"Beware of Watching Horror Films!"
I try to approach films impartially and without preconceptions. I certainly don't read any other reviews before I see a film. I avoid articles in the film magazines if I think I'm going to see the film within a few months. I dislike seeing trailers beforehand, so I have the unusual habit (neurosis, my wife calls it) of looking away from the screen, sometimes into my popcorn box, until the trailers are over. When renting, I avoid reading plot synopses on boxes. My ideal scenario when sitting down to watch a film is to know absolutely nothing about it.
However, since I socialize and read various articles and commentaries related to films, sometimes it's impossible to see a new film (for me, old for others, perhaps) without conventional wisdom, or the "received view" as we'd call it in philosophy, interfering with my response. Usually, I try to overcompensate. When the received view is that x is the best thing that ever happened to horror, say, then I tend to watch with an overly critical, skeptical eye. When the received view is that y is the biggest piece of dog crap ever to be released, I think, "Surely this person has never seen Night of Horror; y can't be that bad" and I'm less critical -- I look primarily for the positive attributes.
I bring all this up to point out that I may be a bit hypercritical in my take on Demons, Director Lamberto Bava's 1985 flick written by Dario Argento. There is a faction of horror fans for whom Italian horror, and especially Argento, is leagues above anything else in the genre. My take on Argento and Italian horror isn't quite so favorable (although I certainly don't dislike either), and Demons is a good example why. It has many superb elements, but many flaws as well, and for my money, comes nowhere near the excellence of, say, the House on Haunted Hill remake, or even Scream, which most of the Italian fans hate so passionately. And no, I'm not a pimply teen with no experience or history with the genre.
Demons begins by following a woman on the Berlin subway. She seems creeped out, although why is a bit of a mystery. Maybe she's just afraid of taking the subway, or maybe the punk fashions that were filtering into Berlin a few years late frightened her. In any event, she conveniently arrives at her stop just as the credits stop rolling, stepping onto a conveniently deserted subway platform. She sees a guy in a bad, metallic Phantom of the Opera mask, so she runs, because anyone in a bad, metallic Phantom of the Opera mask must either be a psycho or an S&M nut. She runs up an escalator, and conveniently, the masked pervert steps into her way at the top. He hands her an evil flyer that just says, "To-day at 8:00 p.m. The Metropol" with artwork that suggests that production designer Davide Bassan probably had a more important appointment that day.
The woman talks her friend into skipping class that evening and going to the Metropol for the unspecified event-the friend fears, and rightly so it turns out, that it might be a horror film sneak preview. For some bizarre reason (well, it's really to enable them to be around for later plot developments, but it doesn't make it any less silly), the lobby of the Metropol has a display featuring a motorcycle and another metallic mask. Another woman who puts the mask on cuts herself on it-this is important later.
Our heroes sit down to watch the film. It appears to be an Italian shocker about the graveyard where Nostradamus is buried and which has some odd physical property that causes the women to scream too much. We see more of the movie within the movie than we usually would, but we need to because it turns out the events in the movie--someone is cut by a mask that was in Nostradamus' otherwise empty (except for a book) tomb, and turns into a "demon"/zombie (or makeup person Rosario Prestopino and make-up/creature effects person Sergio Stivaletti's version of Regan from The Exorcist)--are happening outside of the movie as well.
Things become fairly predictable from here and we discover that Demons, far from having anything to do with Demons, is really just an excuse to create yet another Italian zombie film, this time Bava's version of Dawn of the Dead in a movie theater meets Bava's version of The Exorcist's effects; all with much more screaming.
Now, problematic as some of this might be, Demons actually has much merit. Yes we've seen the zombie stuff a zillion times, and yes there are overly literal quotations from other films-the helicopter blades chopping up zombies (and how inane is it that a helicopter just happens to fall into the theater?) and the green vomit-but none of that matters, really. Bava (the infamous director Mario Bava's son, by the way) does the zombie stuff well, and of course there are lots of great gore effects. What Demons lacks in smooth execution (the editing is extremely choppy, creating quite a few non-sequiturs and unfortunately ruining a couple of the effects shots) it makes up for in style. If they would have dropped all pretense of creating a sensible story and just went for a stylistic, poetic, zombie gore-fest, Bava would have had a 9 on his hands.
Present fans of Italian horror will love the blood and guts in Demons, but I wouldn't be surprised if they agree about the disjointed script (at least as finally realized). If you're new to Italian horror, do not start here. Additionally, watch out for the R&G/Starmaker VHS video version of Demons, as the transfer seems bad and many scenes are too dark, or at least do not have enough contrast, to decipher. It's possible that that's the case with all versions of Demons, in which case my rating would come down a point.