Wandering around The Cinema Store in London recently, I asked the owner, Paul McEvoy, if he could recommend anything. “Sure,” he said and excitedly thrust a copy of Mario Bava’s 1968 Danger: Diabolik into my hands, insisting that it was one of the wildest, craziest, most fun films ever made. Well, with a recommendation like that, how could you refuse, especially after noticing it also starred a certain British actor by the name of Terry Thomas and featured a soundtrack from Italian music genius, Ennio Morricone.
Accompanying Diabolik tonight is another of Mario Bava’s earlier films, Planet of the Vampires, a low-budget sci-fi / horror film made in 1965 featuring zombie vampires in a story that obviously had a huge influence on Dan O’Bannon’s Alien script.
And so, with little palaver, and Jim’s bottles of Cava, we settled ourselves in for a night of sixties Bava…
This evenings line up has been chosen by Rawshark
Danger: Diabolik (1968)
Plot Super-thief Diabolik runs around stealing jewels, gold, murdering innocent people, and being a nuisance to the government of a generic European country.
Rawshark Based on an Italian comic series (called Diabolik funnily enough) Danger: Diabolik is the sort of fun ‘spy/thief’ film that can only have been made in the heady free 60s, and thank God for that, because if the 60s had never existed, then we would never have been treated to this cult camp classic. And what a classic it is too…
We are first introduced to the suave thief Diabolik via an Ennio Morricone score and an aerial shot of his black Jag, and before the credits have rolled he has managed to steal a cool £10 million from right under the Government’s nose using multi-coloured smoke screens, cranes, speedboats, and car switches in tunnels. By the time he drives his new white Jag into an underground ‘Batcave’, we were all in 60s heaven, with Jim in particular being very excited – “Oh pinch me someone please!”
There’s almost too much going on in this film to mention, from the appearance of Terry Thomas as a Minister of the Interior - “He’s certainly not going to make a fool out of me” - to the use of Diabolik’s gadgets, which range from the Anti-Exhilaration Gas Capsules to wall-climbing sucker clamps. Coming across like three 30-minute episodes, Diabolik hardly pauses for breath, and if it occasionally comes across as a mixture of Our Man Flint and the old Batman TV series, there’s enough imagination and visual delight going on here to please even the most jaded film fans.
John Phillip Law is great as Diabolik, whether he’s laughing like an evil megalomaniac or practising his Spider-Man moves, we’re always on his (criminal) side. Okay, so he may not be the most moral film hero ever, but with a girlfriend like Eva to please (who enjoys making love surrounded by money on their huge revolving bed), who can blame him. And you’ve just got to love someone who manages to steal a 20-tonne gold ingot with the use of balloons and a yellow submarine! Makes Austin Powers look like a sissy.
“He’s dead! We all saw him dead! And what about this? His death certificate!”
Jim “I don’t know how to write that down!” said Zomblee for the umpteenth time, as Diabolik continues his one-man campaign of terror against an unnamed European government (although my money’s on Italy).
I don’t know what surprised me that most: the outrageous pacing, style and panache of this fantastic dose of a 60s comic book bought to life, or the fact that I had never heard of, let alone seen, this film before. Unbelievable - the opening coloured smoke assisted crane-speedboat-car robbery had us starring at each other in disbelief, so by the time we got to his giant revolving bed with TV in the middle (“You’d hardly get to see it half the time!” – Rawshark) and the crazy laughing gas attack scene (“I’d like to try that stuff!” – Zomblee), we were well and truly hooked. And why not? I mean, Danger: Diabolik is a fun slice of 60s psychedelia, mixed with extreme comic book stylisation, that’s got nutty camera angles, outrageously complicated shot composition and a styling that sits somewhere between Batman and The Green Hornet, but with an overall pacing that leaves both those two for dust. Can you tell why we were excited?
The plot is nuts too. You get Diabolik, the master criminal who wears the tightest mask in history, moulding perfectly around his nose and razor sharp cheek bones (“How does it stay on?” – Rawshark). Then there’s the rival master criminal Volmont (played brilliantly by the dude who was the baddie in Thunderball) who tries to capture Diabolik as a bargaining tool to use against the Police. Then there’s the police themselves, who just serve as a bunch of morons for Diabolik to outwit regularly. Then there’s the sapphire necklace, a load of diamonds and that gold ingot. Oh, and all that cash from the intro.
Um, and that’s about it - there’s just no time here to go into any real details, suffice is to say that no matter how clever the bad guys/cops think their plan is, Diabolik always seems to be one step ahead of them. And he has some gadgets that would make the Road Runner jealous: at one point he pulls the Jag over, takes out this giant mirror and stretches it across the length of the road, causing his pursuers to freak out at the sight of their own reflection and swerve clean off the cliff! I cried with laughter, Rawshark made notes furiously and Zomblee sat in the corner mumbling “classic…” to himself over and over again.
Classic indeed, although for such a hi-tech criminal he has the most ridiculous burglar alarm I have ever seen…
"Logical suggestion sir, but quite useless..."
Zomblee Well, perhaps huge church organ pipe burglar alarms were all the rage in the late 60’s spy game, Jim. It does seem to be a chronic case of style over practicality though. I wonder if the security shop in the main street would sort me out with a burglar alarm like that...
Diabolik is the kind of movie you’d almost ask out on a date. “Diabolik, where have you been all my life?" It’s a film so damned attractive that resistance is futile. Visually slick and captivatingly cool from the outset, its twists, turns, and overall sense of gusto will demand your attention (and disbelief) with a retro-looking gun to your head.
I was beginning to think that our titular hero wasn’t going to say anything besides “Hahahaha!” throughout the course of the film but he proved me wrong 35 minutes into the running time with “Why?” A man of few words. But this is not a problem. John Phillip Law is just the ticket. His face looks like it’s chiselled out of stone and his tight black costume design almost places him in ninja territory 15 years before Sho Kusogi or Michael Dudikoff sharpened their swords and donned their back cotton for 80’s ninjadom.
Diabolik is a guy who has the lot: the looks, the secret hideaway, the bodacious babe (who likes to parade around showing off her sexy back; “I love backs!” – Rawshark), the ultra-cool car, the gadgets (e.g. “Aw, he’s gonna do the suckery thing up the wall!” – Jim), as well as the all-important upper hand, always. What he gets away with drives both the authorities and the criminal underworld nuts.
The supporting cast is excellent. Adolfo Celi (from such greats as Thunderball, Grand Slam and Deodato’s Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man) does a great job as the cigar smoking master criminal Ralph Valmont. Terry Thomas does, well, Terry Thomas but takes First Prize for the funniest gag in the film when he walks into his television shot too early, then steps back again really quickly. “Rewind!”
For an Italian film from 1968, the intentional humour in Diabolik is surprisingly sharp. As if the rollercoaster plot, lush animation-punctuated visuals and groovy Morricone music wasn’t enough, it also supplies enough gags to give you a few unexpected pokes to the funny bone.
I lost count of how many times myself and Jim congratulated Rawshark on this purchase. Once more isn’t going to hurt: “Great purchase, Rawshark!”
“So, this is the famous Diabolik.”
Director Mario Bava
Cast John Phillip Law
Runtime 99 mins
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Planet of the Vampires (1965)
Plot In the near future the two spaceships Argos and Galliot are sent to investigate the mysterious planet Aura...
Zomblee Our expectations of Mario Bava were pretty high after viewing Diabolik, so Planet of the Vampires was likely to disappoint anyway. Unfortunately this one bored me so much that I started daydreaming whilst waiting for anything except talking to happen. Why bother going to a different planet if all you’re going to do is talk?
Two spaceships pick up a signal from a nearby planet and so decide to check it out. When the first ship lands, the characters all begin to attack each other so it is up to the crew from the second ship to figure out (by talking a lot) what is going on, i.e. that an ancient and evil force has lured the ships to the plant and has taken over the bodies of the crew for the sake of survival.
If you ask me, I think that whatever the evil force is just wanted those yellow-lined black spacesuits for themselves. Maybe they wanted to study just how big it was possible to make collars with such materials (“Prepare collars for landing!” – Jim). I liked those suits a LOT. Bava seems to have a fine costume designer working on both films tonight, so here’s a word to all you costume designers who think you go unnoticed while the directors get all the credit: start designing costumes like this and get instant recognition!
Seriously though, this is Talk City. And it’s not normal talk. It’s space-talk. It’s all
“Ssshhh…listen. It’s coming from the atomic generator room” or ”The meteor rejecter is out of commission” and “I’m beginning to get energy traces through the conductors.” You get the picture. Not much in the way of vampires either it has to be said, though there was one very cool scene depicting space zombies rising from their space graves in glorious slow-mo. A slow-mo sequence and I’m anybody’s.
Not that Bava needs to rely on such techniques of course, because his DP does a magnificent job in capturing an eerie planetscape. As Rawshark put it during the evening, “He does compose his shots really well”, and his can only be a good thing when you’re patiently waiting for something to happen.
This feels like a precursor to Alien (and Ghosts of Mars), though of course different, less exciting with more of a Forbidden Planet flavour. It’s worth a look if you’re a sci-fi fan or a Mario Bava completist. Oh, and there’s a character called 'Burt' in it. I’ve never met anyone called Burt.
“Our limitations are entirely different…we cannot build things like this… we have been trying to summon you here for centuries.”
Jim Yeah - the only Burts I know are Burt from 'Burt & Ernie' fame and Burt Reynolds. Actually that’s not true, it’s ‘Bert & Ernie’, and there’s also Burt Lancaster to consider, although as Rawshark informs me, he changed his name from ‘Bert’ to ‘Burt’ because he thought no one would take someone with the name ‘Bert’ seriously. Although the sweet irony tonight was that this Burt looked just like Burt Reynolds except for the moustache. I am of course joking.
“Suppress coital areas X, Y and Z!” shouts one of the main characters, before out of nowhere “the gravitational force is increasing rapidly!” and both the Galiott and her sister ship the Argos crash on a mysterious planet. When all the crew on the Galiott come to they all start to kill each other, but soon realise that a swift smack to the head stops that urge dead. Dead, that is, like the crew of the Argos, who apparently have all killed each other, and they’ve also smashed the infamous ‘meteor reflector’, meaning the Argos is going nowhere. This is a shame after everyone has dressed up in the nice big-collared suits and everything.
“So, do you think there’s gonna be any vampires around?” asked Rawshark, after the first of many chat-heavy but pointless expeditions out onto the alien planet. I’ll admit, I didn’t really understand what was going on for most of this movie, but I wasn’t the only one. At one point the Galiott’s Captain calmly explains that nothing makes any sense: the gravity surge of 40G’s, the crash landing, the fighting. Where have the bodies disappeared to? What’s a coital area? And where are they going now? “They’re going to this other ship where they’ve found a skeleton three times the size of a human being!” Oh, thanks Rawshark.
I don’t know. I don’t buy it, too much wine and too much bonkers scientific exposition for my liking. Even Zomblee couldn’t take it, “I’m trying to write everything he says down but it’s really difficult coz it’s all such gibberish…” Still, it looked really good, what with Bava’s mastery of using miniatures, mirrors and forced perspectives to film 60s actors walking around semi-realistic alien landscapes. How you actually use miniatures, mirrors and forced perspectives to do those effects I admit I’ve never really understood. And neither does Rawshark, “I don’t know, alright?” Zomblee just shrugged and kept trying to write down what that captain was saying…
“If there are any intelligent creatures on this planet, they’re our enemies!”
Rawshark A whole year before the Star Trek TV adventures of the Starship Enterprise began, Bava slipped out this Forbidden Planet homage featuring the twin ships of Argos and Galliot, boldly going into the universe to search for planets in the dark outer reaches of space.
With the requisite 60s plastic buttons and flashing lights (and a ship that seemingly has no ceilings), costumes and techie-talk (“10 fractions of a Megon” was my personal favourite), it’s not long before things go wrong and both ships crash down on the planet Aura, only to find themselves under attack from an ancient race of parasitic zombies, or as Jim put it – “well, according to the title, they’re officially vampires”.
Crew members’ names aside (Burt / Bert - so did Bacharach change his name too?) I found myself quite enjoying this admittedly overly talky and low-budget movie. Key to the whole plot is the ship’s Meteor Rejecter, a neat bit of kit that enables the spaceships to fly through space without damage from passing comets, but this plot point must have been missed by both Jim and Zomblee as Jim wasn’t even aware of it until the last 15 minutes, and Zomblee admitted early on that he would probably have to “read the plot of this film on IMDB” as we were talking far too much over the early stages of the film. Oh well.
Anyway – highlights obviously include the great visuals and cool production design – especially of the ‘alien’ ship they discover elsewhere on the planet, complete with a tuning fork (useless) and shocking 200-Volt door key that just about saves their lives when the air suddenly starts to get drawn out (“Why don’t they just block the vent? - Jim). The zombies / vampires are also good value too, as they slowly emerge from under the stone slabs, throwing off their plastic sheets as they rise, a scene that Fulci seems to borrow 16 years later in The Beyond.
It may drag somewhat towards the end (there’s a lot of running around the mirrored miniature sets) and then ending is ever-so-slightly twee, but the direction, style and air-of-menace that the film carries makes up for it’s shortcomings. Give me this over Star Trek any day.
“Allright, allright. Quiet down. Quiet down. Stay calm. Let’s all try to stay calm.”
Director Mario Bava
Cast Barry Sullivan
Runtime 86 mins
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With his black Ninja suit, impressive gadgets and dedication to wild wacked-out crazy fun, it’s safe to say that Super-thief Diabolik easily stole the show tonight, and proved that even in today’s society there’s nothing we like more than a modern-day Robin Hood who goes around blowing up Income Tax offices.
Planet of the Vampires faced an extremely uphill struggle after that but even though opinion was split (Burt / Bert?), we all agreed it certainly looked good, despite it’s often indecipherable ‘space-talk’. Perhaps not one of Bava’s best, but certainly worth a look, especially if you like outlandish costume design and space vampires who think they’re zombies.
Coming Next - it’s another post-apocalyptic night, as Zomblee settles for a double dose of 80s Italian action, namely The New Barbarians and Joe D'Amato's Endgame.