88 mins. 22 secs. / 88 mins. 29 secs.
Directed by Lamberto Bava
Starring Urbano Barberini, Natasha Hovey, Karl Zinny, Fiore Argento, Paola Cozzo, Nicoletta Elmi, Geretta Geretta, Bobby Rhodes, Michele Saovi
Color, 1986, 91m.
Directed by Lamberto Bava
Starring Coralina Cataldi Tassoni, David Edwin Knight, Nancy Brilli, Bobby Rhodes, Asia Argento, Virginia Bryant
Synapse Films (UHD, Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0/A/1 4K/HD/NTSC), Arrow Video (UHD, Blu-ray & DVD) (UK R0/B/2 4K/HD/PAL), Anchor Bay (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
Perhaps no films better capture the essence of '80s Italian horror than the two official Demons entries directed by Lamberto Bava, which proved so successful that numerous unrelated later films were branded as sequels to cash in on their popularity. Here rationality takes a back seat to style and set pieces, orchestrated for maximum gory panache with aggressive soundtracks and vivid colors adding to the appeal. Both films were also produced and bear the aesthetic stamp of Dario Argento, whose affinity for heavy metal at the time (also found in Phenomena and Opera) became a defining characteristic of the first film as well.
Set in Berlin, Demons opens with music student Cheryl (Hovey) frightened in a subway station by a sinister man (future horror director Soavi) wearing a metal mask. She soon discovers he's handing out invitations to a free advance screening of a horror film at a new movie theater, so Cheryl decides to go with her best friend, Kathy (Cozzo). That night they sit with and carry on a flirtation with two guys, George and Ken (Opera's Barberini and Zinny), as they watch a bloody slasher film about a prophecy by Nostradamus coming true with various people turning into demons. Meanwhile a real display of that metal mask slices open the face of another patron, loudmouthed hooker Rosemary (Geretta), who's attending with her pimp (the legendary Bobby Rhodes). Soon Rosemary's turning into a fanged, clawed, drooling monstrosity in the ladies' room and spreading the deadly contagion through the theater, where everyone isn't quite aware at first that all the screaming and bleeding might be for real. With the exits mysteriously blocked, the survivors are picked off one by one and turned into bloodthirsty creatures of the damned.
It really isn't a criticism to say that Demons is constructed in an outrageously arbitrary fashion, with various subplots heading nowhere (especially that carload of coke-sniffing kids) and several elements tossed in for senseless spectacle (e.g., that helicopter). The joy here lies in the execution, with director Lamberto Bava (son of Mario) piling on the crazy primary colors and energetic mutilations with escalating glee as '80s favorites like Mötley Crüe, Go West, and Billy Idol accompany the mayhem. Then there's the spectacular music score by Goblin alumnus Claudio Simonetti, whose main theme has since become one of his most popular standards. However, the biggest star here is the makeup effects by maestro Sergio Stivaletti, who outdoes himself with a stunning array of creatures and mutilation gags up there with the best of Romero and Fulci.
Released on VHS and laserdisc by U.S. distributor New World, Demons first hit American shores with a somewhat different English mono dub compared to the European Dolby stereo one including a different voice for one character (the bleach-blonde punk girl) and some additional sound effects, such as the slashing heard over the title card. The European English soundtrack debuted on home video first on laserdisc from The Roan Group and then on DVD from Anchor Bay in a non-anamorphic 1.66:1 transfer. The major extra here is a bumpy but sometimes worthwhile audio commentary with Bava, Stivaletti and writer Loris Curci, plus talent bios, the trailer, and a selection of behind-the-scenes footage culled from the same material used for Dario Argento's World of Horror. Anchor Bay later revisited the film (and its sequel) with anamorphic reissues, complete with the same extras and transfers that fared little better than their predecessors.
For some reason, Demons sparked a craze for steelbook packaging for its Blu-ray debuts in both the U.K. and the U.S. The former came first in 2012 courtesy of Arrow's special edition, featuring a new HD transfer from Titanus with the U.S. English audio in LPCM mono as well as the same format for the Italian track with optional English subtitles. It looks very sharp and warm but a bit overly bright, while the audio powerfully reflects the original source material. Extras include the preexisting commentary track, a new Italian (with subs) commentary with Bava, Geretta, Simonetti, and Stivaletti that breezes along a bit more smoothly than the prior one, an 11-minute video interview with Dario Argento about his involvement in co-writing and producing the project, a 9m34s "Defining an Era in Music" video interview with Simonetti, a random 11m27s "Splatter Spaghetti Style" chat with director Luigi Cozzi about his favorite Italian horror movies, and an insert booklet with liner notes by Calum Waddell, a fold-out poster, and a Demons sequel comic.
The following year, Synapse debuted Demons on American Blu-ray and DVD in a limited steelbook with a more elaborate package featuring a significantly fine-tuned presentation of the HD source material, most notably bringing the black levels down and the colors up to their original atmospheric levels and cleaning up some anomalies in the master. In a nice touch, both English tracks are included here along with the Italian one (all DTS-MA), with optional English subs for each. The newer cast and crew commentary is included here, while the featurettes (produced by Waddell's High Rising Productions) include a 17m39s "Profondo Jones" interview with longtime Argento journalist Alan Jones about his experiences with Demons including getting the word out in the U.K., a 36m1s "Carnage at the Cinema" Bava interview, a "Monstrous Memories" (30m18s) Cozzi interview about his own memories of the film and its impact, a 9m12s "Splatter Stunt Rock" video interview with stunt man Ottaviano Dell'Acqua, and a different "Dario and the Demons" (15m51s) interview with Argento about the film. As an added bonus, you get a Metropol theater ticket replica in the package, too, which is sold directly from Synapse and through Diabolik. For those who couldn't make that pricey plunge, the same transfer was issued in late 2014 with only the two English-language options and the theatrical trailer, available from Diabolik and Amazon.
Naturally, the success of Demons spawned a sequel one year later with Bava back at the helm, Argento returned to co-write (along with Franco Ferrini and Dardano Sacchetti), and Stivaletti contributing some outlandish mechanical effects. However, Demons 2 (fully titled Demons 2: The Nightmare Returns in some markets) hit just as the theatrical opportunities for indie Italian horror fare were plummeting and even the genre's most stellar entries were being shuffled off directly to VHS. That same fate befell this one when it was issued on tape in America from Imperial Video, inexplicably cut by nearly three minutes to gain an R rating (and completely alienate the target audience). The stupidity of this gesture has never really been justified, and fans quickly went scurrying for the Japanese laserdisc instead with all of its juicy goodness intact.
The plot is an even more bonkers spin on the first film with a bunch of people trapped in a confined setting as a demonic contagion spreads through the premises. This time the location is a German high-rise apartment complex, one of several Cronenbergian elements to be found, where petulant teen Sally (Tassoni) is about the celebrate her birthday. However, she throws a hissy fit when her dress sleeves go back and forth and her ex-boyfriend gets invited against her wishes, and it's off to the bedroom to pout in front of her TV where a movie about the rise of the demons is playing in seemingly every single apartment. Among the other tenants are an expecting couple (Knight and Brilli), a little innocent girl (Asia Argento in her big-screen debut), and a fitness center led by none other than Bobby Rhodes again. Anyway, Sally's party takes a downturn when a demon lunges out of her TV screen and turns her into a howling monster spreading death and destruction among her guests; then it's just a matter of time as the acidic demon blood drizzles from floor to floor and the tenants get mangled and transformed into an army of murderous monsters.
Though strong enough to go beyond an R rating in its uncensored form, Demons 2 isn't as explicit in its bloodletting and often veers more into flat-out surrealism instead, such as a small boy and a family pooch turning into rampaging killer mini-demons and weird pop art decor framing a number of scenes. The soundscape is also markedly different with Simon Boswell (who scored this back to back with StageFright) supplying a fantastic rock and supervising a terrific collection of songs from the likes of The Smiths, Dead Can Dance, and The Cult. Unfortunately it's also far more technically sloppy, with an in-camera film defect plaguing a handful of jittery shots and those obligatory pointless side stories padding the film out for no apparent reason (in this case Sally's parents enjoying a beer garden and another carload of obnoxious kids driving around aimlessly). It's still a ton of fun on its own terms, however, and the overall atmosphere is oddly haunting if you give up on trying to follow a linear storyline.
This film has had an identical history on home video as its predecessor apart from that scissored VHS release. The Roan laserdisc and Anchor Bay DVDs were uncut with pounding English stereo soundtracks, though its problematic, ultra-grainy film stock has defeated more than a few telecine operators. Again you got a Bava/Stivaletti/Curci commentary and a trailer. The subsequent U.K. Arrow release on Blu-ray and DVD in 2012 features a much-improved HD transfer, though the nature of the source often defeats it with excessive brightness exposing lots of compression issues. However, the LPCM English and Italian audio (with optional subs) are fine. Extras include a 21-minute Stivaletti interview about his memorable puppet and gore effects, another barely-connected 16m43s Cozzi interview called "Bava to Bava," the same audio commentary, and a booklet with similar attributes as the previous film.
Fortunately the Synapse Blu-ray from 2014 rectified these issues by getting the black levels back under control and adjusting the compression far more tastefully, resulting in an image about as stellar as possible in 1080p for this film. The limited Steelbook version (again available directly from Synapse and from Diabolik) comes with the English and Italian audio in DTS-HD MA and optional subtitles, with extras including the trailer and more High Rising featurettes: a 15m59s Bava interview ("Screaming for a Sequel"), a 34m50s chat with assistant director Roy Bava about both films ("The Demons Generation"), the 10m22s "Demonic Influences" with filmmaker Federico Zampaglione talking about his experiences with Lamberto Bava, and by far the best, "A Soundtrack for Splatter" (27m8s) with Boswell talking about his early days scoring Italian horror films and serving as the soundtrack consultant, including getting permission to use The Smiths' "Panic" by describing the film to Morrissey as an artsy dissection of the influence of modern media. (Technically, that would be true.) The stripped-down mass market version available from Diabolik and Amazon features the same superior transfer, the English audio track with optional subs, and the theatrical trailer.
Of course, it was just a matter of time before the Demons duo hit 4K -- and that came to pass with a U.K. edition of the film first out of the gate in 2020 as a limited UHD set from Arrow Video with standalone UHD and Blu-ray combos of Demons and Demons 2 hot on its heels. Meanwhile in the U.S. soon after in 2021, Synapse Films released its own limited (6,000-unit) set of both films on separate UHD discs (with a Blu-ray reissue at the same time as well). Featuring new restorations from the original camera negatives, both films look superb here with the Dolby Vision (HDR10 compatible) presentations bringing out a vibrant and very wide range of color here that blows away any versions we've had before. Image quality between the releases looks the same, and in fact the menus are also set up identically even if the contents vary a bit. In a very welcome gesture, Demons 2 has also been digitally stabilized so that unbearably shaky in-camera damage during the beer garden scene is now quite steady for the first time. (The audio's also been synced up a bit better in that scene, too.) Demons features the usual configurations of the DTS-HD MA 5.1 English and Italian tracks, as well as the option of watching the alternate U.S. version (with a botched-up audio track in the initial pressing necessitating a replacement program). Lossless 2.0 stereo tracks are also included for both languages on the international cut as well, with optional English translated or English SDH subtitles. It's worth noting that the audio for the U.S. version has undergone quite a bit more restoration on the Synapse release and sounds much better here. Also, the U.S. cut runs slightly shorter due to the omission of some glimpses of the Coke logo involving cocaine, but that still runs a few seconds longer due to the inclusion of the Ascot logo at the beginning. Demons 2 comes with both the Italian and English tracks in 5.1 and 2.0 options, both of which sound great given the fairly limited nature of the original recording, as well as (on the Synapse) a true stereo 2.0 theatrical mix versus the 1.0 mono on the Arrow.
Extras-wise there's a lot of overlap here starting with the commentary tracks, with Demons porting over the newer archival track on both and the Arrow adding on the older one (with combos of Lamberto Bava, Stivaletti, Simonetti, and Geretta). Either way you get a lively new commentary by Kat Ellinger and Heather Drain, in which they get to enthuse about all things Lamberto Bava and the intergenerational nature of horror cinema, as well as the various traditions and acting connects that all collided here with glorious results. In "Produced by Dario Argento" (27m13s), Michael Mackenzie takes an in-depth look at the filmmaker's unique career as a producer ranging from the TV series Door into Darkness and Dawn of the Dead through his collaborations with Bava and Soavi, Two Evil Eyes, and the troubled Wax Mask. The archival "Dario's Demon Days," "Defining an Era in Music," and "Splatter Spaghetti Style" are present on both the U.S. and U.K. discs. The Synapse also throws in a 2019 Q&A with Stivaletti (36m13s) from the Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester, England. Also included are the Italian, international English, and fantastic U.S. trailers, while the Arrow tosses in a vintage Japanese souvenir program booklet. (Why none of these releases have a still gallery considering what's out there is a mystery for the ages.) The Arrow comes with new artwork by Adam Rabalais, while the Synapse comes with limited edition O-card/slipcover packaging with art by Juan José Saldarriaga and Chris MacGibbon and a fold-out poster of Demons artwork from Wes Benscoter. Either way you get one of those great Metropol gold screener invitations, while the Synapse also has a great bloodstained party invitation for Sally's birthday party. (Sleeves going back and forth and tantrums are optional.)
As for the Demons 2 extras, Travis Crawford contributes a new audio commentary in which he assesses "one of the strangest Italian horror films of the 1980s" and contextualizes it within the rapidly shifting (and declining) film market there at the time, as well as a progression of Argento's rise to pop culture prominence in the horror community around the time. (Only the U.K. disc ports over the older Bava-Stivaletti commentary.) Also included on the U.S. and U.K. discs is "Together and Apart" (26m36s), a video essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas about the presentation of technology in both films as an extension of urbanity, the nature of spectatorship, and modern isolation. Apparently done for the earlier U.S. Blu-ray but popping up in the Synapse reissue only is "The New Blood of Italian Horror" (16m15s), with Stivaletti talking about his work tied to Soavi in various ways from the first Demons through Dellamorte Dellamore. Both releases port over "Creating Creature Carnage," "Bava to Bava," and the Italian and English trailers, while the Synapse carries over its own featurettes here as well ("Demonic Influences," "The Demons Generation," "Screaming for a Sequel," and "A Soundtrack for Splatter").
Reviewed on October 12, 2021