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Demons and Demons 2

Demons


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)

When I re-read my 2007 review of Lamberto Bava’s Demons, I realized it was too uninformative and badly written to reuse here. It’s also strangely over-critical of this lovably dopey, crowd-pleasing gore-fest. I may have been overcompensating for the fact that I usually slobber all over Italian horror films, but, looking back, I think it’s more a matter of me excessively rebelling against the status quo. Demons is to committed Italian horror fans as Green Day is to committed punk rockers – a popular choice that appeases wider audience demands than more ‘artistically valid’ genre work, like Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (1980) or Argento’s Tenebre (1982). For the sake of this analogy, Suspiria (1977) is The Clash’s London Calling, an extremely popular work that still manages to adhere to what dogmatic fans consider core aesthetic expectations. What I failed to convey with that first review is that movies like Demons and music like Green Day serve an important function in exposing mainstream audiences to fringe arts and entertainment. And, unlike tribalistic punk rockers, horror fans tend to welcome new converts, which makes Demons one of the most important films of its generation.

That said, it’s still not a favourite.

Demons (aka: Demoni and 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 was a Steven Spielberg-like brand name and, though 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/producer, 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 Macabre (1980), a gory neo-giallo in A Blade in the Dark (1983), the First Blood-inspired Blastfighter (1984), and a notorious Jaws rip-off, Monster Shark (1984) – failed to ignite a lot of mainstream attention. His latter career (he’s still working in Italian television) hasn’t been particularly memorable, either, but Demons (and its sequel) stuck him somewhere just below Suspiria and Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (aka: Zombi 2 and Zombie Flesh Eaters, 1979) on the list of internationally popular Italian horror movies.

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 Anchor Bay DVD

Screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti was not part of Argento’s usual cadre of collaborators. He is best known for his work with Lucio Fulci, including living dead-themed hits Zombie, City of the Living Dead (1980), and The Beyond (1981), but also worked with the elder Bava ( Bay of Blood, 1971; Shock, 1977) and the junior Bava on three of his four pre- Demons films ( A Blade in the Dark, Blastfighter, and Monster Shark). According to interviews, Sacchetti’s original script was a three-part anthology, but Argento only really reacted to a story where people were possessed by the 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.

Bava efficiently 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 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 comparisons to Argento’s Suspiria and Inferno (1980), not to mention Bava’s father’s films. The name of the game is excess, but, without any dynamic range, Demons runs out of gas. The last third of the film alternates between gonzo, large-scale slaughter and boring/repetitive scenes of survivors trying to find a way out of the theater. The pacing problems are multiplied infinitely by the second-act introduction of a group of coke-addled thugs that break into the theater to escape the cops after spilling their blow. These scenes were seemingly added to ensure that the film ran an industry-standard feature length (the final run time is a pithy 88 minutes) and an attempt at introducing a 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 fit the material much better, though anthologies weren’t a particularly popular format in the mid-‘80s (Romero’s Creepshow, notwithstanding) and Demons might not have had such a massive box office impact had any part of the formula had been changed.

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Note that the movie-within-the-movie was directed by future Cemetery Man (1994) director Michele Soavi, who also plays two roles in Demons (the metal masked man handing out tickets to the show and the guy that cuts his face on the stone demon mask in the movie-within-the-movie). Soavi walks a tight line between making a mini-movie that is stylish on his own merits to be entertaining while still appearing amateur enough to work as a silly horror movie that the characters in an already silly horror movie are watching. 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, leading to The Church (aka: La Chiesa, 1989), which began its life as Demons 3, and The Sect ( La Setta, 1991). Technically, both films were sold as unofficial Demons sequels in some territories – along with Bava’s Ogre (aka: Demons 3: The Ogre, 1988), his remake of his father’s Black Sunday, under the title Mask of Satan (1992), Umberto Lenzi’s Black Demons (aka: Demoni 3, 1991), Luigi Cozzi’s faux sequel to Argento’s Inferno, The Black Cat (aka: Demons 6: De Profundis, 1989), and Soavi’s Cemetery Man (aka: Dellamorte Dellamore, 1994).

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 released the first Blu-ray version in 2012, followed in 2013 by Synapse Films’ 2013 limited edition Steelbook. Review copies of the LE were not available and couldn’t personally afford Synapse’s asking price, so I was happy to hear that the company had plans for a barebones version.

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 Anchor Bay DVD

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. I have included full-sized screen captures from this disc and Anchor Bay’s anamorphic DVD to illustrate the vast differences in colour quality and gamma correction between the releases. I caution readers that the images have been slightly compressed by the website’s use of JPG images and ask that they click on them to access the full size versions, because the differences appear really stark when shrunk down for the page. It’s also vital to blow the images up to see how completely caked in compression noise and other artefacts the SD transfer was. The Blu-ray does have occasionally uneven grain levels, but the frequency of the grain appears natural, aside from some clumping around the edges of the frame (mostly during the very beginning of the film).

There will always be arguments about ‘filmmaker’s intent’ when it comes to altering the qualities of a film’s image – the promotional materials do not indicate that either Bava or Battaglia was involved in the restoration – but I think that most of us can agree that the 1080p transfer’s vivid acrylic and neon colours are 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. This brings us to the gamma/contrast levels. The new transfer is, quite obviously, much, much darker and the overriding blackness can crush out finer details, especially in dimmer backgrounds. But here’s the thing – I didn’t really notice how much darker it was until I started taking DVD caps. Aside from a few wide-angle images (for example, the big shot of the theater I’ve included here), the darkness seems accurate in motion and doesn’t obscure any of the special effects. There’s also no question that the DVD leaned too far the other way. Highlights are blown-out, especially along finer details, and, more importantly, the brightness spoils the mood of some crucial images. Take for instance the emblematic shot of the demons running down the hallway with their eyes glowing, thanks to the new transfer, it now generally matches the iconic poster art.

I haven’t seen Arrow’s release, but, based on screen caps (including those on Marcus’ review), it appears that their scan featured similar color/gamma levels to Anchor Bay’s DVDs.

 Synapse Blu-ray
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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 ‘main 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 dub. The international dub is presented in its original 2.0 stereo (it was mixed for Dolby theater systems) and the results are fantastic and include a better sound 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.

Do note that the Limited Edition releases of both Demons and Demons 2 include Italian dubs, also in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0.

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Demons and Demons 2

Demons 2


There’s a scary movie on television and the residents of a luxury high-rise building have their eyes glued to their sets. Unfortunately for a young birthday girl, an eternal demonic evil is released through her TV and partygoers soon find themselves fighting an army of murderous monsters! Acid blood, demonic dogs, possessed children and rampaging zombies wreak havoc for the trapped tenants! (From Synapse’s official synopsis)

Demons was designed to please the widest horror audience possible and its monumental success pushed Argento and Bava to make an even more referential and commercially viable sequel. Appropriately titled Demons 2 (aka: Demoni 2 and Demons 2: The Nightmare Returns), the second film in the franchise was thrown together in a haze and released almost exactly a year after the original. The results are predictably slapdash and fans have resented the sequel for effectively retelling the first film’s story in a different location, instead of expanding upon the apocalyptic finale (the TV movie that unleashes the curse this time around is a docudrama about the post-demon apocalypse, if that’s any consolation). Critics and audiences lamented the lack of originality and continuing dependence on rubbery special effects and Demons 2 was left on the wayside as a forgotten curiosity. However, the two Demons movies are coupled so often that they’ve become inseparable for a whole generation of home video viewers. With the MPAA-mandated cuts to its violence finally eradicated for its DVD release ( Demons was never censored, but, for some reason Demons 2 was submitted for an R-rating when released stateside) I found I was able to fully enjoy what Bava did with this thankless, cash-in project and have grown to prefer the sequel to the original.

 Synapse Blu-ray
 Anchor Bay DVD

Demons 2 is an even purer practice in exploitation than its predecessor in that an exploitation movie exploiting the popularity of another exploitation movie is a pretty spectacular equation (the math definitely checks out). The entire production doesn’t have an original bone in its metaphorical body and half the fun of watching it is the game of ‘spot the reference’ it induces. Demons owed a sizable debt to Romero and Fulci’s zombie movies and both the concept and energy levels were inspired by Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981). If Argento hadn’t been involved, Demons probably would’ve been sold as a sequel to Evil Dead (five unrelated films were retitled so they’d appear to be sequels to Raimi’s film, though Army of Darkness wasn’t one of them). Demons 2 recycles the basic premise of Demons and all the movies it mimicked, then adds a pile of additional allusions to the Alien movies (demons now have acid blood) and Joe Dante’s Gremlins (a tiny puppet demon menaces a pregnant woman for a large portion of the climax). Beyond this are unlikely homages to the work of David Cronenberg. The basic concept – a state-of-the-art high-rise that traps tenants during a contagious monster outbreak – is swiped from Shivers (aka: They Came From Within, 1975) and a scene of a demon pushing his way out of a television is lifted from Videodrome (1983). Unlike more recent post-modern horrors, like Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) or Drew Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods (2012), Bava and his cohorts didn’t actively acknowledge their filmic associations. They intended the references as tribute, but pre-Tarantino mainstream cinema audiences weren’t used to the idea of tribute in genre movies and Demons 2 was dismissed as a rip-off. It seems frivolous to find Bava’s mimicry offensive, though, given the grand Italian horror tradition of ripping off popular concepts.

For his part as director, Bava made a slicker movie the second time around. He utilizes the larger canvas well, using the ensemble cast and locations to paint a much bigger picture and cleverly cutting between scenes and the ‘fake’ movie playing on the television. The MTV sensibilities are ratcheted to giddy levels, including more rhythmic editing, wacky camera angles, and strobing neon lights to match the even louder, more pop-infused musical soundtrack. Again, the excess gets the best of the movie by the last act and all the scenes that take place outside of the high-rise are superfluous to the point that they drag down the otherwise speedy momentum. Even the best scenes, like the pregnant woman’s mortal battle with the demon Muppet, tend to overstay their welcome. In the end, Demons 2 is just more everything – more (though not necessarily gorier) effects, more locations, more action, more fire, more crashing cars, more gunshots, more nonsense, more dumb dialogue, and more fun. Your mileage may vary.

 Synapse Blu-ray
 Anchor Bay DVD

Video


Most of what I said in the Demons section applies here as well – the 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer’s details are significantly sharper than their fuzzy, compression-noise clobbered SD counterpart and the major changes in color timing and gamma are, generally speaking, an improvement. The screen caps don’t do justice to the clarity improvements or the fact that the darker images are more discernable in motion. That said, it is arguable that Synapse got better results from the first film. Demons 2 features a more eclectic overall palette than the first film and the intensification of blues and reds does overwhelm some of the more subtle hue differentiations. The DVD is kind of dingy, but definitely more varied in terms of oranges, yellows, and greens. The higher contrast levels and dimmer gamma are slightly more problematic. Though the boosted blacks give the moodier sequences depth and punch (the DVD’s blacks are pretty muddy and brown), the crush effects can be overwhelming. Some of gore and transformation scenes – the images that really define the film – are now obscured (see the screen shots I’ve included of the little demon boy’s transformation for a good example). Still, it’s an improvement over the DVD’s less evocative image quality more often than not. Demons 2 is a bit grainier than its predecessor, though this may be an effect of the harsher contrast, which could be pumping up the intensity of the tiny black dots. This applies most commonly to the outdoor establishing shots.

Speaking of outdoor shots, Demons 2 has some particularly problematic location scenes. In at least three instances – once while establishing the Oktoberfest location (where Bava himself cameos as the birthday girl’s father), once during a scene where extras are followed along a boardwalk, and again during the car crash sequence – the film begins to shutter and shake vertically. The shake appears on both Synapse’s Blu-ray and Anchor Bay’s DVD during the same scenes. Since each release was mastered from a different source, I assume something went wrong during filming or postproduction. The effect is amplified in HD. I’ve included one example to give you a general idea of the issue (the image of a man opening the door of a smashed car).

 Synapse Blu-ray
 Anchor Bay DVD

Audio


If Demons 2 was redubbed for its US release (via Artists Entertainment Group), that dub would’ve applied to the edited, R-rated version. So, even if such a thing exists (and I have no idea if it does) there’d be little reason to include it here. Synapse has fitted their Blu-ray with a solo DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English soundtrack. Again, most of what I said in the Demons section applies here – the ‘ghost’ center channel separates the dialogue better than some mixes with supposedly discrete 5.1 mixes. The stereo channels have more to do outside of music this time as well, both in terms of layering noise for the action scenes and inserting directional effects for the sake of atmosphere. The demon growls/screams are also stereo enhanced to give them a more dramatic, otherworldly impact. The horrible screeching of the mini-demon occasionally fuzzes-out at the highest volume levels, but I believe this is an intended extreme quality. The music, including Simon Boswell’s electronic score and another collection of ‘80s metal and pop entries, is, once again, the primary audio element and sounds fantastic.

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Note: The above images are taken from the Sypanse Blu-ray and the Anchor Bay DVD and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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