Demons/Demoni (1985) ****
It sounds crazy, but I’m completely serious. Demons proves conclusively that such things as characterization, motivation, and logic are not actually necessary for the creation of a great movie. When I start describing the film in a couple of paragraphs, it’s going to sound like a completely idiotic mess-- and I’m open to the possibility that it is-- but, damn it, it works!
The first thing you need to know is that this is an Italian movie. It was produced by Dario Argento, a man whom I’ve heard called “the Italian Hitchcock”, and directed by the equally famous Mario Bava’s son, Lamberto. That should tell you that you’re in good hands here, but that those hands are awfully twitchy by American standards. Expect the inexplicable! Point number two: ignore the title. They may call them “demons”, but this is a zombie movie at heart.
Demons is not a movie that wastes time. Not two minutes after the opening credits end, the unnatural goings-on begin. A Berliner college girl named Cheryl (Natasha Hovey) gets off the subway and, almost immediately after becoming separated from the crowd, notices that she is being followed by a man in black (Michele Soavi, from A Blade in the Dark and Raiders of Atlantis), half of whose face is covered by a chrome prosthesis! Cheryl does the smart thing, and starts to run, but of course the man catches her. To Cheryl’s inestimable relief, the man simply hands her a piece of gold paper, about four by six inches in size-- it’s a ticket to the Metropol cinema, apparently some sort of special promotion, though there is no mention of the movie’s title on the ticket. After she realizes what’s going on, she asks the man in black for a second ticket to give to her friend, Cathy (Paola Cozzo). She then goes up to the street, meets up with Cathy, and suggests that the two of them cut class that night and go to the Metropol instead.
I don’t care how awful the girls’ class is; they’d have been much better off spending the evening on campus. The Metropol is clearly no ordinary theater-- everything about it stinks of evil. First of all, there’s the building itself, which looks like an industrial-age reinterpretation of the ruined mansion where Graf Orlock sets up shop in Nosferatu. Then, there’s the lobby display for the mysterious, apparently untitled movie. It consists of a suit of medieval armor (studded boiled leather, it looks like), riding a red dirt-bike, with a Japanese samurai sword clutched in one gauntlet, and a tin demon mask in the other. Also worrisome is the fact that the theater has apparently lain vacant and abandoned for years; many of the characters say they never realized it was there. And let’s not forget that guy with the metal face handing out free tickets-- none of William Castle’s publicity stunts can hold a candle to that in terms of cloaking the movie in a sinister aura. But, unsurprisingly, the only one of the characters who is even the slightest bit put off by the whole thing is Cathy. The other characters-- George and Ken (Gor’s Urbano Barberini and Karl Zinny), who put the moves on Cheryl and Cathy; Hannah and Tom (Fiore Argento, from Creepers, and Guido Baldi), the young lovers; Werner the blind man (The Ogre’s Alex Serra) and his guide Lisa (Bettina Ciampolini); the Cantankerous Married Couple; Tony the pimp (Bobby Rhodes, from The Great Alligator and the 1983 Hercules) and his two hookers; Cheryl herself-- seem not to notice anything out of the ordinary.
As for the mystery movie, it seems to be a fairly standard-issue Italian horror cheapie. Two couples ride their motorcycles to a dilapidated church, whose underground crypt is rumored to be the final resting place of the famous 16th-century charlatan Nostradamus. Inside a stone sarcophagus bearing the supposed prophet’s name, they find a mildewy old book (written in Latin and attributed to Nostradamus) and a demon mask identical to the one the suit of armor is holding in the theater lobby. One of the boys tries on the mask just as his companion reads in the book that whoever wears the mask will be turned into a demon, “an instrument of evil.” (This part about reading the old book isn’t actually as ridiculous as it might seem at first; remember, these guys are Italians. Italian and Latin are similar enough languages that a person who can read one of them could reasonably be expected to get the gist of a document written in the other.) Cross-reference that warning with the inscription elsewhere in the crypt, proclaiming, “They will make cemeteries their cathedrals and tombs, your cities,” and it would seem that the cast of this movie-within-a-movie are in some serious trouble. As the guy with the mask takes it off, he discovers that something on its inside surface scratched his cheek. And here we come to the second big “uh-oh” moment of the film. You see, Rosemary (Geretta Giancarlo, of 2020 Texas Gladiators and Rats: Night of Terror), one of Tony’s whores, did the same thing with the mask in the lobby, and just like in the movie, it scratched her face when she took it off. And wouldn’t you know it, the cut on her face reopens at exactly the moment that the character in the movie discovers his cut. Rosemary gets up to go to the bathroom, partly in the hope of getting her face to stop bleeding, partly because she has started to feel a bit queasy. As she looks in the bathroom mirror, the area around the cut begins to swell, until it bursts into a spectacular fountain of pus. Meanwhile, back in the theater proper, the movie has finally gotten to the good part, with the character who had earlier donned the mask changing into a demon/zombie thing, and beginning to off the rest of the cast. At about this point, Tony’s other girl (Nicole Tessier) decides to go looking for Rosemary. Big mistake. When she finds Rosemary in the bathroom, she discovers that her erstwhile companion has undergone the same metamorphosis as the character in the movie. Zombie-Rosemary pounces on the second hooker, gashing her throat with its claws. After a brief struggle, the injured girl escapes down the corridor that leads behind the screen, but soon her wounds begin to swell and suppurate, and she too is transformed. (This scene is astonishingly effective, given the film’s low overall level of technical sophistication.) And that’s when all hell starts to break loose, as each person killed or wounded by the demons rises again as a murderous monster. The arrival of a car full of psycho cokeheads only makes matters worse-- they enter the theater to escape the police, opening doors as they go. The rest of the story is so satisfying and unpredictable that I’d be doing you a major disservice by telling you any more.
Pay close attention as you watch this one. A lot of the action actually doesn’t make any sense, but a number of apparent non-sequiturs follow naturally from minor events earlier on that a person could easily miss or forget about because of their seeming unimportance. Take, for example, the scene where the helicopter falls through the theater’s ceiling. There actually is a reason for this, and it will become clear if you give it a minute’s thought. On the other hand, I will warn you that the actual process by which the evil theater and its evil movie trigger an outbreak of zombie mayhem is never really explained, nor is any reason even hinted at for the metal-faced man to aid and abet the whole business. Character development as a whole is extremely sketchy throughout, and relationships between characters are, at best, implied. It doesn’t matter though. Nonsensical or not, Demons kicks ass.