Thursday, March 7, 2019

Dèmoni (1985)

... aka: Dance of the Demons
... aka: Demons
... aka: Demons - Filhos das Trevas (Demons: Children of Darkness)

Directed by:
Lamberto Bava

After a silver masked man (Michele Soavi) nearly scares her to death in the subway station, pretty music student Cheryl (Natasha Hovey) is given a couple of free movie tickets to the new Metropol theater, which has seemingly sprung up overnight in a former condemned building. She manages to talk her horror-movie-hating friend Kathy (Paola Cozzo) into skipping class and going to the 6 p.m. show. There, the girls meet two guys, George (Urbano Barberini) and Ken (Karl Zinny), who seem less interested in the movie than they are them, and we're briefly introduced to the other patrons. There's a bickering old couple celebrating their wedding anniversary, an old blind man and his daughter (who must talk him through the movie), the daughter's lover (who's waiting in the shadows for her to sneak off so they can mess around), a teen girl and her boyfriend, a pimp with two of his girls and others. The establishment's only employee appears to be a strict, sinister redheaded (Nicoletta Elmi), who's there to take the tickets and, while the movie's playing, patrol the aisles with her flashlight.

Much to Kathy's horror, the movie being screened is a gore-fest about two couples exploring some ruins and hoping to run across the grave of Nostradamus. They finally locate it and open his grave. Instead of finding his skeletal remains, they find a book and a mask inside. One of the guys jokingly puts on the mask and cuts his face on it, just as the other reads a passage warning that whoever wears it will become a demon, spread petulance and eventually "contaminate" the entire world. As the movie unspools, it oddly parallels some of what's going on in the theater. In fact, a hooker named Rosemary (Geretta Giancarlo) already tried on a similar mask that was displayed in the lobby and also cut her face on it. And, just like in the movie, the bleeding won't stop...

Rosemary goes to the restroom, where her cut swells, bubbles and eventually explodes with puss. By the time her friend Carmen (Fabiola Toledo) goes to check up on her, Rosemary has already completed her transformation into a demon complete with fangs, razor-sharp claws and (sometimes) glowing eyes. The demons in this film are portrayed in a similar fashion to most contemporary zombies where if someone is bitten or so much as scratched by another demon, they too become infected. That's precisely what happens to Carmen, who manages to get her throat clawed before running off. By the time the other moviegoers realize something's going on, it's already too late. The infestation has begun and the person responsible for them even being there in the first place has managed to brick up all possible exits, trapping them inside. We can assume the mastermind behind this plot is using the theater as a demon incubator of sorts until he's ready to unleash them into the world.

As more people join the demon horde, the survivors congregate on the second floor balcony, rip out seats and block the entrances. It's up there that they discover there's no projectionist and a computer has been operating the movie all along. In other words, there's no owner and no staff present, though I'm not quite sure who hired the redhead, why no one bothers to ask her how she got the job and why she keeps acting so sinister. After breaking through a wall, they locate another hidden wing of the building, which contains a brick room that seems to drive anyone who steps inside mad.

So what actually is causing the demon outbreak? The mask? The movie? The secret room? A combination of all three? Well, I guess it's not really all that important. What is important is that a bunch of idiots hear noises that they stupidly assume is help, remove the barricade and nearly everyone dies right then and there. Our hero eventually hops on a motorcycle and grabs a katana sword (both conveniently found in the lobby) and drives over seats and up and down the aisles and stairs slashing and decapitating demons as he goes. Eventually a helicopter randomly falls through the roof (!?) giving the two survivors a means of escape, though an unpleasant surprise or two awaits them right outside.

One of the most popular Italian genre films of the entire decade and a financially successful venture (mostly in video sales), Demons really hit that sweet spot for 80s gorehounds around the globe and was praised by most genre publications (Fangoria dubbed it "one of the best horror films of the last decade"). In retrospect, it's easy to see why. While Bava may not quite have the chops of his genre pioneering father (then again, who does?), he manages to showcase adequate visual style here in a handsomely shot, nicely-photographed film bathed in neon and color. Some of the individual set pieces, particularly a moment when an infected girl rips through the theater screen in the exact spot the movie killer's knife is cutting through a tent, are striking. Having the horrors leap from the screen and the thrill-seeking audience literally being infected by the movie's gory mayhem give this some potentially interesting subtext as well. This also benefits from an excellent score by Claudio Simonetti (of Goblin) and assorted songs by then-popular rock/metal acts, such as Mötley Crüe and Billy Idol, which are used to ramp up the film's energy level.

But what has really sold this movie then, and continues to sell it now, is the graphic and plentiful gore. During the centerpiece demon transformation, boils explode with multi-colored ooze, veins pop right through the skin, snake-like tongues shoot out of mouths and fingernails and teeth are pushed right out by more slaughter-friendly claws and fangs. The gory rampage that ensues includes sundry decapitations and dismemberments, throats ripped out, two eye gougings, a double strangulation, a hanging, a scalping, a head smashed between theater seats and fingers getting bitten off, smashed off, shot off and twisted off by motorcycle spokes. During one head-scratching sequence, a possessed woman gives birth to a horned baby demon Manitou-style right out of her back. The fx by Sergio Stivaletti, Rosario Prestopino and others are imaginative, gruesome and, if you like this kind of thing, lots of fun.

As an undemanding, brainlessly entertaining cinematic geek show, this scores fairly high points, but the screenplay unfortunately manages to keep it firmly out of 3 star territory for yours truly. It's actually kind of amazing that it took four people; Bava, Dario Argento (also the "presenter" and producer), Franco Ferrini and the ever-prolific Dardano Sacchetti, to write this thing. The premise is muddled and frequently nonsensical, there's no concrete explanation behind the events (which will bother certain viewers more than others), the thinly-drawn characters are dull, stupid or just plain irritating and the dialogue, probably not helped any by the dubbing, is absolutely terrible throughout.

Another major problem is the punk characters. For some reason, the filmmakers found it necessary to continually kill the film's momentum by cutting away from the theater to an utterly useless subplot featuring four foul, obnoxious, constantly-bickering punks snorting coke from a Coke with a straw as they cruise around the city. These scenes severely diminish the tension in the theater and feel grafted on solely as an excuse to wedge in more metal songs. How the demons are presented is also a slight annoyance. Romero made the bite / scratch = infection and "shoot 'em in the head" rules in his cinematic universe for a good reason: as a means to define the menace, ground the fantastical and tell us what mankind was up against. Most puzzling here is how people who are clearly killed return as demons, yet those same demons can be killed themselves in the same exact ways humans are killed, like simply being slashed, shot or stabbed. It doesn't make any sense.

The cast includes lots of familiar faces from Italian genre cinema, including Bobby Rhodes as Tony the pimp (who seems to be the most popular character), Stelio Candelli (from Bava Sr.'s PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES), Peter Pitsch and Marcello Modugno (both also featured in the director's MIDNIGHT HORROR) and Jasmine Maimone, a former Miss Rome who went on to star in PAGANINI HORROR (1989). Some of the same actors seen here, like Rhodes, Sylvester Stallone look-a-like Lino Salemme and Eliana Miglio, returned to play different characters in DEMONS 2 (1986). Soavi, who was also the assistant director, appears in a second role in the film-within-a-film. There's even a dash of nepotism with non-actress Fiore Argento grating on the nerves a bit playing a whiny, squeamish girl who gets puked on.

Just like with the bogus Italian "La Casa" and "Zombi" series', there are other "Demons" movies that have been re-titled for certain markets. Demons 3 was the proposed title for Michele Soavi's THE CHURCH (1988), but was used instead for both Bava Jr.'s TV film The Ogre (1988) and Umberto Lenzi's Black Demons (1991). Demons 4 is Soavi's THE SECT (1991). DEMONS 5: THE DEVIL'S DEVIL, also directed by Bava, was the Japanese title for the "remake" of his father's classic BLACK SUNDAY (1960), while Demons 6: De Profundis is Luigi Cozzi's THE BLACK CAT (1989) and Demons '96 is Soavi's zombie film Cemetery Man (1994) starring Rupert Everett.

Demons has never been out of circulation for too long ever since debuting (unrated) in U.S. theaters back in 1986. New World first issued it on VHS, Anchor Bay handled the DVD debut in 1999 and, in 2013, Synapse offered up a Blu-ray. For the initial U.S. releases, some of the actors were re-dubbed for the mono English track. Some of the earlier releases have also removed a lot of the gore.

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