DEMONIA (1990) Reviews and overview

   
Fan artwork by Silver Ferox

‘No evil deed goes undone.’

Demonia is a 1990 Italian supernatural horror feature film directed by Lucio Fulci (The Beyond; House by the Cemetery; City of the Living Dead; Zombie Flesh Eaters; et al) from a screenplay co-written with Piero Regnoli (Patrick Still LivesThe Playgirls and the Vampire) based on a story by Fulci and [uncredited] Antonio Tentori. The movie stars Brett Halsey, Meg Register, Al Cliver and Lino Salemme.

Plot:

A Canadian archaeological team in Sicily accidentally unleashes vengeful ghosts of five demonic nuns who were murdered 500 years earlier, and the ghosts set out to kill the group and townspeople alike…

Blu-ray:

Severin Films released Demonia on Blu-ray on August 25, 2020. Order from Amazon.com

Review:

In Sicily, 1486, five nuns are dragged into a crypt and crucified by a proverbial angry mob who, having done their job, walk away leaving their victims to rot.

Moving forwards in time to Canada in 1990 and a séance is being conducted (recalling a similar scene in City of the Living Dead) which leaves one of the participants, Liza (Meg Register), to have visions of the aforementioned nuns in their agony and causes her to pass out. When she wakes, it’s revealed that she’s an archaeologist about to travel with Professor Evans (Brett Halsey) to work on some ancient Greek ruins in Sicily.

As the team set about their dig they are warned by the town’s Mayor, a sailor-cum-archaeologist (Al Cliver) and the local butcher Turi (Lino Salemme) that they should cease because the superstitious locals are very protective of their cultural history. Away from amphitheatre site that they are supposed to be excavating, Liza wanders into the crypt of the nunnery, finds still-dressed skeletons (these real-life remains are genuinely creepy) and discovers the bodies of the crucified nuns. Having been disturbed by Liza’s presence, it isn’t long before they begin murdering members of the archaeological team and some prominent locals.

Demonia was intended as a return to the glory days of Fulci’s heyday, following his work on a number of lacklustre TV productions such as The Ghosts of Sodom (1988), The Sweet House of Horrors and The House of Clocks (both 1989). While Demonia is certainly better than these pics and more interesting than the rather bland Voices from Beyond that followed it, unfortunately, it fails to fully rise to its potential. It’s still a thoroughly enjoyable watch though.

The film certainly begins promisingly, with the nailing of the nuns to crosses – invoking memories of the infamous scene at the beginning of The Beyond. The breathtaking beauty of the Sicilian coast provides a splendid backdrop to the events as they unfold and the fact that real-life locations such the pretty town of Caltabellotta, an abandoned monastery perched atop a huge hill and a deconsecrated church crypt were available for filming provides plenty of genuine atmospheric charm.

The plot is somewhat threadbare but the main protagonists are well-played by wide-eyed Meg Register (who looks suitably Gothic wandering around the cobweb-covered crypt in dream sequences in a white nightgown), veteran Brett Halsey (who apparently had a hand in improving some of the dialogue), Carla Cassola as the doomed medium and the aforementioned Lino Salemme (who was Ripper in Demons and a police inspector in Lamberto Bava’s Delirium). The director’s fans also get to see him in extended cameo scenes as an Interpol detective investigating the murders.

Demonia (1990) Lucio Fulci and Brett Halsey ponder the murders
Lucio Fulci and Brett Halsey ponder the murders

Giovanni Christiani’s score is serviceable at best, and curiously muted in the audio mix, never matching the delights of Fabio Frizzi’s classic efforts. Another downside is that much of the film is shot in a haze that Fulci seemed to feel added a dreamlike quality. He had used this technique previously, most notably in Conquest (1983) but even his most ardent fans seem to feel that it compromises rather than adds to the quality of the images onscreen. It’s fine for dreams, or nightmares, but not daylight shots where it just seems incongruous. Worse, some technical gaffes mean that the thin gauze through which many scenes were shot, is clearly visible.

Some critics have complained that Demonia sags somewhat in the middle, highlighting scenes such as the drunken campfire singalong (Molly Malone!) and the lengthy interrogation of Brett Halsey’s character Paul on a boat as just filler yet this seems overly pernickety.

[Spoilers] Fulci’s trademark focus on gore is present, of course. Al Cliver’s sailor character is shot with a harpoon by a briefly seen naked ghostly nun and his head later turns up skewered on the end of an anchor (a reasonably convincing effect). Two drunken archaeologists fall into a hole onto some protruding spikes and there’s a nicely staged neck stabbing after a sweaty sex scene. The medium is attacked by her own cats in a hilariously tacky scene that utilises some obviously fake mewling moggies.

In the film’s gory highlight, the local butcher is killed with his own meathooks before his tongue is yanked out and nailed to a table! There is also a quartering of a father in a trap that’s set off by his own son. The screaming victim is pulled apart by ropes causing his intestines to spill out. Unfortunately, some odd editing and the evidently low budget means that this effect is rendered somewhat less effective than it might be (there is a blatantly false prosthetic which could have been blended better with actor Ettore Comi’s skin). So, the gore’s there for those that expect it even if the unfortunately-named Elio Terribili’s efforts are not up to the standard of masters such as Giannetto De Rossi.

Demonia is most certainly a must-see for Fulci fans and anyone with an interest in Italian horror. No-one would claim it’s perfect and it’s obviously not up to the standard of his career highlights such as his early ’70s gialli and so-called Gates of Hell trilogy. However, it’s infinitely preferable to the lamentable likes of The Ghosts of Sodom and The House of Clocks and unlike those films stands up to repeated viewings.

Blu-ray review:

Severin Films have released the film via a new 4k scan of the negative that was ‘color corrected and restored during quarantine’ on a 1080p high-definition transfer framed at 1.66:1. Having only previously seen Demonia in Italian and on VHS, it was a revelation to watch it in English (even if the dubbing was occasionally a little hokey) and in high-definition. The obviously sharper detail is both a bonus and a distraction as you can now see all the over-lit scenes and lamentable gauze over the camera. That said, you soon used to it. Close-ups are pristine and scenes in the dark crypt are much improved.

The new audio commentary by Stephen Thrower, author of weighty tome Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci, is excellent. Obviously, Steve’s intimate knowledge of the director’s entire oeuvre means that he can expound in detail about not only this movie but all the other films that Demonia refers back to.

Steve provides detailed insights into all the main actors’ careers, with particular attention to Brett Halsey’s other work with Fulci. Steve’s dry humour is present throughout so when he discusses lead actress Meg Register he notes that she also played a “slinky handcuffed wench” in a music video for heavy metal band Great White’s song ‘Mr Bone’ before quoting the amusingly sexist lyrics. He also reveals her current career as a qualified hypnotherapist and also a “love attraction” expert based in California, even quoting the amusing blurb from her website.

Elsewhere, he informs us that in 1486 witchcraft was reclassified as heresy by the Catholic Church and that the Spanish Inquisition visited Sicily to ascertain more confessions as apparently the local torturers weren’t reaching the desired Papal quota! There is detailed information about the ancient Greek amphitheatre and the installation of plastic in 1964 to protect it which only made it more susceptible to the ravages of rain and vegetation. Thankfully, long shots meant that the daftness of a plastic-covered ruin is not visible in Demonia itself. It’s detailed research such as this that adds real value to this commentary.

He obviously discusses Fulci’s use of “hazy, diffused light” which began with Conquest, Murder-Rock, Zombie 3 and Voices from the Beyond and the ‘scrim’ that caused the aforementioned unfortunate gauze vision in this production. He reveals that the campfire scenes were improvised due to a realisation that the running time would have been too short

Elsewhere, Steve discusses the connections with Yugoslavian co-production Aenigma (1987), the Lucio Fulci Presents brand-name movies such as Red Monks and three unmade Fulci projects from the same period. Finally, he expresses satisfaction with the likes of the “slap-happy gore” cat scene which he likens to similar cheap splatter in the later films of Herschell Gordon Lewis.

‘Holy Demons’ (33m 17s) is a featurette in which uncredited co-writer and assistant director Antonio Tentori (talking via Zoom due to COVID-19) explains how he discovered Fulci’s films and became a fan before eventually meeting the director via a radio interview in 1986. They became friends afterwards, met up regularly and began developing a Gothic horror film that would eventually become Demonia. He admits that the plot doesn’t have much depth except that “these nuns are possessed because they worship the Devil”. To add depth, the production team scrawled fake inscriptions such as Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep on the church walls despite the plot having nothing to do with Lovecraft!

Direct references to Fulci’s previous films such as The Psychic (the pickaxe scene) and Meg Register’s character Liza talking telepathically to Brett Halsey’s character (a vague link back to the kids in The House by the Cemetery) were apparently added during production and not in the original script. He discusses the locations such as the town of Sciacca, the genuine rotting corpses that give the crypt scenes so much atmosphere, the “impressive” remains of the amphitheatre and the hostility of some of the local superstitious population.

As regards the lead actors, he has nothing but praise for Brett Halsey, “a nice man”, beautiful blonde heroine Meg Register, friend Lino Salemme (who played Turi the butcher), character actress Carla Cassola and Fulci regular Al Cliver, whom he describes as a “riot”.

Tentori admits that some of the special effects scenes – particularly cat attack – don’t come off as well as they should have but blames poor editing rather than budgetary reasons. Curiously, he thinks the quartering comes across well. He also reveals that producer Ettore Spagnuolo had to visit the set because the money had run out and there were financial issues during the editing stage which meant that Fulci was not present.

‘Of Skulls and Bones’ (14m 59s) is an onscreen interview with camera operator Sandro Grossi in which he explains he was inspired to take up the profession by John Alcott’s photography for Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975). Grossi worked with Fulci on the low-budget Reteitalia TV productions The Sweet House of Horrors and The House of Clocks. Describing Fulci as being like a “bulldozer” on-set and a “walking film bible”, he goes on to reveal they found two hundred open coffins in the deconsecrated church where they filmed which obviously gave it a real-life “creepy” vibe. He says they often shot using a fog filter to give the film an unusual effect and opines that Fulci would have hated to watch his films in HD which makes everything look like a “soap”. He also talks about Fulci’s love of zooms to “achieve a stronger dramatic feel” and how the director would perhaps have liked to do more comedies but was stuck in the horror genre in his later career. “Every single frame speaks of Lucio”.

‘Fulci Lives!!!’ a four-minute VHS-era shaky-cam behind-the-scenes piece of footage filmed by giggling Massimo Lavagnini on the set of Demonia shows the special effects team readying the death scene where the father is literally pulled apart. Fulci declares “I am perfect and strong!” and promises that he will be making more films for his fans.

Finally, there is the English theatrical trailer, presented in high-definition, which shows the gory highlights.

The leap into Blu-ray quality and the fact-filled extras on this Severin disc make it a must-have for Fulci fans even if they aren’t that keen on the film itself.

Adrian J Smith, MOVIES and MANIA

Other reviews:

” …it shares a fault with nearly all of Fulci’s later horror films. What used to be carnivalesque in his approach was becoming merely tawdry. The obsessiveness, the sheer insolence in the violence in Fulci’s work had, by Demonia, been reduced to mechanical insertion.” Stephen Thrower, Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci

Buy: Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.com

“The movie was scored by an inexperienced composer named Giovanni Cristiani, and the cinematographer, Luigi Ciccarese, was best known for skin flicks and Bruno Mattei movies. This is hardly a promising lineup […] But Demonia is still very watchable, in spite of its shortcomings…” Braineater

” …this tale of “violence, sin and blood”, to quote the screenplay, is enhanced by a powerful sense of place thanks to location shooting, and more than that, Fulci’s expressive bizarro camera-work. Uniquely, Demonia also feels like a meditation on the sometimes negative power of human impulse and desire let loose.” John Kenneth Muir, Horror Films of the 1990s

Buy: Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk

“While not as bat-shit crazy as some of Fulci’s previous efforts, Demonia is still pretty f*ckin’ fantastic. The ancient monastery and it’s demonic denizens give off a real Lovecraft vibe at times (and has a bit of Blind Dead flavor), as does the small coastal village where the tale is set. Think of this as a spiritual successor to the maestro’s Gates of Hell trilogy…” Horror Fuel

” …Demonia is a pitiful attempt at clawing back some small fragment of Fulci’s previous reputation. Depressing and mediocre, even dedicated fans will have a hard time finding something to appreciate here.” Jim Harper, Italian Horror 1979 – 1994

“The lackluster performances, flat cinematography, and watery electronic music sap away most of the potential suspense, but on the positive side, Fulci does cut loose with a few anarchic gore scenes to goose viewers awake.” Mondo Digital

“The mystery and atmosphere works better than usual and the movie is also packed with very gory and violent killings! […] The budget for effects wasn’t really high, it seems, and most of the effects – the spectacular one’s like the body ripped in part and the poked-out eye – looks very amateurish.” Ninja Dixon

” …when Fulci’s at his most stylish, it’s easier to forgive the lack of coherence, the ludicrous dialogue, the disregard for basic storytelling conventions, but here there’s little to distract us from those things and the maddening gaffes leap out at you.” Plate O’Shrimp

“The overall impression is of Fulci being compelled to fluff-off the big set pieces while having to pad the movie out in other areas with boring dialogue scenes.” Troy Howarth, Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films, Midnight Marquee Press, 2015

Buy: Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.com

” … gore, the nun bits, a groovy dream sequence, a funny scene involving a blood-covered youth, an occasionally creepy atmosphere — do little to make it bearable or worth watching. Demonia remains an exasperating experience because it introduces so much that could be used and developed into something good, and then under-bakes everything.” A Wasted Life

Cast and characters:

Brett Halsey … Professor Paul Evans – Nightmare Concert; Touch of Death; Twice-Told Tales; Return of the Fly
Meg Register … Liza Harris
Lino Salemme … Turi DeSimone – Demons
Christina Engelhardt … Susie – Skinner
Pascal Druant … Kevin
Grady Clarkson … Sean (as Grady Thomas Clarkson)
Ettore Comi … John
Carla Cassola … Lilla the Medium
Michael Aronin … Lt. Andi (as Michael J. Aronin)
Al Cliver … Porter (as Al Clever) – The Black Cat; Devil Hunter; Zombie Flesh Eaters; et al
Isabella Corradini … Nun
Paola Cozzo … Pregnant Nun
Bruna Rossi … Nun
Paola Calati … Nun
Antonio Melillo
Ruth Anderson
Gianfranco Bonavita
Francesco Biasini
Clorinda Pucci
Kerstin Soderberg
Francesco Cusimano … Robbie
Lucio Fulci … Inspector Carter (uncredited)
Robert Spafford … Inspector Carter (voice) (uncredited)
Antonio Tentori … Man at ‘Bar Sicilia’ (uncredited)

Filming locations:

Caltabellotta and Sciacca, Sicily, Italy
Fiumicino, Rome, Lazio, Italy (boat scenes)

Technical credits:

85 minutes
Telecolor
Audio: Mono

More Lucio Fulci films

More Italian horror

More nuns