It's no big secret that the Italian film industry is based on imitating popular American releases--in fact, that's a significant part of their charm, especially when they fail to measure up to the originals that've inspired them. A notable exception is 1985's DEMONS, produced by Dario Argento and directed by Lamberto Bava, which attempted to cash in on both the lucrative horror and action markets. What makes it notable is that it succeeded, while still displaying many of the traits that made 80's Italian horror so enjoyable.
Although the film refers to its creatures as demons (hence the title), it plays out closer to the zombie genre than the quasi-satanic demons that were the rage in the mid-eighties; not only is the demonic infection spread by bites and scratches, but the action is confined to a single, restrictive location--here, a Berlin moviehouse where patrons have been given tickets to a new horror film by a mysterious stranger in a metallic mask (played by future CEMETERY MAN director Michele Soavi). The film is perhaps best known for the unconventional way it introduces its monsters, as the film-within-a-film (ostensibly about the prophecies of Nostradamus, with plenty of lip service paid to the then-prevalent slasher film craze) parallels with one of the characters, who's cut herself on a demonic mask in the theater's lobby. As the cinematic demons make their appearance, the girl begins her transformation into a scaly, frothing creature. This early sequence is done so well that it almost renders the rest of the story, which follows the usual set-'em-up-and-knock-'em-down approach, anti-climactic; in fact, when I first watched this one many moons ago, I watched the initial reveal of the demons through my fingers (though if I told you exactly how old I was at the time, you'd surely make fun of me).
DEMONS, like so many films of its decade, is an exercise of style and excess, from its distinctly 80's synthesized score (punctuated with an odd assortment of commercial rock) and evocative lighting, to its non-stop barrage of violence and gore. The action moves at too brisk a pace to really milk the claustrophobic potential of its setting, but Argento and Bava are more concerned with attitude than mood, throwing on one demonic confrontation after another until it teeters on the brink of ridiculousness (i.e. the helicopter crashing through the theater's roof for no discernable reason). DEMONS also betrays its affiliation with Italian zombie cinema with its apocalyptic ending, as the two surviving audience members find the infection has (somehow) spread throughout the city--and the world, we're to believe.
Shakespeare it ain't, but this fun, grisly thrill ride is a nice change of pace from all the hockey-masked momma's boys that dominated much of Reagan-era horror.