Italian horror is tremendous if for nothing else then the fact that it proves that you don't need a plot to be successful. For the most part, Italian horror of the 1970s and 1980s starts big and continues to heap on piles of gore throughout without ever bothering to fully explain itself. Lucio Fulci made a career out of triumphing shocking images over comprehensible plots and even had the nerve to link his splatterpunk compositions with Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty.
Dario Argento, however, was never known to be a hack or lazy storyteller. His giallo thrillers, especially movies like Deep Red, are complex and engaging narratives that twist and bend across various genres all the while being exquisitely violent. Then again, Argento could engage in style over substance occasionally, and as sacrilegious as it might be to say, his greatest horror film, 1977's Suspiria, works mostly as an avant-garde expression of dread, not as a cogent film with a memorable script.
1985's Demons is in a similar vein. Although Lamberto Bava directed the film, Argento produced it and ultimately the film feels more like a B-level Argento flick then anything else. Although Argento's critical decline did not start until the 1990s, Demons shows traces of his future slip-up. Made just two years before the brilliant Opera, Demons is popular horror made for the masses, and despite being an effective gore movie with very real scares, the film lacks the potency and poetry of Argento's best pictures.
In keeping with the Italian horror tradition, there's no real explanation for what happens in Berlin's Metropol theater. The film begins and ends as a mystery, although halfway through the film becomes more action-horror than pure fright film. In its opening sequence, the chilling, albeit thoroughly '80s theme composed by Claudio Simonetti underlies a unsettling metro ride through Berlin. Our main character is a university student named Cheryl (played by Natasha Hovey) who seems disturbed by everything around her. Granted, Berlin in the mid '80s would've been a frightening place on some level. Terrorism, both domestic in the form of the Red Army Faction's attacks on US military installations and West German businesses, and international in the form of Libyan-orchestrated IED explosions, wasn't uncommon, plus Berlin was still a city divided between capitalism and communism. Add to this mixture a visually frightening punk scene and the overall anxieties that come with living in a big city, then Cheryl's fear is rendered overblown, but logical.
Within minutes however, Cheryl's fears are given a legitimate monster in the form of a pair of shadowing feet. In an empty metro station, Cheryl is stalked by this unknown figure, who turns out to be a weirdly costumed agent for the Metropol theatre, a recently renovated movie house. The man, who is played by Italian director Michael Soavi, hands Cheryl and others free tickets to the screening of an unnamed movie at the Metropol. Cheryl accepts and drags along her friend Kathy (played by Paolo Cozzo), who agrees to go so long as it's not a horror movie.
Inside the Metropol are an odd assortment of moviegoers. Cheryl and Kathy are quickly sized up by George (played by Urbano Barberini) and Ken (played by Karl Zinny), a pair of college boys who have the hots for the two coeds. Along with this sexually charged foursome, there is also a weirdly ethereal usherette (played by Nicoletta Elmi), a bickering older couple, a blind man and his handler, a pimp named Tony (played by Ben Rhodes) and his two prostitutes.
The criminal trio immediately begin acting up, and one of the prostitutes, Rosemary (played by Geretta Giancarlo), takes one of the theater's displays (a demon mask) and puts it on. Tony isn't one for fooling around and he tells Rosemary to take the mask off in a most uncivil manner. Somehow, Rosemary cuts her cheek while removing the mask -- an ominous sign if there ever was one.
For the next several minutes, Demons becomes a meta narrative about audiences watching a horror movie from within the confines of a horror movie. The movie they watch is a teenage scream fest about a bunch of dumb kids who stumble upon the grave of Nostradamus. When they dig up the grave of the sixteenth century wizard, the kids in the movie within the movie find an old book about demons. Inside the coffin is also a silver mask not unlike the one that scratched Rosemary earlier. Like Rosemary herself, one of the boys dons the mask and cuts himself. The cut becomes infected and turns the boy into a knife-wielding demon who starts cutting up his friends.
Unsurprisingly, the same thing happens to Rosemary. After excusing herself to the bathroom, Rosemary's cut breaks open and explodes with pus. This is stage one of demon transformation, apparently, and before long Rosemary infects the other prostitute Carmen (played by Fabiola Toledo). This in turn causes a chain reaction, and soon the theater is swarming with bloodthirsty demons.
What follows is a viscera-friendly film with many highlighted kill scenes and a few good ideas. One of which includes Carmen's transformation, which occurs behind the screen and ends when Carmen falls forward, thus severing the boundary between the two films. (This same affect was used in 1997's Scream 2, a film franchise built upon a postmodern understanding of horror films and their audiences.) Another intriguing moment occurs when the survivors break in to the projection room and find that no one is running the film. Instead, a giant computer has been automated to reel off the movie, thus suggesting some sort of mischievous design.
This is where the explanations die, however. The closest anyone comes to rationalizing the demon assault has to do with the Metropol itself, which not only seals up like a fortress during the screening, but is proclaimed to be haunted by more than a few of audience members. Whatever the case, most of the people inside die anyway, and when cocaine-loving punks from the outside crash the party, they too become frothing demons.
As the film races towards its climax, only Cheryl and George are left alive, and after a helicopter inexplicably crashes through the Metropol's roof, they manage to escape by going up. There, the man from the subway reappears and tries to kill them both (a plot move that gives credence to the idea that the demon breakout is part of some conspiracy). George betters the masked man however, and kills him off by pressing his face into an exposed bit of rebar.
Unfortunately, George and Cheryl escape the theater only to realize that the city itself is crawling with demons. Berlin has become hell on earth, not unlike a million Cold War scenarios after nuclear fallout. Luckily, a family of plucky survivors picks up the ragged pair and makes for the countryside. As the credits role, the group thins further after George kills Cheryl after her own demonic transformation.
Demons is not a great film, but it's undoubtably punk rock (or more appropriately, thrash metal). This is a film tailor made for headbangers, and besides Simonetti's original score, the soundtrack contains songs from heavy metal bands like Saxon, Accept, and Mötley Crüe. Denim and leather classics such as "Fast as a Shark" even appear in the film itself. Some might call this a cheap move to connect Demons with the international popularity of heavy metal at the time, but the less cynical among us might recognize that a forced connection between metal and horror is not needed -- they're already family members to begin with. In this regard, Demons is certainly a part of a broader '80s tableau, and if nothing else it highlights what made that era cool. Namely, blood, guts, and Gibson guitars.