• Gabe Powers

Demons Blu-ray Review (originally published 2014)

A strange masked man offers tickets to a horror movie sneak preview at the mysterious Metropol cinema. When a patron is accidentally scratched by a prop displayed in the lobby, she transforms into a flesh-ripping demon! One by one, the audience members mutate into horrible creatures hell-bent on destroying the world. Can anyone escape this gory orgy of terror? (From Synapse’s official synopsis)



Demons (Italian: Demoni; aka: Dance of the Demons, 1985) was released at a time when Dario Argento was at the very peak of his worldwide popularity. His already prominent career had evolved to the point that he had become a Steven Spielberg-like brand name and, while he had been instrumental in ushering George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) through its production, Demons marked his first at-bat in the role of co-writer and producer (not counting the Door into Darkness [Italian: La porta sul buio, 1973]), leaving directing duties to frequent second-unit collaborator Lamberto Bava. Most of the people involved appear to agree that Argento was still a heavy driving force behind the film, as he divided his attention (not to mention many crew members) between it and Phenomena (aka: Creepers, 1985). Bava was destined to be a major player in the Italian horror/thriller arena simply because his father, Mario Bava, was practically the genre progenitor. But his first four efforts as a lead director – including a low-key thriller in Macabro (aka: Macabre, 1980), a gory neo-giallo in A Blade in the Dark (Italian: La casa con la scala nel buio, 1983), the First Blood-inspired Blastfighter (1984), and a notoriously shoddy Jaws rip-off, Monster Shark (Italian: Shark - Rosso nell'oceano, 1984) – failed to ignite much attention, especially outside of Italy. His latter career (he continued working in Italian television into the mid 2000s) wasn’t particularly memorable, either, but Demons (and, to a lesser extent, its sequel) rocketed to the top of internationally popular Italian horror movies, arguably just below Suspiria and Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (Italian: Zombi 2; aka: Zombie Flesh Eaters, 1979).


Screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti was not part of Argento’s usual cadre of collaborators. He is best known for his collaborations with Fulci – notably living dead-themed hits Zombie, City of the Living Dead (Italian: Paura nella città dei morti viventi; aka: The Gates of Hell, 1980), and The Beyond (Italian: ...E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà; aka: Seven Doors of Death, 1981) – but he had also worked with the elder Bava (Bay of Blood [Italian: Ecologia del delitto and Reazione a catena; aka: Twitch of the Death Nerve, 1971]; Shock [aka: Beyond the Door II, 1977]), before hooking up with the junior Bava on three of his four pre-Demons movies (A Blade in the Dark, Blastfighter, and Monster Shark). According to interviews, Sacchetti’s original script was a three-part portmanteau in the Amicus tradition, but Argento only really reacted to a story where people were possessed by evil spirits escaping from a cinema screen. The other two stories were scrapped and a standalone screenplay was developed by Sacchetti, Franco Ferrini (Argento’s go-to co-writer during the era), Bava, and Argento himself. The simplicity of the plot and characters (every person in the theater is defined by a single line of dialogue or, failing that, the clothing they wear) allowed the writers to fill time with increasingly outrageous set-pieces and cinematic references.



For his part, Bava lines up all of his little human dominos and revels in knocking them down with Rosario Prestopino and Sergio Stivaletti’s nasty, bubbling, ooey-gooey make-up effects. The acrylic, comic booky photography by cinematographer Gianlorenzo Battaglia (a frequent Bava collaborator that spent most of his career in the shadow of cinematographic stars, like Luciano Tovoli) soaks the over-the-top violence in hyperactive hues, earning at the very least stylistic comparisons to Argento’s Suspiria and Inferno (1980), not to mention Bava’s father’s influential early color horror films. The name of this game is excess and Demons never fails to top itself from one outrageous mutilation to the next. However, minus the rhythms and dynamic ranges of the movies it attempts to build on, Demons can become numbing. The last third of the film alternates between gonzo slaughter and boring, repetitive scenes of survivors trying to find yet another way out of the afflicted theater. The pacing problems are compounded by the second-act introduction of coke-addled thugs, who break into the theater to escape the cops after spilling their stash. These scenes were almost certainly added to ensure that the film ran an industry-standard feature length (even then, the final run time is a pithy 88 minutes) and to introduce a then-trendy counterculture kick to the relatively conventional horror tropes (possibly a last-minute inspiration from Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead, which was released earlier the same year). In the end, Sacchetti’s original anthology idea would’ve probably fit the material better, though anthologies weren’t a particularly popular format in the mid-‘80s (George A. Romero’s Creepshow, notwithstanding) and Demons’ box office punch was definitely tied to its very specific heavy metal splatter formula.


The film-within-the-film – the one that bleeds out into the cinema – was directed by future Cemetery Man (Italian: Dellamorte Dellamore, 1994) director Michele Soavi, who also plays two roles in Demons – a metal-masked man handing out tickets to the show in the real world and one of the doomed actors in the movie world. Soavi walks a tight line between making his mini-movie stylish on its own merits, while still appearing amateur enough to work as a silly horror schlock and harmless fodder to contrast Bava’s more hardcore offerings. Soavi had already worked as a second unit director and actor for Bava on Blade in the Dark and Blastfighter, and he took over the role of Dario Argento protégé du jour after Demons 2’ disappointed at the box office. This led to two collaborations with Soavi in the director’s chair: The Church (Italian: La Chiesa, 1989), which began its life as Demons 3, and The Sect (Italian: La Setta, 1991). Both films were sold as Demons sequels in various territories, along with Bava’s Ogre (aka: Demons 3: The Ogre, 1988), Bava’s pseudo remake of his father’s Black Sunday (Italian: La maschera del demonio, 1966), under the title Mask of Satan (1992), Umberto Lenzi’s Black Demons (Italian: Demoni 3, 1991), Luigi Cozzi’s faux sequel to Argento’s Inferno, The Black Cat (Italian: Il gatto nero; aka: Demons 6: De Profundis, 1989), and, because of course, Soavi’s Cemetery Man.



Video

Demons first appeared on DVD courtesy of Anchor Bay Studios in non-anamorphic, 1.63:1. Following a number of other non-anamorphic releases from other territories, Anchor Bay re-released their DVD with an anamorphic, 1.66:1 transfer in 2007. UK studio Arrow released the first Blu-ray version in 2012, followed in 2013 by Synapse Films’ 2013 limited edition Steelbook, followed by this non-LE version (same transfer, none of the extras).


Synapse’s disc is not an HD version of an older scan – it is a complete restoration, taken from a scan of the “original vault materials.” The upgrade in clarity from the SD version is unquestionably spectacular and detail levels are infinitely crisper. This is expected, based on Synapse’s commitment to quality transfers and the fact that they do as much as they can in-house. However, the company also altered/revamped color correction significantly and those results might stimulate debate among fans and critics as to “filmmaker’s intent.” The promotional materials do not indicate that either Bava or Battaglia were involved in the restoration – but the 1080p transfer’s vivid acrylic and neon hues appear to my eyes superior and more befitting the film’s over-the-top imagery. The searing reds and glowing blues certainly enhance the experience more than the DVD’s more washed-out and inconsistent hues. Perhaps the bigger debate pertains to the gamma and contrast levels. The new transfer is much, much darker than the old anamorphic discs and the overriding blackness can crush out finer details, especially in dimmer backgrounds. Aside from a few wide-angle images, the darkness seems accurate in motion and doesn’t obscure any of the special effects, which I assume are the most important visual element in any given scene.



Audio

The image upgrade from DVD to Blu-ray is, obviously, the reason most fans will be double-dipping on this release, but the changes in audio shouldn’t be overlooked. The Anchor Bay DVD’s included stereo and a 5.1 remix of the original international English dub. At the time, Italian genre films were largely shot without sound and dubbed into various languages for various markets. By the ‘80s, English had become the default dub. However, in the case of Demons, the US distributors (probably Ascot Films) made a different English dub for theatrical and video releases. For their Blu-ray release, Synapse remastered both the international dub and, for the first time since the days of VHS, the US video dub. The international dub is presented in its original 2.0 stereo (it was mixed for Dolby theater systems) and the results are fantastic, including a better directional spread than the sloppy 5.1 remix. The dialogue is clear and effectively centered in the non-discrete middle channel and the lack of compression helps keep the levels dynamic without leveling out or distorting at the higher volume samples. The stereo effects are limited in terms of effects work (demon growls, mostly), but the musical tracks have never sounded better. Goblin keyboardist Claudio Simonetti provided the majority of Demons’ music (while also contributing to Phenomena’s multi-composer score), but the US ad campaigns were more excited to trumpet the inclusion of heavy metal and pop songs from Mötley Crüe, Rick Springfield, Billy Idol, Accept, and Go West.


Contrary to expectations, the US dub doesn’t feature different English language performances. The key distinctions are the mood music and additional effects that appear between action scenes and big scares. While both tracks maintain Simonetti’s major cues and the various rock tracks, the US dub adds more mood music during the quieter sequences. I can’t find any additional musical credits for the film, so either these were taken from Simonetti’s outtakes or some poor sap did them without recognition. Fans that discovered the film via New World Home Video’s VHS release should be very pleased with the ace treatment of the mono track, though the international stereo track is the superior aural experience for its cleaner and punchier sound.



Extras

There are no extras included with this Standard Edition disc.


The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.


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