Sometimes I think I’ve seen it all, and then a film like the Demons duo comes along and checks my reality. Director Lamberto Bava and producer Dario Argento’s splatter horror series features some of the most deeply disturbing visuals I’ve seen in some time. Red is the dominant color. The bodies of men, women and even children ripping apart in unforgettable ways. Nobody is safe. Nothing is sacred. I think these would be perfect party movies, but watching them alone … good lord.
I loved them.
Synapse Films is releasing a limited-edition 4K UHD set of both Demons films this October. The run is limited to 6,000 copies. I was fortunate enough to receive a review copy in the mail. Although I’m a fan of many of Argento’s films and productions from the 1970s and ’80s, I’d never watched these two and had little idea what to expect from them. Glad I didn’t know anything stepping in. Every terrible image came as a new surprise.
Originally developed as a trilogy, Demons (1985) and Demons 2 (1986) utilize story as a pretense for gore, splatter and endless death. Their narratives are nihilistic exercises: Every potentially tragic interpersonal pairing found from survivalist horror (parent-child, brother-sister, husband-wife) is presented among their expansive casts, and every one of them ends as horribly as possible. Sometimes in ways that defy description. Again, good lord.
The third film, which changed significantly to become 1989’s The Church, is not included in this collection, but the level of restoration found here and the sheer number of extra features and pack-in material make this a must-own set for any fans of Italian splatter-fests.
Let’s dig in:
Demons is under 90 minutes long and, aside from the briefest bit of exposition at the start, fills its runtime with endless, gooey shocks. Cheryl (Natasha Hovey) and George (Urbano Barberini) meet while on a date to a mysterious new movie. The multiplex is packed with viewers, many of whom, like Cheryl, received their tickets from a masked man riding the Berlin subway. The audience is full of couples, families and friends. Movies are great. I’d have accepted a ticket, too, if presented with one so mysteriously.
The film they’re watching is about a group of teenagers coming in contact with a demon. It soon becomes clear that the film itself is, in some fashion, haunted. A character on the screen is scratched and turns into a demon; Rosemary (Geretta Giancarlo), a viewer, realizes too late that she was scratched earlier in the exact same way. Her eyes turn yellow, her teeth grow sharp, her fingernails become talons. Soon, Rosemary starts hunting the other filmgoers with cannibalistic intent. Like zombies, these demons proliferate through bites and scratches like a satanic infection. Everyone who dies eventually comes back to kill.
Unfortunately for the living, the theatre has locked its doors. Some of the exits are inexplicably boarded up. The movie theatre is hell, and the only way out is up, but they have to fight their way through a snarling horde to get there. In some ways, this is a film about an audience trapped with a movie they can’t escape. Relatable.
Demons 2 is slightly longer than the first, with a more expansive setting but the same basic premise. George (David Knight) and Hannah (Nancy Brilli) live in a high-rise apartment complex. Hannah, who is pregnant, waits at home for George to return from being out and about. In the same complex, Sally Day (Coralina Cataldi Tassoni) waits locked in her bedroom while her friends on the other side of the door prepare her birthday party. While bored, Sally turns on the TV and settles on a horror movie about demons. She’s enjoying it. Captivated. Until the demon on screen turns and looks at her. It starts to move, slowly, toward the screen. Soon his head starts to poke through. Sally tries to turn it off, but it’s too late: The demon gets her, turns her into an undead beast, and we’re again off to the races.
Despite a more diverse array of settings, Demons 2 is no more coherent as a story than its predecessor. Both feature large casts of characters who are basically unmemorable beyond the mode of their demise. The lone exception is Bobby Rhodes as Tony the Pimp in the first and Hank in the second. In both movies, Rhodes yells a lot and takes on a position of authority among the survivors before meeting a grisly end. Unlike the first, which mostly features characters in eveningware, Demons 2 finds natural humor in bringing together characters from different parts of the complex — well-dressed partygoers, kids at bedtime, an entire gym of ’80s Spandex-wearing workout freaks. While the first confines its climactic action to the movie theatre, Demons 2 makes a big action statement with a section in the parking garage that mixes utterly devastating violence with some great pyrotechnics.
Demons features a score by composer Claudio Simonetti (whose work includes 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, Deep Red and many other Argento films) who mixed his work with what was then a contemporary rock soundtrack, including Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” and Mötley Crüe’s “Save Our Souls.” It’s a little much. It’s too much. It’s just right.
Demons 2 features a score by Simon Boswell, and no contemporary rock ‘n’ roll.
Thess are both ludicrously dark movies. There’s no hope to be found here, no characters to really care for, no grand statements to be made. Argento and Bava made these films to please young audiences looking for something graphic and terrifying on a Friday night, and they delivered on that promise. One imagines the two of them could’ve never foreseen the two films restored in a deluxe box set filled with special features and enthusiastically recommended by a horrorhound in the year 2021, but here we are. These films are some really gross shit. You won’t be disappointed.
The limited-edition two-disc set features new 4K restorations of both films from the original 35mm camera negative. Also included are some neat little keepsakes — a ticket to the movie from Demons and an invitation to Sally’s party from Demons 2. A poster — which would frighten me too much to ever hang anywhere — is also included. These are region-free, as is the case with most 4K discs.
The movies themselves each include a bevy of special features, so many that the font on the back of the box is essentially too small for my lousy eyes.
Special features on Demons include:
- The full-length original cut (dubbed or subbed) and the shorter version released in the U.S., which has its own dub
- A new audio commentary track by Kat Ellinger and Heather Drain, who host the Hell’s Belles podcast
- An audio commentary track by Bava, Simonetti, visual effects artist Sergio Stivaletti and actress Geretta Geretta
- New visual essays, rediscovered interviews, and new features about the soundtrack
Demons 2 has just as many special features to speak of, including a new audio commentary track by film critic Travis Crawford, several interviews with Bava and a great deal of technical documentaries covering almost every aspects of the film’s production.
This set is clearly a labor of love for these two absurd, incredible films.
Both films feature uncompressed DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio mixes in English and 2.0 for their Italian mixes derived from archival masters. They sound fantastic, particularly in Demons 2, when the individual sounds used in the smorgasbord of scary noises made by the demons are so crisply heard. One of the Demons sounds screams like a jaguar. Why not?!
For visual comparison purposes, I pulled up the old trailers featured on the disc as well as some old footage on YouTube. The 4K remaster is astoundingly good, to the extent that you wonder why, in a film so full of visual horrors, it’s necessary to see absolutely everything in perfect definition. Maybe a little bit of fuzziness would spare the audience the full extent of Bava’s vision. But then, what are we here for if not to really believe a person’s fingers are being graphically chopped off? If not to see, in brilliant red, a gallon of blood spilling from the mouth of a possessed woman who just wants to eat the little boy next door? This kind of horror lives and dies on how close it comes to making someone in the audience feel sick to their stomach. Frankly, it took me a couple tries to actually finish the first film. That’s probably the best endorsement I can give to what the Synapse team has done here.