Back in the mid ‘90s, before I hooked myself up to the internet and discovered such fabulous horror movie review websites as the House of Horrors and Bad Movies.org, my source for comprehensive horror movie knowledge came from a book called Creature Features: The Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Movie Guide by John Stanley.
The book effectively covers nearly every single horror movie made up until that point, no matter how obscure. One flick Stanley held in high regard (well, 3 ½ stars, anyway) was Demons and, wouldn’t you know it, not a single video store in my area carried the thing. However, thanks to Anchor Bay’s dedication to all things horror, I’ve finally gotten a hold of this often overlooked European gem and I can’t say that it fell short of my expectations in the least.
So let’s say you’re a college girl walking alone down an empty subway station, being followed by a creepy guy dressed in black with half a face made of metal. Then let’s say when he finally corners you, he gives you two free passes to a horror movie screening at a new theater downtown. Well, logic only dictates that of course you should go with your friend to check it out. Anyway, that’s what happened to Cheryl (Natasha Hovey) and her friend Kathy (Paola Cozzo) and you can probably guess how things turned out. It would seem that this new horror movie about kids finding an ancient mask in Nostradamus’ crypt that releases demons… actually releases demons. As various theater patrons begin to transform into bloodthirsty monsters, Cheryl and the rest of our limited cast find themselves walled-in alive as a… sacrifice to the demons? Or something. It’s not really clear how or why all this is happening, you’re just supposed to roll with it.
The story may sound stupid and that’s because it is. Demons is one of those good bad movies that has achieved cult status, kind of like the first Evil Dead flick. While the story, acting and characters may be absolutely absurd, they’re absurd in all the right ways. To hammer the point home, there’s a sequence where our hero, George (Urbano Barberini), rides a motorcycle through a theater crowded with zombies, hacking them to pieces with a katana to roaring heavy metal music. It’s as awesome as it sounds.
A lot of people tend to mistakenly credit this film to horror legend Dario Argento. True, he did produce and co-script Demons, but to give credit where credit is due, the direction is all the work of Lamberto Bava. He takes what could have been an utterly unwatchable B-movie and crafts it into a creative and fun A-level B-movie. Yes, those exist.
The effects for the demons are remarkable in how stomach-churning they can be. I’m a lifelong horror addict and even I felt a little queasy during the first transformation sequence where that gigantic cist burst from that lady’s face. High school all over again. The second transformation sequence has to be my favorite, as Generic Pimp Guy’s second hooker begins writhing on the ground, her tongue extending to incredible lengths, slime oozing from her neck and her teeth popping out of her gums as new fangs sprout up. While the color of the slime could only make me think of You Can’t Say That on Television, everything else was the s--t.
But there’s more to Bava’s directorial chops than some gratuitous gore and violence. The demons, as they traverse foggy corridors en masse, have creepy glowing eyes that really make the visual a lasting one. I’d also like to extend a kudos or two to the entire ventilation shaft scene; Bava managed to work up the pressure just right, leading into a great fake-out at the end.
If there’s one other thing I feel the need to compliment, it has to be the soundtrack. Claudio Simonetti’s score is very ‘80s, but in a good way. His theme song (aptly titled “Demon”) is particularly memorable and had me humming it for hours after my viewing experience. Lots of top-flight ‘80s artists have some songs included throughout the film. Expect to hear hits from Rick Springfield, Motley Crue, The Scorpions, Billy Idol, Accept, Saxon and more. I’m a metalhead, admittedly, with ‘80s metal of varying subgenres being my forte, so their inclusion only proceeded to enhance the action for me (the previously mentioned motorcycle scene really wearing it best).
But like all things in life (with the exception of maybe Count Chocula), Demons does have its sour points. The acting is atrocious. By no means is it the worst I’ve encountered in a horror movie, but it ain’t pretty. Possibly the high note (or low note) of this aspect is Generic Pimp Guy, who fluctuates from so-bad-it’s-funny to so-bad-please-kill-him-now throughout his involvement in the film. Multiplying this source of torment is the fact that several lines and characters appear to be dubbed. Badly. I’m talking R.O.T.O.R. levels of bad, here. Dubbing is something anybody who’s into European horror from the ‘80s is used to, but that still doesn’t make it any more bearable.