By the tail end of the 1970’s, the Americanization of Italian cinema had existed for quite some time. During the 1960’s, spaghetti westerns populated most of the commercial landscape, with filmmakers such as Sergio Leone spearheading the genre to profitable acclaim. Then, in the 1970’s, poliziotteschi films inspired by the hardboiled crime fare coming out of Hollywood – along with the civil unrest in Italy at the time – would replace the sands and desolation of the Wild West with the crime-ravaged streets of Rome, Milan, Napoli, et al.
By lifting so much inspiration from what was popular in American cinema, Italian copycats were commonplace, albeit reimagined more violently in a bid to one-up their overseas counterparts due to the more relaxed nature of European censors. The horror genre was no different, and after the success of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), zombies were a hot commodity in horror land. Italy responded accordingly.
Dawn of the Dead – which was a collaboration between Romero and Dario Argento – was a big hit in Europe, particularly Italy. Argento’s brother, Claudio, was integral to the film’s financing and agreed to help bankroll the project in exchange for all non-English distribution rights and other stipulations; these included frequent Argento collaborator, Goblin, composing the score and more action-orientated gore scenes for the non-English language cut. And, like hungry hordes of the undead feasting on a buffet of brains, Italian filmmakers sought to capitalize shortly after with their own brand of blood-drenched terror.
Billed as a sequel to Dawn of the Dead (released in Italy as Zombi), Fulci’s Zombi 2 (1979) would set the benchmark for the Italian zombie film. It helped earn the director the moniker of ‘The Godfather of Gore’ – a title previously bestowed upon and immortalized by the late Herschel Gordon Lewis – but it also served as a transitional film, luring Italian horror away from the popular giallo pictures of the 70’s into the wild terrains of gore-splattered exploitation that would become synonymous with the following decade.
Zombi 2 was a success in Italy, and subsequently worldwide. In turn, a slew of movies involving undead creatures followed in its wake. This brings us to 1985’s Demons; though not a zombie film in the traditional sense, it sits somewhere between Dawn of the Dead and The Evil Dead (1981) with its portrayal of a supernatural threat. It’s also a film that playfully satirizes public outrage throughout the West at the time, most notably movie violence.
Lamberto Bava might not ever be regarded as the influential figure his father, Mario, was, but his contributions to Italian genre cinema are still worthy of appraisal. Beginning his career as an assistant director on Bava senior’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), he continued to collaborate with him up until their 1977 joint effort, Shock. However, Lamberto’s filmmaking education would also see him work alongside other native maestros such as Ruggero Deodato and Argento, the latter of whom he’d collaborate with on Demons. That film also marked the first entry in his canon that would give young Bava the credence to sit at the big boy table with the masters.
“They will make cemeteries their cathedrals and the cities will be your tombs.’’ They just don’t write foretelling apocalyptic prophecies like that these days, do they? But Demons is a film befitting of a tagline that’s akin to the words of a doomsayer: punk haircuts; pimps; a kick ass hair metal soundtrack; a theater full of hellspawn scratching, biting and ripping at the entrails of the living; and a motorcyclist with a katana sword who refuses to go down without a fight. Demons is basically everything you could ever want from a film which promises high-octane carnage.
The film opens with a masked man in a subway station (played by Argento protégé Michele Soavi — who directed The Church (1989) and Dellamorte Dellamore (1994)) — handing out free tickets to a private movie screening at an old theater in Berlin. Not the type of people to turn down free theater tickets, the attendees for the evening’s entertainment include a blind man, a pimp, a couple of prostitutes and some other people from various walks of life whose backstories we’re never told much about. However, upon arrival at the theater one of the ladies scratches her face on an ancient mask located in the lobby, which causes her to become possessed. Soon all hell starts breaking loose in the locked-down theater, and what ensues afterwards is some of the most gloriously deranged, blood-splattered madness ever put to celluloid.
The movie also contains a film-within-a-film concept, which proves to be eerily like the real-life events taking place. Demons wasn’t the first horror film of the decade to feature slaughter in the theater as a horror film plays in the background, though. A few years before, for example, life imitated art in He Knows You’re Alone (1980), which contained a slasher kill in a theater that just so happened to be showing a slasher film. In Demons, the horror movie the doomed theatergoers are lured to see is based on Nostradamus and, like his alleged powers of divinity, the film is prophetic of their deadly fates. In the internal film, the characters discover a mask while ransacking Nostradamus’s tomb that is reminiscent of the one we saw in the theater lobby. The internal film warns of a prophecy declaring that the world will someday be overrun by demons, which proves to be true when a character puts it on and turns into one of the hellish creatures. These events coincide with the transformation within the diegetic world of the main film, and soon demon hordes break the veil between audience and internal film to unleash havoc.
Demons is often dismissed as nothing more than a fun slice of stylish, ghoulish mayhem; the very definition of a ‘popcorn’ film. And sure — it is. Demons is the best damn popcorn film ever made. Logic is an afterthought for the most part as the plot is minimal and merely serves as a churner for bloodletting set-pieces and chaos. That said, it was released during the midpoint of the 80’s — a time when moral panic regarding horror and alternative pop culture was at its peak, due in no part to strict censorship and the ‘Satanic panic’ epidemic that had instilled outraged types with concerns over anything deemed potentially corruptible. This included films, music, RPG’s, violent arcade games and other forms of entertainment media consumed by young people. Demons is a film which comments on public outrage and almost feels like it’s having a giggle at its own expense.
Despite the popularity of horror during the 80’s, the stigma which came attached to it was not only a fuel for public concern, but governmental legislation as well. In the UK, the Video Recordings Act 1984 saw a crackdown on exploitation films deemed ‘video nasties’ as the British Board of Film believed the violence in these moves had the potential to corrupt the nation’s youth. This idea was pushed by the hysterical media and a circus of chaos was born. In May 1982, The Sunday Times coined the term “video nasty’’ in a story headlined, “How high-street horror is invading our homes’.” This led to a police crackdown of pulling controversial titles from video rental stores. In July 1983, national newspaper The Daily Mail launched their own smear campaign with the front-page headline, “Ban video sadism now’’, and compared the films to the “rape of our children’s minds.’’ This was be pivotal in the government’s decision to make these films unobtainable.
Naturally, the extreme nature of Italian cinema, with its intent to shock and push the boundaries of good taste, didn’t go down well with censorship boards. As such, a substantial portion of the films which would be classified as ‘video nasties’ were produced in Italy.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980) was top of the list, and it felt the ban hammer more than most. The film is infamous for the notoriety it’s garnered throughout the years, with director Ruggero Deodato even accused of murder as many believed his movie was a snuff film. This would lead to actors involved having to come forward and prove they were still alive, along with Deodato having to explain how he created the impalement scene in court. Furthermore, scenes which included real animal cruelty led to the film being banned in over 50 countries, and this remains the case in some of them to this day. Cannibal Holocaust is the tip of the iceberg of controversial Italian exploitation movies, but it wasn’t the only one to face the wrath of censorship.
Demons was fortunate to escape the wrath of the man, though it does gleefully indulge in the excess which made so many films of the same ilk face the hammer. However, there is an element of self-parody with Demons which is portrayed brilliantly through its exaggerated caricature characters spouting intentionally corny dialogue, almost as if they’ve been written as a ribbing of their trashy overseas counterparts at the time. Then there are the moments which make it such a grandiose, outlandish spectacle – such as the previously mentioned motorcycle/katana sword massacre, which is essentially the apex of the best moments in cinema history – that it comes across as an affectionate satire of the horror genre.
Additionally, the meta-elements can be interpreted as a commentary on the media-propagated idea that exploitation films were prime motivators behind real-life crimes, atrocities and self-harm. The demons breaking through the film screen into the real world to cause actual harm represents the unproven idea that there is a correlation between violent cinema and real atrocities. The fact the film doesn’t take itself seriously and basks in excess also highlights just how ridiculous this viewpoint is. The satirical nature of the commentary is further enforced when considering the soundtrack of the film, which is comprised of songs from 1980’s moral panic’s other enemy: heavy metal.
In the same year Demons was released, Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider appeared at a Senate hearing to serve as heavy metal’s representative following allegations that the music had a negative effect on children. The Parents Music Resource Center published a list earlier that year of 15 artists dubbed the “Filthy Fifteen’’, of which the majority were metal bands (two of whom would be featured in the film’s soundtrack). The result would lead to records deemed inappropriate receiving the “Parental Advisory’’ sticker, but the hearing itself typified the judgemental and misunderstood attitudes held towards metal music.
You can trace devilish themes in music all the way back to Gregorian chanting, but it’s no secret that metal has always been considered the devil’s music. From the genre’s inception, Satan has been a cornerstone of the themes within the songs, the imagery of the merchandise, and even some of the belief systems of the musicians who live it. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that it was embroiled in the satanic hysteria of the 1980’s.
If you trace metal back to its roots in blues music, the influence of the devil can be found in the work of artists like Robert Johnson, Skip James, Peetie Wheatstraw and Washboard Sam. While Johnson sang of overtly Satanic themes involving Faustian pacts, other artists used the devil as a metaphor for topics as diverse as economic hardship, temptresses, threatening peers and other facets of their everyday lives which caused them pain, temptation or confliction. The message that the idea of ‘the devil’ could be myriad of interpretations subsequently carried over into rock ‘n’ roll. In 1966, the formation of Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan saw Satanism become a mainstream phenomenon in which famous celebrities were card-carrying members. In 1967, The Rolling Stones released Their Satanic Majesties Request followed by Beggar’s Banquet, which contained their most famous devilish hymn, Sympathy for the Devil. Jimmy Cage also had strong associations with Aleister Crowley, Kenneth Anger and the occult practise of Thelema. All in all, Satan was in the fabric of contemporary pop culture, not shackled by the bounds of an archaic Christian establishment. The institutions which promoted religion and dated values were losing their weight as countercultures emerged and captured the spirit of the zeitgeist – sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, not to mention free thought and anti-establishment ethos. And who better than Satan to embellish these things?
Romantic Satanism was a concept born in the late eighteenth-century and was based on Milton’s tome, Paradise Lost (1667), in which the defiant angel Lucifer was cast to Hell for leading a rebellion against God. Interpreted by some as the ultimate act of defying the establishment, the movement arose when poets, artists, intellectuals and writers started portraying Satan as a handsome anti-hero: “Milton’s sublime Satan—the apostate angel who aspired above his station in courageous self-assertion and, dauntlessly defiant against all odds, staked his flag on the burning marl of Hell—was applauded by Romantic Satanists as a Promethean icon of revolutionary virtue. Their acclaim for the illustrious Satanic standard-bearer for unfettered humanity will here be echoed.’’ (Christopher J.C., TheSatanicScholar.com, accessed 13 November, 2016).
Milton’s heroic portrayal of Lucifer was celebrated by pioneers of the Romantic Satanism movement of the eighteenth-century – such as William Blake, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley – and a reclamation of this figure was undertaken by heavy metal musicians in the 1980s. Glam metal, in particular, often entailed musicians wearing make-up and going out of their way to shock by namedropping Lucifer. The Demons soundtrack is composed of songs from some of glam metal’s most popular performers – including Mötley Crüe, Saxon and Billy Idol – whose music promoted sex, drugs, rebellion, and celebrated the devil as an emblazoned symbol of an anti-authoritarian culture.
The internal film opens with a voiceover stating, “the sleep of reason gives birth to monsters.’’ This is a reference to The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1797–1799), the 43rd of 80 etchings in the Los Caprichos set by Romantic Spanish painter, Francisco Goya. Like the other etchings in the suite, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters is representative of Goya’s views of pre-Enlightenment Spanish society at the time, which he portrayed as “corrupt, demented, and ripe for ridicule’’ (Metropolitan Museum of Art).
The illustration depicts a sleeping artist surrounded by creatures of the night, including bats, owls and a mysterious beast which stares at the audience. The owl is a symbol of folly, of which Goya believed to be a common trait within contemporary Spanish society at the time. On the other hand, the bat is historically a heraldic device dating back to Medieval times, which is also regarded as a symbol of ignorance. As for the creature within the etching staring directly at the audience, it is forcing onlookers to directly engage and participate with the piece, much like the moviegoers in Demons are forced to do the same with the internal film.
After the voiceover within the internal film, Mötley Crüe’s Save Our Souls plays as we’re introduced to the opening scenes, bringing forth the collision of horror film and glam metal. This enhances Demons‘ satirical themes further as the song’s lyrics entail ironically begging for the salvation of a culture without morals. Demons is a scritique of an ignorant society waging war on entertainment and a culture they didn’t understand at the time, much like Goya’s art was in relation to the societal ignorance of his era.
Demons might not have incurred the media backlash of some of its peers – or even some of the musicians who feature on its soundtrack – but it can be viewed as a time-capsule film which both reflects and satirizes 1980’s Western culture. It also represents the advanced Americanization of Italian genre cinema at the time that had been commonplace since the spaghetti western, only here it’s very self-aware and over the top. To view the film as a mindless splatter movie is understandable, as it is in many ways. That said, to dig beneath the surface would suggest that Demons has more to say than it is perhaps given credit for.