As a director, Dario Argento is an unsurpassed maestro of horror. His legacy includes legitimate classics like Profondo Rosso, Suspiria, Inferno, and Opera. Even his less successful endeavors - a Phantom of the Opera remake, the recent The Card Player - can be seen as merely facets of a fascinating cinematic artist. Yet as a producer, his track record is also worth noting. He helped out buddy George Romero, aiding in getting Dawn of the Dead made. He also supported upstart Michele Soavi with his projects The Church and The Sect. Yet his most interesting endeavor may be as guiding light for Lamberto Bava's splatter classics Demons and Demons 2. Son of famed Mediterranean macabre master Mario Bava, Argento formulated a fetid little franchise centering on a cursed movie that turns audiences into blood thirsty ghouls. Thanks to its ample arterial spray, and overabundance of gore-drenched set pieces, the first of these films became notorious in the mid '80s as an entertaining example of excess. The sequel, unfortunately, seemed like a letdown. After a long and troubled tech history on DVD, Anchor Bay and Starz Home offer up a surprisingly successful digital update - at least from an audio/video approach.
At the ominous Metropol Theater in Berlin, a free movie screening is taking place. An odd assortment of audience members attend, all looking forward to a night at the cinema. Unfortunately, there is something wrong with the entire setup. A mysterious masked man was handing out the tickets, and once inside, the building seems very isolated and closed off. Before they know it, the film starts "infecting" people, and its not long before half in attendance are turned into drooling, blood thirsty demons. The other half, unfortunately, are potential victims. As murderous mayhem ensues, a ragtag collection of survivors hope to escape. They may have a hard time doing that, since these fiends appear virtually indestructible - and hunger for human beings.
In retrospect, one cannot underestimate the power of home video in introducing new foreign and freak show genre efforts to the uninitiated. Before VHS opened up the mass marketing possibilities, fans of movies made outside the Hollywood system had to stake out arthouses and scour drive-in listings in hopes of seeing some eviscerated version of a rumored horror gem. Granted, the initial magnetic tape offerings merely placed the incomplete Westernized mess onto a format that conformed to broader fanbase acceptance, but as soon as availability was no longer an issue, the devotees turned their attention to more aesthetic demands. Original aspect ratios, proper language tracks, replacement of edited footage, and the restoration of badly damaged prints became the primary concern, with off titles and complete canons a scant second. Within this dizzing dynamic, Dario Argento had two problems. First, many of his films had American input, resulting in substantial studio interference come format transfer time (his Four Flies on Gray Velvet is STILL unreleased). In addition, his movies contained the kind of material that made the MPAA foam at the fines. Even during the formative years of the VCR, watchdogs would wail on films that contained the kind of groovy gore that made Mommies and Daddies weep. Unfortunately, the man of many dark dreams liked his narratives colored blood red.
So when Demons finally hit rental shelves in the late '80s, it was seen as a sign of taciturn triumph. Lucio Fulci had been roasted over the coals for his relentlessly violent output (both Zombi and Gates of Hell/The City of the Living Dead got a true critical drubbing) and the works of Big Bava's son Lamberto were equally unsettling. So by having Argento's name tied to the production, it clearly made the movie more palatable to marketers. And from an artistic standpoint, the final product needed all the help it could get. The very definition of geek show cinema, Demons is nothing more than 90 minutes of mindless, gut wrenching mayhem made even more disturbing by the casual callous manner in which the tissue tearing plays out. Granted, it's effectively nasty stuff, but it's also lacking the slightest sense of suspense or terror. Instead, this is the perfect example of a "double dare" effort, the kind of movie friends would taunt each other with during a weekend slumber/pot party sleepover/stop off. Like dandy Dan Aykroyd's line in Twilight Zone: The Movie, the challenge of "do you want to see something really scary" was actually asking if the viewer was ready to vomit on cue. With its combination of blood, guts, grue, and then amazing make-up transformations, Demons argued that there were worse cinematic sights than those proffered in John Carpenter's The Thing or anything rendered by Romero.
In many ways, Demons is a zombie flick without the social commentary or biological backdrop. Though the classic tag line "they will make cemeteries their cathedrals and the cities will be your tombs" has a nice, malicious resonance to it, it's the furthest the film takes the whole inherently evil element. Luckily, the overabundance of offal really renders such criticisms moot. This is one hyperbolic hoot of a splatterfest, a movie that just won't rest until it's got you hurling your own entrails out. From the farcical "film within a film" production, with its stilted Mediterranean macabre, to the full blown bloodbath finale, complete with car chases and unbridled apocalyptic destruction, Bava says "Yes" to each and every excess. In fact, Argento's input seems hard to decipher. The script, which he helped create, does have a few of his deft touches - especially in the setup. But where the man behind Suspiria and Inferno would opt for a more surrealistic approach, his protégé simple pours on the pus. Still, this is what makes Demons so enduring. In an arena were restraint ruins most movie macabre, where filmmakers and their financiers have no desire to push the envelope of the standard slice and dice, it's a full bore affront. It defies defense even as it stakes a claim on craven, cool as Hell classicism. Let the fluids fly!
The problem with previous releases of this title can be summed up in one word - non-anamorphic. Anchor Bay was eviscerated six year ago when they decided to release this, and the similar sequel Demons 2, in letterbox only versions. Now, Starz Entertainment (who bought the sailboat logo-ed business) has fixed that problem, delivering a 16x9 transfer that's just terrific. The 1.66:1 aspect ratio is preserved, and the color correction and attention to detail are just terrific. This is still a rather dark film, though the new image helps maintain the balance between shadow and light.
As with the previous DVD release, there are two English only audio tracks. One is in a very effective Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, while the other is standard 2.0 Stereo. Since the score is made up mostly of noted heavy metal and '80s rock tracks, the speakers get quite the workout. And those looking for an Italian version of the film need to remember that Argento and his ilk typically made their movies specifically for the West. Therefore, the dialogue was dubbed into the appropriate language, without a native tongue version available.
Those with the original DVD release will probably be displeased to know that the bonus features offered before have simply been ported over to this disc. They consist of a decent commentary featuring director Bava, make-up artist Sergio Stivaletti, and reporter Loris Curci, a few minutes of behind the scenes footage, and a selection of trailers. The alternative narrative discussion is decent, especially since both the movie and the state of Italian horror (at the time) are referenced in detail. The making-of material is rather dull. All we see are some shots of the special effects and general meandering. Overall, it's not the greatest selection of added content, but until another company buys these titles and offers up a revamp, it's what we have.
In the opening to her comments on the DVD extras, journalist Loris Curci says that Demons is one of the most important Italian horror films ever made. While a tad presumptuous, she does have a point. It was a crossroads release, a film that proved the viability of foreign horror to a fanbase desperate for something different. It made Italian splatter fashionable, and helped secure the import of Dario Argento on such a stage. While its impact has diminished in the twenty years since its release (there are far gory films out there), it remains a terrific terror time capsule. As a result, it definitely deserves a Highly Recommended rating. No fright aficionado should be without a copy, and for those who've upgraded to the latest widescreen technology, there's no excuse not to promote the product as well. As word trickles down from the Toronto Film Festival that the final installment of Argento's long dormant Three Mothers trilogy (Mother of Tears) is a return to form, here's a chance to remember when he ruled the non-digital domain. You may see bloodier, but you probably won't see better.
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