My opinion changed (somewhat) as I grew older. I came to appreciate the artistic innovations, the rise of low-budget indie films, the cultural upheaval and the music. I still can’t stand the fashion, but at least I’m on better terms with the 70’s. My love of the giallo, which experienced its heyday in the decade, largely contributed to the turnaround.
But the giallo had faded fast as the decade waned and the 1980’s saw a surge of a whole new type of horror film: the special effects vehicle. Serial killers and men dressed in monster costumes were out. Slime-spewing animatronic robo-goblin-aliens were in. As a creature of the 80’s myself, I can’t help but love those hideous technological wonders. They represented an era of gruesome ingenuity and low-brow revelry with a charm of its own; when eyes weren’t being gouged out, they were winking at us.
Italian horror easily adapted to the new climate and what better example of 80’s cinematic magic than Lamberto Bava’s “Demons” (1986), written and produced by Dario Argento. Lamberto, the son of the great Mario Bava, makes up for the talent he failed to inherit with effects that are gleefully repulsive, scoring shrieks and retches with everything from throbbing pustules to bursting demon-spawn.
The plot of “Demons” is pretty simple: demons kill theatergoers. It begins with Cheryl arriving in Berlin and immediately sensing a stalker. The perpetrator is no killer, despite his half-metal face (yeah, I don’t know), but a man handing out free movie tickets. The film has no title and is playing in a theater, the Metropol, that has been shut down for years, but that doesn’t stop the enthusiastic Cheryl from skipping class to attend.
[Image: Despite the elf costume and creepy stare, this usher is actually not involved with the evil shortly to be unleashed.]
The movie turns out to be a tiresome low-budget horror film involving the tomb of Nostradamus. Ironically, the audience makes fun of the bad acting. When a character in the movie tries on a mask (the same as in the lobby) and gets a tiny cut and the on-looking prostitute gets understandably nervous. She excuses herself to the restroom and soon finds herself transformed into a bloodthirsty demon that vomits green slime and has enormous teeth… just like in the movie! Go figure.
The script is largely awful, but much attention and love has been put into the makeup and special effects. Many of the demon visages have withstood the test of time, and easily outdo the armies of zombie/monster/hellspawn creatures of the period. Each demon is unique in its own way while remaining highly unified as a cohesive villainy that spreads like a virus and kills in a storm of gore and viscera. It’s often gross, but somehow fun. The whole ordeal is so enthusiastically over-the-top and emotion-free, that the audience will inevitably spend more time marveling than cowering.
The story is dull and clearly patched together from a handful of mediocre ideas, the best of which is the horror-movie-come-alive suggestion that rapidly peters out. The collection of movie posters in the lobby, including Herzog’s “Nosferatu” (1979), Argento’s “Four Flies on Grey Velvet” (1971) and “Metropolis” (1927) testify to some of its influences, as does Lamberto’s pale mimicry of his father’s colored lighting. The director, writers and actors rarely get anything right, however, and yet somehow succeed by sticking steadfastly to their predictable premise.
Outside of the SFX, the film really shines in terms of music. The hard rock soundtrack features Claudio Simonetti (formerly of Goblin), Pretty Maids, Motley Crue and Billy Idol. The music is loud, like the acting, and really gets the blood pumping. Though the whole thing is already dripping in 80’s kitsch, the music really ties the knot. That tracks actually fit well and sound polished so if you are into screeching electric guitar riots, this one should not be missed.