy, even a satire; certainly by the time the movie spooled up the quiet visual pun of a can of coke, it was clear that Bava and his co-writers, among them Argento, were taking the piss a little bit; anyway, I take it as given that by 1985 it was still okay to presume that Argento, in any given situation, was not an idiot & deserves to have the benefit of the doubt.
It all comes down to the movie-within-the-movie; it's hard not to read it as a deliberate, and altogether cheeky spoof of the kind of weird shit Italian horror makers were coming out with all the damn time. Two couples snake their way into an ancient burial ground that is alleged to hold the bones of Nostradamus, and there encounter their own demon infestation; but before it gets to that point, there's a huge amount of actively silly dialogue and thoroughly contrived situations. It is, for God's sake, the hidden cemetery where Nostradamus was buried (which is not, incidentally, a hidden or otherwise unknown spot), revealed only that very afternoon by a landslide. The audience devours it wholesale: the girls are freaked out, the boys try valiantly to pretend they're not freaked out, and the whole time I'm gawking at the obvious cheapness and frank silliness of the movie and thinking, Do Bava and Argento really think that this is scary? That ALL these viewers would be this scared. No way, they can't. Can they?
Ultimately, Demons is too determined in its shallowness for me to stick by my initial guess that this was all in some manner a meta-commentary on the act of watching a horror movie, but I still think it's the filmmakers' not-very-subtle way of telling us, "don't take it seriously, this is all kind of cheesy, we're all here to have fun. And that is something to be had in abundance, if you're willing to go with the flow and not demand that the movie provide too many answers or logical connections, and frankly, if you're interested in Italian horror movies enough to stumble across Demons, you probably don't have that kind of hang-up over narrative coherence any more.
And so we get a movie that's a whole lot of sizzle, but it's the best and most immaculately entertaining kind, and not even ineffective as horror. One of the film's best moments comes when Tom and Hannah are escaping through an air vent, and Tom makes Hannah move in front of him because he can hear a demon scraping behind her, and then there's an awful moment that feels like it goes on for much longer than it does while he too-slowly processes why he suddenly hears the scraping in front now; it's a genuinely unsettling moment in a movie usually content to go for the big crazy gesture. Like the constant metal music, which works as well here as in any Italian horror picture; or the tremendously over-the-top and largely convincing gore; or the weird ending that isn't "unpredictable" as such, but sure enough caught me off-guard. The movie zigs and zags in just enough places to feel genuinely off-kilter, and the whole thing is so ludicrously overblown, like a really hectic movie musical where spectacle replaces emotion or character - perhaps Bava is simply taking refuge in audacity to keep from having to make a sensible movie, but Demons is audacious enough that he can get away with it.