Following one of his first forays into international horror cinema, The Bees, the Mexican-born director Alfredo Zacarias found his next project in a strange little number called Demonoid: Messanger of Death aka Macabra (the title it was internationally distributed under in a cut, albeit longer, form). The brief synopsis of Zacarias’s Demonoid would read something like the following: when a British couple uncover an ancient burial site believed to be haunted, they accidentally release the doomed spirit of a demon who has taken the form of a possessed, severed hand. Seeking revenge and carnage, the spirit possesses and kills all that cross its path. If it sounds a tad convoluted, well that’s because it is…and there’s nothing wrong with that. In Vinegar Syndrome fashion, the company has unearthed (excuse the pun) another overlooked 80s horror gem.
As far as plot goes, there’s not much more to it than what has already been described above. Short of the demonic severed hand angle (a conceit that was more novel at the time of the filming than it is now), Zacarias doesn’t throw too many curveballs into the possession narrative. These are not critiques, however, because the film’s story remains perfectly serviceable, and the entire cast and crew seem to be having a lot of fun in process.
Rather surprisingly — or maybe not given the fact that she also had a role in The Exterminator the same year —, Zacarias pegged Samantha Eggar for the lead role. Eggar is one aspect of the film’s many strong suits. Despite the sometimes-paltry script, Eggar delivers a strong performance, maybe less iconic as The Brood but certainly not for any lack of effort. Additionally, Stuart Whitman — probably best known for his role his the John Wayne film The Comancheros — hands in quite the over-the-top, entertaining performance, just what you come to expect and want in these kinds of film. There are other notable faces in the crowd (Russ Meyer-regular, Haji for instance) but given the nature of the plot — with characters often disposed only shortly after arriving — they aren’t given a great deal of space to shine. It’s a shame that the always-fantastic character actor Roy Jenson, who plays Eggar’s husband Mark Baines, is first to be possessed (and killed) because the film could stand to use more of his presence, but he does make a good impression despite his short appearance.While the film is first and foremost an exploitation joint, it should be noted that Zacarias does attempt to create something that would elevate it from a mere thrills and kills picture. Speaking of the film on the included interview, he talks about the left hand, right hand dichotomy: the left-hand path leading to darkness and the right-hand path righteousness. So maybe the film doesn’t come close to either Night of the Hunter or Do the Right Thing territory in dealing with these similar themes, but it also can’t be completely written off as meaningless shlock. Zacarias clearly put a lot of passion and earnesty behind the film. Adding to his intention, Zacarias is also a rather proficient director. The son of the director Miguel Zacarias, Alfredo not only grew up around film, he had directed nearly 20 films before embarking on Demonoid. There is evidence of Zacarias’ skill visible on screen. Of his work prior, with the exception of The Bees, there isn’t a great deal of information online and most of it would appear to have been regionally distributed. It’d be interesting to see how his non-genre efforts stack up.
Assisted by Álex Phillips Jr. (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, King Solomon’s Mines), Demonoid looks quite stunning at times. Zacarias laments that he had to fight with Phillips in order to keep the camera moving — Phillips preferring to keep the camera static and well composed, according to Zacarias — but the fusion between both of their ideas really works. There will probably be the desire by many to write the film off as cheap or shoddy, but that isn’t the case as it may have otherwise been with other similarly plotted films.In the liner notes Vinegar Syndrome describes the film as being “full of outrageous and violent deaths, ludicrous plot twists, and a pounding musical score.” The latter two are without a doubt the truth but the first statement may be a bit of an oversell. Most viewers, especially those familiar with VinSyn’s brand will probably expect too much from the film. There are some great death scenes — especially the crushing of Haji’s face early on — but nothing about the film is over the top in terms of violence. In fact, some viewers may find the film a bit plodding, but there is something about it that has an undeniable charm. It feels like it could all fall apart at any minute but it never does. That matched with the aforementioned, at times artistically driven visual make-up makes Demonoid a real catch for Vinegar Syndrome. For what I assume was a low budget, Zacarias crafts a film that looks better than it probably should.
A note must be made of the last comment in the above quote. The musical score composed by Richard Gillis is a blast. It’s that cheapo-synth mixed with a bit of orchestral movements that is totally of that era. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste but those who love that style will be certain to enjoy it here. It should be noted that some reviewers have noted that some of the score was lifted from The Incredible Melting Man but (full disclosure) it’s been too long for this reviewer to confirm. The practice of lifting scores was a rather common occurrence in the 80s, so it is entirely possible. Judged on how it works within the film, its effective and good fun.
The real standout of this disc comes in terms of its visual presentation. Unlike many companies, with Vinegar Syndrome you know that the quality of the transfer is their first concern. With the near-miracles they performed on films like Don’t Go in the Woods Alone and Raw Force (two films fans probably thought would never have received such fantastic releases), it should probably come as little surprise that Demonoid would look so superb. Yet, it is always still a surprise to see what is in store. The 2K transfer, sourced from the original camera negatives, results in a stunning and crisp presentation. Colors are natural and vibrant, really popping in the daylight scenes but still finely attended in the night/dark scenes as well. Grain is left finely intact, retaining its natural filmic look. There is, of course, no digital tinkering that can be seen on screen. Further, there is surprisingly little damage to the print, which I was somewhat expecting to see given the diminutive presence the film has had in the years since its release. All in all, Vinegar Syndrome’s work on Demonoid serves as one of the hallmarks of proper restoration this year (a sad fact is that it will mostly go unnoticed at the end of the year, when people look back at some of the sexier titles for their lists). It may not be the best film released on Blu-ray this year, but it sure as hell is one of the best looking.
The audio, a DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix, is handled as well as it can, given (what I assume) are limitations that exist in the original elements. With that said, there is a strong balance of elements in play and little to no damage, hisses, pops, or cracks that can be heard.
The first extra feature is the quite impressive inclusion of the second cut of the film, retitled internationally as Macabra. While technically a self-censored version, the film actually runs about 11 minutes longer. The main differences include a reduction of gore and nudity and added elements of development in the narrative. It would be great to see a version of the Macabra cut with the gore reinserted, but that is not, at least at the moment, a possibility. There is also a nice interview with Zacarias about his intentions behind the film. Zacarias somewhat meanders but gives us a great deal of informative information, including discussing his working relationship (and friendship) with DP Álex Phillips Jr. In the interview, you really get a sense that Zacarias had the desire to make a film that would make both money but also one that would have a message, something that he would be proud to put his name behind. Depending on who you ask, the answer to that question will vary, but Demonoid is far from meaningless trash (as some may otherwise want to categorize it; and, even if it was, it wouldn’t be any worse for it). Additional features include theatrical trailers and a TV spot, original artwork gallery, a reversible Macabra artwork sleeve (the Macabra artwork is pretty fantastic as well), and an optional French dub for Macabra.
For those that have been accustomed to Vinegar Syndrome’s horror output, Demonoid will probably fail to be quite as bonkers and/or gory as may be expected, and that’s ok becuase it is great to see the company evolving (and the film does still rest comfortably in their catalog). However with serviceable (and even quite good in Eggar’s case) performances by the cast, beautiful photography from Phillips Jr., and Zacarias loving hand (which one, left or right, you may ask?) guiding it all, Demonoid manages to be an effective and fun piece of 80s low-budget horror. Vinegar Syndrome have proven, once again, that they are on the top of the Blu-ray game providing one hell of a transfer, which alone makes the release worth its cost.