After a long wait, Demons claws its way onto Blu-ray courtesy of Arrow Video.
Lamberto Bava and Dario Argento’s Demons might best be described as The Evil Dead on crack. They share the same basic premise – people transformed into bloodthirsty monsters via an ancient evil – but Italy’s finest dial it up to eleven.
After accepting free tickets to a film screening from a guy whose face is infused with metal (warning sign, much?), the most colourful audience of all time (teenagers, one bickering couple, a blind man, prostitutes, their pimp) find themselves trapped in a mysterious cinema that happens to be ground zero in Hell’s invasion of Earth.
Or something like that. Revelling in ultra-violence, Demons quickly becomes a brutal onslaught of gruesome practical effects. It all kicks off with a transformation that sees jagged fangs and sharp talons painfully force themselves out in graphic close-up; and from then on it’s a virtually never ending blur of slashed up faces, torn out throats and scalped, err, scalps. Whenever you think it can’t get any crazier, it does.
Demons 2 offers up more of the same, with the action transported to a high-rise apartment building. While not quite as wonderfully chaotic as its prequel, Demons 2 still includes some memorable sequences packed with visual flair, the inclusion of one pregnant wife, and an extra dose of hand puppet madness. An overall toning down is clear, though, given the reduction in gore. Elsewhere, one or two subplots that lead absolutely nowhere lend the plot an even patchier feel than you’d expect.
But what really struck me about Demons 2 was its cramped skyscraper action, including one amusing face-off between man and demon in an elevator shaft. And this predates Die Hard by a whole two years, so... nah, it’s probably nothing.
Together, these oft-considered legends of the VHS era represent the anarchic peak of horror during the 1980s. Anyone going in expecting something truly coherent will come away disappointed. Neither film makes a lick of sense half the time, but that comes with the territory, as true to 80s Italian horror form, their plots play second fiddle to the bombardment of gory visuals.
It’s become somewhat obligatory to begin an Arrow Video review by mentioning that, yes, they haven’t had the greatest track record in Blu-ray history. Most of their Dario Argento releases were given a middling reception. DNR here, rampant machine noise there, and in one infamous case, the wrong aspect ratio. Then there was that cock-up with The Beyond...
But guys, come on. What about Vamp? Or Maniac Cop? The Exterminator? The Funhouse? Red Scorpion? Dawn of the Dead? All winners in my book, and that’s even without taking the generous application of extra features and superb packaging into account. Arrow’s DVD releases, aside from a couple of NTSC-to-PAL issues, are almost always of exceptional quality too.
So Demons and Demons 2, then. Announced back in 2010, and beset by delays ever since, a lot’s been riding on these bad boys. But now they’re finally here! The results are in! Exclamatory!
What’s the first thing you’re gonna look for in an Italian horror movie’s Blu-ray transfer? That ghastly machine noise, of course! The stuff’s been playing havoc with Arrow and Blue Underground’s output for what feels like forever. It is to these cult favourite studious what the Alien is to Sigourney Weaver... or something. Bad metaphor.
Anyway, there I am, starting up Demons and preparing myself for a digital hail storm. But as the opening train scene gets underway... nothing. Perplexed, I stick my face up against the screen. Nope. No machine noise here. But what’s this? My... could it be... film grain? It is! And, get this, it’s only a fine layer that remains stable throughout, never becomes bothersome, and merely adds a rich, filmic texture.
Crazy, I know! And the same can be said of Demons 2 (albeit a little more rough around the edges). Both films boast a surprisingly high level of fine detail, and what with this being Italian horror, you can expect a lot of leering close-ups demonstrating the added boost of these hi-def upgrades. I could count maybe two shots where it looked like over-sharpening had taken some kind of effect. Otherwise, get ready for a very cinematic experience.
Even better, edge enhancement (my main bug bear) is virtually nonexistent. A barely noticeable slither of ringing in a few scenes may well be apparent, but that’s par for the course these days. Elsewhere, colours remain natural, with skin tones looking healthy and those gaudy neon light effects coming off stronger than ever.
The main weakness with both transfers, however, is black levels. They’re neither as deep and inky as you’d like to expect, and various compression artefacts can be seen swimming about during some darker moments (this applies especially to Demons 2). Still, crush is never an issue of concern, so please don’t consider this a deal-breaker.
Not much can be said about either film’s mono audio tracks, really. Available in both Engish and Italian, they’re basic, loud, punchy, and they get the job done. I’d rather have this than a hollow 5.1 remix. Quibbles arose over Arrow’s decision to go with the mono US dub instead of the stereo European dub, but aside from a few choice (and frankly hilarious) changes to dialogue and musical cues, it doesn’t seem to have made any notable difference. Hearing the opening lyrics of White Wedding suddenly repeat themselves was a bit odd, though... not sure what the story is there.
Sadly, extras are just a bit of a mixed bag.
In Dario’s Demon Days, Dario Argento shares his thoughts on the two films. Although quite informative, Argento doesn’t appear so much uninterested as he does shot in the neck with a horse tranquiliser. He also looks like he wants to murder the interviewer. But that’s Dario!
Top Italian Terrors and Bava to Bava sees genre favourite Luigi Cozzi brought in to discuss the history of Italian horror, ranging from Mario Bava classics to the splatterfests of Lucio Fulci. Not a whole lot to do with Demons, it must be said, but at least Cozzi is engaging. No mention of Alien 2 and its ilk, either, much to my chagrin.
Defining an Era in Music allows composer Claudio Simonetti a brief opportunity to give us some insight into the thought process behind the first film’s unique score – a boisterous mix of synth and metal. Simonetti is great company, and keeps the discussion lively, although fans may be a little concerned to learn of his hopes for a Demons remake (eek).
Creating Creature Carnage has to be the pick of the bunch. This is a lengthy (20ish minutes) and honest interview with special effects designer Sergio Stivaletti. The man clearly has much passion for his work, giving frank appraisal of his designs, including the weaknesses of certain Demons 2 effects.
Rounding out the package are three audio commentaries (two for Demons, one for the sequel) which I have yet to listen to (sorry!), and an enjoyable booklet written by Arrow regular, Callum Waddell. The artwork deserves a special shout out too. I’m all for championing the use of original poster art, but Jeff Zornow has outdone himself this time.
Obviously, I can’t comment on the new comics, as they aren’t included with this edition.
The films are utterly bonkers. You’ll either get them or you won’t. Regardless, the transfers are mostly excellent, with only a few very minor niggles keeping them from greatness. As ever, Arrow haven’t skimped on the extras, and while they don’t all hit the mark, they’re certainly interesting enough to warrant a watch.
Whether you go for this edition, or the separate releases (out later in the month), or even the DVDs, you’re bound to be impressed by the package Arrow has put together for both Demons films.
Oh, and let me assure you, the steelbook is VERY shiny indeed.