Demons (Dèmoni) (1985)

Demons first published by VODzilla.co

Demons (Dèmoni) is set in Berlin, in the Deep Eighties (you can tell by Claudio Simonetti’s synth pop). Music student Cheryl (Natasha Hovey) is on the S-Bahn, clutching her score for Béla Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, when the lights dip in a tunnel, and she glimpses the reflection of a man with half his face covered by a strange metal mask (the man is played by the film’s assistant director Michele Soavi, who would go on to helm The Church, The Sect and Dellamorte Dellamore, all released as in-name-only sequels to Demons). When the light streams in again, this man is definitely not in Cheryl’s carriage. Alighting at her station, she sees him again, and flees nervously. Even though she has left him some distance behind her, impossibly he intercepts her at the top of the escalator – only to hand her a complimentary movie ticket for that evening at the old Metropol cinema. It is an unnerving scene, as this man, appearing and disappearing, seems to defy the laws of physics. “Are you dressed like this for the film?”, Cheryl asks him – and while no answer is forthcoming, certainly a mask on display in the cinema’s foyer will play a key rôle in the film’s events. 

“You don’t think it’s going to be a horror movie, do you?”, Cheryl asks her friend Kathy (Paolo Cozzo) of the unnamed film that they are about to see. It is – but in a disorienting piece of metacinema, the events depicted onscreen leak into the theatre space. “The sleep of reason gives birth to monsters,” states the narrator at the beginning of the film within a film, and sure enough, irrationality reigns as the depicted pandemonium breaks out into the cinema itself, and Cheryl, Kathryn and their would-be suitors George (Urbano Barberini) and Ken (Karl Zinny) find themselves under attack from possessed fellow theatregoer Rosemary (Geretta Giancarlo) who made the mistake of briefly putting on the display mask in the lobby, revealing a demon inside her. Her devilish infection spreads quickly through the audience – but even as the survivors struggle to get out, they might just be unleashing something apocalyptic into the real world beyond.

Along the way, there is an ensemble of barely likeable characters – including a quartet of bickering carjackers who snort cocaine with a straw from an actual Coke can – and some very colourful practical gore effects, as flesh is clawed and rent and bitten. The climax sees George mounting a motorbike and wielding a sword against a theatre-ful of murderous demons, as he becomes an absurd embodiment of his saintly namesake, fighting off monstrous evil with an ancient weapon.

Criticising Demons for not making much narrative sense is perhaps missing the point. For the film, produced and co-written by giallo king Dario Argento (a poster for his Four Flies On Grey Velvet is prominent in the Metropol), and directed by Lamberto Bava, son of stylish genre pioneer Mario Bava (Black Sunday, Blood and Black Lace, Kill Baby… Kill!, Lisa and the Devil), fully embraces the mythic, the surreal and the oneiric to create a hallucinatory nightmare where filmgoing and horror viewing are implicitly themselves at the heart of the evil unleashed. “It’s the movie,” Kathryn exclaims, “The movie’s to blame for all this!” As scenes on screen and in the auditorium play out in symmetrical sympathy with each other, Bava engages in a postmodern game where he presents us with the (graphically dramatised) possibility that consumption of horror films (just like his own) might be awakening in us something violent and bestial that can be perniciously communicated and carried over into our lives outside.

“We’ve gotta stop the movie!”, shouts Tony (Bobby Rhodes) – and sure enough, the desperate survivors smash the projectors, rip up the seats, even tear down the walls, in a literal deconstruction of cinema as both a physical space and an abstract art form. If only they knew what we know: that they are themselves of cinema, and unable ever, as viewers in microcosm, to break free of its generic confines. Perhaps we cannot either, at least for as long as we keep watching Demons (or any of its seven official or unofficial sequels) – and when, finally, we do escape into the light, who knows what we may be bringing out with us. 

Summary: Lamberto Bava’s postmodern pandemonium presents the potential of horror viewing itself to unleash the beast within. 

© Anton Bitel