“The sleep of reason gives birth to monsters,” warns the movie-within-a-movie in Demons, and it’s a meta-statement that holds true for the characters within the movie proper, as well as for the viewer: Don’t try to reason with Demons, or make sense of any of it.
Just enjoy the hell out of it! And its throat-rippingly gross monsters!
Demons—directed by Lamberto Bava, son of legendary Italian horror director Mario Bava, and produced by Suspiria director Dario Argento—gives you a heads-up from the beginning that all rules of logic should be disregarded. (This is true for most all Italian horror films, which assume that reality is a waking nightmare.) The opening scene finds music student Cheryl on a Berlin subway (West Berlin, since this is 1985), nervously eyeing all the public transportation-taking punk rockers sharing her car.
Then she spots something legitimately terrifying: a guy in a shiny mask, who seems to be chasing her through the deserted station once she comes to her stop. After breathless terror punctuated by horror-movie vet Claudio Simonetti’s synth-tastic score, Cheryl somehow smacks right into the guy. But he’s not a stalker, as it turns out—he’s just a really creepy lurker who happens to be handing out tickets to an unnamed movie screening at a mysterious new theater. Hey, nothing sinister about that! Right?
“I hope it’s not a horror movie,” Cheryl’s most unfortunate pal Kathy remarks as they find their seats. Of course it’s a horror movie, Kathy! What other kind of movie would it be? The girls, and the hungry-eyed young men, George and Ken, they meet in the lobby, settle in amid an audience that is both sparse and stuffed with grade-A weirdos. There’s the unreasonably angry man and his whiny wife; the blind man who insists his companion narrate the film to him (until she starts making out with some other random dude); the usher-ette with spectacularly poofy 1980s hair; and my favorite trio, a pimp and his two, uh, employees, who just decided to all take in a scary movie together for some reason. But this isn’t an ordinary movie—what happens onscreen begins happening in real life. And things go from this:
To THIS, like, really fast:
Poor Rosemary. She didn’t realize that jokingly trying on a mask—which sure looked like a lobby display item, but was actually a cursed object taken from the tomb of Nostradamus—would doom her into becoming a pus-spewing demon, and give her the power to turn just about everyone around her into a demon, too... “An instrument of evil, like they said in THE DAMN MOVIE,” as Tony the pimp says, in case it’s not one hundred percent obvious what’s going on here.
While the misadventures of oddballs in a locked theater undergoing horrific supernatural transformations (“There has to be an explanation!” George shrieks; no dude, there doesn’t!) would make a DAMN good movie on its own, Demons gives you more. This is a good place to note that while Simonetti’s score is nerve-jangling greatness, Bava also saw fit to fill his movie with songs by these fine artists:
And he brings the punk theme, at least aesthetically, back into the story by introducing a quartet of new characters around Demons’ halfway point. While all the uninfected moviegoers are racing through the trashed theater, trying to stop the movie from playing (it’s never clear, at least I can’t tell, if it’s the mask or the movie that’s causing the demonic outbreak ... or both?), and then, frantically trying to break out ... a gang of spiky-haired rebels are cruising Berlin in a stolen car, snortin’ coke out of a Coke can (yes, really), and lookin’ for kicks.
The movie patrons can’t escape, but somehow the punks are able to break in, blissfully unaware of the ancient evil waiting to greet them.
Really, Demons isn’t groundbreaking in terms of story (it’s basically a zombie movie with a slightly higher concept than most), but it’s elevated in every way by its execution. The wonderfully terrible acting adds an unintentional yet hefty helping of humor; the surprisingly artful cinematography casts everything in a blood-red glow (obvious Argento influences at work, there); the music is corny but perfect; and the special effects are truly, truly disgusting.
And the shocking twist ending might not shock you, but it’s still so gross and fantastic. Demons is amazing and you should watch it tonight. Then re-watch it tomorrow! Just keep any and all weird masks off your face.