Director: Lamberto Bava
Synapse Films

Lamberto Bava's duo of gory demonic goodness – DEMONS and DEMONS 2 – hits Blu-ray and DVD in the US courtesy of Synapse Films.

When Berlin music student Cheryl (Natasha Hovey) receives free passes to an unspecified movie, she convinces classmate Kathy (Paola Cozzo, Fulci's CAT IN THE BRAIN) to ditch class and come with her to the recently re-opened Metropol theater. Also in attendance are bickering couple Frank (Stelio Candeli, NUDE FOR SATAN) and Ruth (Nicole Tessier, GIANTS OF ROME), teenage couple Hannah (Fiore Argento, Argento's PHENOMENA) and Tommy (Guido Baldi), blind Werner (Alex Serra, Bava's THE OGRE) and his daughter Liz (Sally Day), pimp Tony (Bobby Rhodes, Aldo Lado's CIRCLE OF FEAR) and his hookers Carmen (Fabiola Toledo, Bava's A BLADE IN THE DARK) and Rosemary (Geretta-Geretta, Fulci's MURDEROCK) who cuts herself while trying on a silver demon mask on display in the lobby. Cheryl and Kathy meet cute over a vending machine and pair off with George (Urbano Barberini, Argento's OPERA) and Ken (Karl Zinny, Bava's DELIRIUM) and settle in for the movie in which a quartet of kids – including Michele Soavi (who also pops up in the film proper as the masked man giving out movie passes), Marcello Modugno (Deodato's DIAL: HELP), and Jasmine Maimone (Cozzi's PAGANINI HORROR) – make a nighttime visit to the tomb of Nostradamus where they discover a silver demon mask that one of the guys jokingly tries on and cuts himself. Rosemary's cut begins to bleed again so she goes to the restroom where she undergoes a messy transformation into a demon "an instrument of evil" that starts slaughtering moviegoers in parallel to the massacre in the film. When a clawed Carmen crashes through the screen and undergoes a transformation right in front of the audience, the feeling moviegoers discover that they are trapped in the theater. As the survivors endeavor to escape, they endure more demon attacks that thin out their own ranks while multiplying those of the monsters who are just as eager to escape into the outside world.

Originally planned as a story in an unfilmed anthology project by Dario Argento, DEMONS – co-scripted by Argento and Bava along with Bava and Fulci regular Dardanno Sacchetti (THE BEYOND) and Argento regular Franco Ferrini (SLEEPLESS) – prove to be a crowd-pleaser worldwide with its splattery unrated gore and charged metal soundtrack. The demons are truly vicious here in an effects showcase for Sergio Stivaletti (WAX MASK) – who got his start as an uncredited effects technician on Riccardo Freda's MURDER OBSESSION and had contributed animatronic and make-up effects to Argento's PHENOMENA and would branch into digital visual effects on Argento's THE STENDHAL SYNDROME – although the more seasoned Rosario Prestopino (BURIAL GROUND) was responsible for the clawed faces, torn-off scalps, ripped throats, gouged out eyes, and the large chunks bitten out of their victims (all bathed harshly in neon and red and blue gels by Bava's regular cinematographer Gianlorenzo Battaglia). The claustrophobia of the theater setting is disrupted by cutaways to a quartet of joyriding coke-addled punks – Lino Salemme (who would also appear in DEMONS 2), Peter Pitsch (the diva's companion in OPERA), Giuseppe Maria Curciano (THE MONSTER OF FLORENCE), and Bettina Ciampolini (DISTANT LIGHTS, a sci-fi drama produced by Claudio Argento) – who stumble into the theater while fleeing the cops to provide more demon-fodder; but the energy has already flagged considerably by this point, at which Bava and Argento pick things up with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink third act that includes a back-bursting demon birth, Barberini playing white knight (well, he does come from one of Italy's royal families) astride a motorcycle slashing away at demons with a sword from the lobby display, and a helicopter dropped through the theater ceiling.

An early example of the compilation soundtrack, DEMONS' employment of heavy metal and new wave is more often hit-than-miss. Motley Crue's "Save Our Souls" scores the intro to the film-within-a-film, Pretty Maids' "Night Danger" accompanies the theater-goers mass exodus and Saxon's "Everybody Up" as George and Cheryl take to the streets, while Accept's "Fast as a Shark" amps up the level of badassery during George's motorcycle takedown of the demons. Go West's "We Close Our Eyes" and The Adventures' "Send My Heart" seem like strange listening for the punks but Billy Idol's "White Wedding" is an inspired choice when they indulge in some coke-snorting. In spite of this line-up, Claudio Simonetti's synth score has no trouble maintaining prominence from the main title sequence throughout the suspense sequences (the parallel stalking of Carmen behind the theater screen and the comely camper in the film-within-a-film being a prime example). Besides Soavi, the supporting cast includes some other Italian horror cinema history fixtures like Nicoletta Elmi – the red-headed tyke of Dario Argento's DEEP RED, Mario Bava's BARON BLOOD and BAY OF BLOOD, Massimo Dallamano's NIGHT CHILD, and ANDY WARHOL'S FRANKENSTEIN – all grown up here as the striking usherette Ingrid, Geoffredo Unger (the masked assassin stunt double of Mario Bava's BLOOD AND BLACK LACE), and HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY's Giovanni Frezza (who also figured into the prologue of Bava's A BLADE IN THE DARK).

Set after the events of DEMONS, when things had returned to normal and the site of the now-quashed outbreak has become a walled-in forbidden zone (the setting here appears to be Italy rather than West Germany), DEMONS 2 is set primarily in a hi-tech high-rise apartment building buzzing with activity on a cool evening. Hannah (Nancy Brilli, Deodato's BODY COUNT) sends her husband George (David Knight) out to satisfy her pregnancy cravings, high-class prostitute Mary (Virginia Bryant, Bava's THE OGRE) is visiting a resident, gym trainer Hank (DEMONS' Bobby Rhodes) mercilessly rides his customers, Sally (OPERA's Coralina Cataldi Tassoni) is on the road to spoiling her own sweet sixteen birthday party when she learns her ex Jacob (Bruno Bilota, Lenzi's HANDS OF STEEL) is on the way with his new squeeze, her guests are driving the building's security guard (DEMONS' Lino Salemme) up the wall, while latchkey tykes Ingrid (Asia Argento in her first role) and Tommy (Marco Vivio, Bava's UNTIL DEATH) settle in to watch a TV documentary in which a group of kids break into the forbidden zone in search of demon artifacts. When one of them cuts herself on a demon claw, one of the monsters is resurrected and comes through TV into sulking Sally's bedroom to make her birthday an unforgettable party. Sally's demon blood melts through the floors ALIEN-style, infecting other residents and cutting off power to the security system sealing everyone in. As the infection spreads, George and Mary tries to escape a stalled elevator in order to get back to Hannah while other survivors barricade the parking garage as demons converge.

Although it can be occasionally brutal and kills off reasonably sympathetic characters left and right (including two children), DEMONS 2 feels lightweight and even more comic bookish. Stivaletti's demon effects are more accomplished but also more cartoonish (particularly Sally's bladder-inflating transformation and another baby demon birthing that is more cute than creepy) and the even more stilted dubbing is even more unintentionally comical than usual (with the exception of Tassoni who seems to be dubbing herself). Gianlorenzo Battaglia's cinematography is slicker (although the Luciano Vittori color processing is cheaper), emphasizing cool blues until the red gel-drenched television studio finale. Simon Boswell's synth score includes a driving main title theme "Demonica" as well as variations on the suspense cues he would rework for Soavi's STAGEFRIGHT and Bava's DELIRIUM while the compilation soundtrack favors New Wave bands with tracks like The Smith's "Panic" and Gene Loves Jezebel's "Heartache" accompanying Sally's party. Fields of the Nephalim's "Power", Love & Rocket's "Kundalini Express", and The Art of Noise's "Backbeat" – along with Boswell's "Demons Groove" cue – also suggest mischief rather than menace. Dead Can Dance's "De Profundis", on the other hand, is effectively employed as George and Mary witness the procession of demons emerging from Sally's apartment and The Cult's "Rain" accompanies Sally's full transformation and the end credits crawl.

The demon version of Tommy was doubled by dwarf Davide Marotta who had also donned Stivaletti make-up as the monster child of Argento's PHENOMENA. Like DEMONS, the supporting cast is also shot-through with Italian horror history regulars. THE BEYOND's tarantula victim Michele Mirabella is Mary's client, BARON BLOOD's Antonio Cantafora plays Ingrid's father (and would later appear in Argento's THE CARD PLAYER), the demon that comes through the television is played by Stefano Molinari (the castrated, possessed zombie of EVIL CLUTCH as well as one of the victims of LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO, Lamberto Bava's TV take on "The Vij" which also formed the basis of his father's BLACK SUNDAY), and Lorenzo Flaherty (Fulci's VOICES FROM BEYOND) is one of the party guests while ZOMBI 3's Marina Loi is one of Hank's students. PAGANINI HORROR's Pascal Persiano and Eliana Hoppe (DEMONS' camping victim) appear in the demons documentary, while Bava himself plays young Tommy's father (Bava's son Fabrizio served as the film's second assistant director). The goofy film is still highly entertaining, especially when taken in as a double bill with the first. Bava and Argento were developing DEMONS 3 with the creatures unleashed on an airplane, but that fell through and ideas were recycled into what would become Michele Soavi's THE CHURCH, which is known as DEMONS 3 in Japan (Umberto Lenzi's BLACK DEMONS was released as DEMONI 3 in Italy and Shriek Show captioned their US DVD of Lamberto Bava's THE OGRE as DEMONS 3). In Japan, Soavi's THE SECT would be known as DEMONS 4, Lamberto Bava's television film LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO was christened DEMONS 5, and Luigi Cozzi's THE BLACK CAT became DEMONS 6.

DEMONS was distributed unrated theatrically in the United States by the short-lived Ascot Entertainment Group. When they acquired the film, they made some changes to the dubbing as well as adding some additional music stings and sound effects (particularly the claw slash and growl under the title card). The dubbing is restricted to the bickering couple and the punks, but it's good enough to make one wish they had redubbed the entire film (although the export track features some of the usual Italian dubbing regulars including Nick Alexander). Unfortunately, they went the cheap route and made these changes in mono, sacrificing the Dolby Stereo track (which is both referenced in the dialogue and the logo still appears in the end credits). Although the opening and end credits were in English, the supporting cast list had the "Altri Interpreti" heading (even though other export prints had the "Supporting Cast" heading). When New World distributed the film on videocassette (and Image on laserdisc), it was in this altered mono version in a serviceable fullscreen transfer. At this point, the only quality source for the original stereo surround track was the letterboxed Columbia VHS and laserdisc in Japan. The mono track is okay, but the Dolby Stereo track is aggressive and directional from the sound effects to the scoring and songs. In the case of DEMONS 2, the short-lived Artists Entertainment mounted a theatrical release of a cut R-rated version with mono audio (with no alterations) which apparently only screened in limited venues on the east coast and the southern United States before being dumped onto VHS by Imperial Entertainment and laserdisc by Image Entertainment in the same fullscreen, R-rated, mono transfer (despite having a Dolby Stereo logo on the front cover). Once again, the Columbia tape and disc release were the only way to appreciate the film in widescreen and stereo surround.

In 1998, The Roan Group made a step in the right direction with laserdiscs of both films (along with Argento's TENEBRAE and PHENOMENA) featuring letterboxed 1.66:1 transfers with Chace Surround remixes in stereo surround and AC3 5.1 as well as audio commentary tracks by Lamberto Bava and Sergio Stivaletti (moderated by journalist Loris Curci). These same transfers were released by Anchor Bay on VHS and non-anamorphic DVD the following year (the latter with Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 surround tracks). Anamorphic reissues of all four films were issued by Anchor Bay in 2007. While TENEBRAE and PHENOMENA turned out to be upscales rather than new transfers, DEMONS and DEMONS 2 were new, more colorful transfers. HD remasters – from camera negative scans performed by the Cineteca di Bologna – of the two films hit the UK first from Arrow Video, although their bountiful packages were compromised by a number of factors, among them compression artifacts from squeezing each of the films and their respective extras (including new commentaries and interviews) onto BD25 discs and the use of mono-only tracks in both English and Italian reportedly due to an inability to fit the stereo tracks to the new scans. Synapse took the same scans, performed new color correction, and released both films onto stacked website exclusive-limited edition Blu-ray/DVD steelbook combos last year. They followed up those this year with barebones, English-language only Blu-ray and DVD releases (the latter supplied for review here only).

While the Roan and Anchor Bay discs of DEMONS had English-language credits, Synapse's source features Italian ones. The progressive, anamorphic 1.66:1 widescreen transfer is darker than the earlier ones but with more vibrant colors (the Anchor Bays look dull while the Arrow looks faded by comparison, which may have meant that Arrow and the Cineteca di Bologna were being conservative with the color timing of the raw scan). The Italian track and subtitles for it are dropped, but the disc does feature both the English export Dolby Stereo track and the American mono track (as well as English SDH subtitles for both). The Roan laserdisc and first Anchor Bay DVD of DEMONS 2 featured English-language opening and closing credits, but their anamorphic reissue had Italian ones (as does the Synapse disc). The progressive, anamorphic 1.66:1 widescreen transfer is darker and bluer than the 16:9 Anchor Bay DVD and Arrow Blu-ray but often with more visible detail. As with the first film, the Arrow looks faded by comparison, washing out detail in scenes that use smoke for diffusion. Like the DEMONS disc, the Italian track is dropped but the punchy English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track is also accompanied by optional English SDH subtitles (the US mono track was simply dumbed down rather than altered like the first film). All versions of DEMONS 2 suffer from jittery, blurred frames during some of the exterior scenes, but this is the fault of the shooting rather than the care of the elements. The sole extras for both films are their theatrical trailers: the U.S. one for DEMONS (1:38) and the export trailer for DEMONS 2 (2:59). A DEMONS devotee would want to have both the Arrow steelbooks (for the extras) and the Synapse limited editions (for the superior color timing, compression, and exclusive extras), but even a casual fan would probably be better served by Synapse's barebones Blu-rays rather than their DVD equivalents. (Eric Cotenas)