Amid unpacking last night, I found a clutch of my collectible vinyl 45s, among them this jewel, one of the prides of my collection: Christy’s Italian 45 release of the title song from Diabolik! It was one of my first-ever eBay purchases years ago.
Mario Bava‘s film adaptation of Angela and Luciana Giussani‘s fumetti Diabolik was an unloved child when it was released in the late ’60s — well, unloved in America, at least. It was marketed as a pseudo-James Bond knockoff at best, and was quickly relegated to 16mm film rental (from Films Inc.; I screened it as programmer of the film showings in both my high school, Harwood Union High School in Duxbury, VT, and my first college years at Johnson State College in Johnson, VT) and occasional syndication TV broadcast (most often on Channel 12 out of Canada in our neck of the woods; it was never broadcast on the major US network prime-time movie slots). For the Mystery Science Theater 3000 generation, Diabolik was an object of ridicule, immortalized in that pantheon as the last movie ever to enjoy MST3K‘s attention (the last official episode, broadcast just shy of a decade ago: August 8th, 1999). Sigh.
But we Mario Bava fans were used to such treatment. I was born in 1955 and traumatized by La Maschera del Demonio/Black Sunday (1960) at a tender age (I had nightmares from the film’s indelible image of Barbara Steele’s empty eye sockets disgorging scuttling arachnids: see left), so I was among that hearty breed who scoured TV listings and drive-in movie ads, aching for the chance to see anything Bava had a hand in.
It was tough: his films were mercilessly cut, miserably dubbed and often screened under multiple titles with Bava’s credit hidden under bogus Anglicized names like “Mickey Lion.” Only his official directorial debut feature, Black Sunday (1960), was given respect on these shores. With the sole exception of Joe Dante‘s reviews of Bava’s films in the beloved newsstand monster magazine Castle of Frankenstein – our only alert and source of information on many of Bava’s films! — Bava’s work was publicly ignored or at best reviled.
That has, of course, changed over the past decade, thanks in no small part to the dedication of Bava afficianados and scholars like my friend Tim Lucas. Bless you, Tim!
But at last, Diabolik has come of age — and what’s more amazing to a veteran lover of this film, we’re now seeing virtual ‘Battles of the Bands’ slugging out their versions of Morricone’s Diabolik title tune in the international arena. I love it!
Much to the growing frustration of a new generation, there’s never been an official soundtrack release of Ennio Morricone‘s score for Bava’s marvelous Diabolik, which was released here in North America as Danger Diabolik. If no one else cared, at least poster artist Frank McCarthy (whose magnificent art graced the campaigns for films like The Dirty Dozen, Duel at Diablo, The Valley of Gwangi, etc.) gave his all to the promotional art for the American release. Comics great Paul Gulacy obviously copped some licks from McCarthy’s ’60s movie promo art; McCarthy left this field of commercial art to dedicate himself to western paintings, and those are incredible — more on that another time.
At the time, soundtrack albums for even the most obscure exploitation films were pretty standard, and the score for producer Dino DeLaurentiis‘s companion feature — Roger Vadim‘s vapid Barbarella — was everywhere. But Diabolik never earned a soundtrack release, and reportedly the the original master tapes for Morricone’s score were lost forever, casualties of a Cinecittà warehouse fire that undoubtably destroyed other key source material from that era.
So, the Italian 45 release of the title song is all that remains.
There’s a bogus soundtrack CD floating around out there, but don’t track it down: it’s a boot recorded off the Paramount laserdisc release of the film itself.
Here’s the original opening title sequence of Mario Bava’s Diabolik with Christy singing the English language version of Ennio Morricone‘s “Deep Deep Down”:
Thanks to Italian fan Salvo (thanks, Salvo!) I’ve now been able to read and reread many of the original Italian Diabolik fumetti — and coincidental to my uncovering my Christy 45, I received an email this morning from
I had heard of Kriminal Hammond Inferno, but only heard a few of their covers of other movie soundtrack tunes via YouTube.
Here’s Kriminal Hammond Inferno – featuring Daniel Wang as Italian fumetti and cheapjack film icon (created in 1964 by Magnus and Max Bunker) Kriminal on drums, and Simon Rigot as Diabolik tickling the keys on the Hammond Organ — from their “Recyclart Gig on April 20th 07 with the great Sarah Bogart” (to quote the original YouTube post of this video) dressed as Diabolik’s lover Eva and singing Christy’s part (lead vocals) in their cover of “Deep Deep Down”:
And, for the sake of comparison (and because it’s always worth a revisit), Mike Patton‘s Mondo Cane cover from 2008: “Live in Amsterdam Directo en Amsterdam de Mondo Cane, miradlo entero, no tiene pérdida.” Patton is best known for his stints with Faith No More and Fantomas, and he, too, clearly has his heart in the right place, and can mobilize entire orchestras to recreate the lost Morricone sessions live:
The MST3K team had a blast with this opener ten years ago — “Oh, oh, it’s getting groovy!”
Maybe I deserve the same treatment. Here’s a bit of my blather from the extras featured on the now out-of-print Paramount DVD Danger: Diabolik; special thanks to Tim Lucas for suggesting my participation, to Kim Aubry of ZAP/Zeotrope for following up and including me in the DVD extras, and to Marlboro VT filmmakers and friends Alan Dater and Andy Reichsman, who did the filming and sound work for Kim’s interview with yours truly:
I just this morning found a digital file of the notes I emailed to Kim Aubry prior to their filming me in the basement studio of Marge’s and my Marlboro VT home back in 2004, and thought some of you might enjoy seeing these. The screen time codes align with the DVD copy of the feature I was provided for reference, and should match up pretty well with the Paramount DVD release.
DIABOLIK — key comments, suggested clips
START WITH: SPOILER WARNING — PLEASE ENJOY THE FILM BEFORE LISTENING TO THIS INTERVIEW! SPOILER ALERT!
To me, DIABOLIK was the truest of all comics adaptations to film until recently — and in fact anticipated the entire wave of comics-adaptations we have enjoyed since Richard Donner’s 1978 SUPERMAN.
Bava understood cinema and comics, and the potential in the fusion of these two media, in a way few other filmmakers ever have — certainly more than any had before him.
This was evident to me on my first viewing of DIABOLIK, from its OPENING shots:
Very ordinary exposition presented with a distinctive visual flair and a sly, understated humor (emphasized by the Morricone score as pan across limo arrives at comedic undercover police dressing, but not playing, the part)
01:00:19.18 – 48.10
01:01:12.02 – 45.06
INTRO of DIABOLIK:
Note that within the frame, however mundane the exposition, SPACE is always an adventure in a Bava film, as with the best comics artists and movie directors.
First, via music suggesting his presence, then, via the first appearance of his BLACK JAGUAR, DIABOLIK dominates action by his absence, building anticipation to his first actual appearance (again, Morricone’s score imperative to this buildup):
01:03:49.17 – 01:04:.20.14
(continue as necessary)
INTRO of DIABOLIK onscreen (to closeup and title):
01:06:32.02 – 01:06.46.02
Thereafter, DIABOLIK shown in CONSTANT MOTION: boat to car to etc.
01: 08.51.12 – 01:09.31.12
Bava and John Phillip Law ensure DIABOLIK is in constant motion, capturing the energy of the fumetti like lightning in a bottle:
02:24.15.22 – 37.10
Law’s use of body language (and his almost feral, expressive eyes, always in motion when Diabolik’s body is still) is extraordinary, the first cinematic fusion of an actor with a comics-adaptation character and costume that seems to have stepped out of the panels themselves. (Note precursor: black leather costumes worn in Bava’s previous film PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES)
Unlike every comics character adapted to the screen (cinema and TV) before, Law looks convincing and more importantly “feels real” in DIABOLIK’s costume, black and white.
In the fumetti, DIABOLIK’s knife-throwing was a trademark of his character –
[insert fumetti cover, panels showing DIABOLIK throwing knives]
– though this was downplayed in the film (note Bava’s FULL use of widescreen in this clip):
01:42.48.01 – 43.27.17
Too bad — note Bava’s KNIVES OF THE AVENGER, a viking-era remake of SHANE, starring Cameron Mitchell as its knife-throwing hero, in which Bava reinvents traditional western ‘shoot outs’ with knives instead of six-shooters.
Characteristic of European comics, specifically la bande dessinee (France, Belgium) and the Italian fumetti, DIABOLIK immediately given a sexual dimension denied all previous American comics characters. Marisa Mell is as striking an EVA as can be imagined, and the chemistry between Law and Mell/DIABOLK and EVA fuels the film:
DIABOLIK and EVA kiss: 01:11:25.18 – 46.23
Even the most prosiac of scenes between DIABOLIK and EVA is presented with imagination and style, the staging and imagery constantly in-synch with the most stylish expressive potential of comics and cinema:
01:36.13.25 – 37.34.14
The initial descent into DIABOLIK’s underground lair extends this sexual energy via Bava’s staging, imagery, and fluid movement of camera, objects, and actors: this is a genuinely fantastique realm, evocative of the Phantom of the Opera (more on this later), and in polar opposition to the sterile satire of the TV BATMAN Batcave:
01: 12.16.07 – 15.26.20
– Culminating in the literal “money shot” (referenced in Roman Coppola’s CQ):
01: 19:39.07 – 21.27.25
This makes explicit the sexual electricity of the entire opening sequence featuring DIABOLIK and EVA. After all, there always was an implicit sexual charge to Scrooge McDuck diving into the money in his vault in the Carl Barks’ WALT DISNEY COMICS & STORIES, which were very popular in Italy throughout the 40s, 50s, and 60s.
This celebrated “money shot” is brilliantly echoed in the climax’s “pay-off” shots, which revel in blatant phallic imagery and metaphoric sexual release: the literal sexualization of money, as DIABOLIK first “penetrates” the outsized gold ingot with his melting device –
02: 31.35.03 – 32.07.10
– then laughs as the molten gold his poured into brick molds, staged by Bava to emphasize the satisfaction DIABOLIK and EVA derive from this activity:
02:32.29.00 – 33.09.09
Even DIABOLIK’s death is orgasmic, showered in molten gold to Morricone’s crescendo of trumpets on the soundtrack:
02:35.12.08 – 47.12
(Note that the same year, Questi’s hyper-violent spaghetti western DJANGO, KILL disposed of its lead villain in a similar torrent of gold, and that Bava’s staging of DIABOLIK’s death-by-golden-shower oddly anticipates the slow-motion show-stopping literal climax of the Mitchell Brothers’ hardcore BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR.)
Most critics, if they bother to note the fumetti origin of the film at all, tend to mention only the most obvious and overt flourishes as being “comic-book like”:
The animated police map:
01:25.56.23 – 26.10.27
The animated Identikit:
01:38.40.09 – 39.43.04
Obvious, too, are the comic-book touches, some of which were derived directly from the DIABOLIK fumettis:
01:44.42.06 – 45.35.23
Thanks to Law’s performance and Bava’s staging, this absurd sequence ‘looks right,’ so it IS right — and, BTW, adapted directly from the fumetti:
[show fumetti panels of wall-climbing sequence]
The illusion of DIABOLIK’s rooftop escape via catapult was adapted directly from the fumetti:
[show fumetti panels, then:]
01:49:16.11 – 50.04.00
Equally “cartoony” is the demise of the criminal doctor, literally “crossed off the human register” with machine-gun fire:
01:55.39.12 – 58.09
– DIABOLIK’s rescue of the emeralds by firing them into Valmont as bullets –
02:04.22.20 – 50.05
– DIABOLIK’s Christ-like ‘death’ and resurrection, true to the fumetti but also a staple of the spaghetti westerns (beginning with Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS) –
02:07.44.28 – 08.50.00
– and DIABOLIK turning up in disguise to recover the emeralds from Valmont’s cremated remains:
02:11.04.20 – 40.12
DIABOLIK’s daring robbery of the film’s final act is adapted directly from the fumetti, from the appearance of the giant gold ingot:
[insert fumetti panels: then:]
02:17.13.07 – 18.30.15
– to the destruction of the train trestle bridge –
[insert fumetti panels, then:]
02:25.09.00 – 27.13
– to the underwater recovery of the ingot –
02:27.06.22 – 28.34.00
– to the climax in DIABOLIK’s cave:
02:29.45.10 – 30.36.00
That aspect of DIABOLIK’s fumetti and comics-derived imagery is obvious.
As a cartoonist, what I have always found exhilerating about Bava’s DIABOLIK is the way the film reflects, from first frame to last, Bava’s sure, absolutely primal grasp of the mediums of comics and cinema.
Note, for instance, Bava’s casting, and his use of his performers as visual elements on the screen, embraces the iconography of comics and caricature. I’ve already cited the onscreen presence Law and Marisa Mell bring to the roles of DIABOLIK and EVA, but the same sensibility informs even the most minor supporting characters.
For instance, the flamboyant use of popular British comedian Terry-Thomas as the Minister of Finance –
01:18.54.17 – 19.36.14
– works not only because of Thomas’s cartoony persona and features, but also because of the contrast he provides for the stolid, stoic authority figure of Michel Piccoli (as Ginko) and Adolfo Celi (as Valmont).
Note how Bava stages Valmont’s first scene: like the Kingpin in the Marvel DAREDEVIL comics, Valmont dominates every scene he appears in, moving like a wedge through the film, visually and narratively:
01:30.11.04 – 42.10
Even more impressive is Bava’s adoption of the fumetti panel as a unit of communication — the comics panel as a frame, and as a frame within a frame: the panel inside the page, or here, frames within the larger frame of the motion picture screen. Bava uses this within the medium of cinema here as a comics artist does on the comics page, including very sophisticated use of what would be called inset panels in comics.
Before the opening titles, Bava quietly sets up this motif, which he inventively builds upon throughout the entirity of the film that follows:
Inspector Ginko is first introduced to us within a panel — a window frame — that succinctly, wordlessly emphasizes his importance in the narrative (he is the first character we see in the film):
Though we do not know it at the time, our first privileged POINT OF VIEW shot from DIABOLIK’s perspective is presented as a frame-within-a-frame, from DIABOLIK’s perch in the dock machinery’s control room window:
01:05.23.19 – 39.06
Going back to the previously-cited “Identi-kit” scene, it isn’t the animation itself that is evocative of comics, it is Bava’s staging of the entire sequence:
01:38.40.09 – 01:39.43.04
The full sequence ingeniously extends the “Identi-kit” as a fumetti panel, by framing the characters by the foreground furniture shelving, as if they were within inset panels. Valmont’s glasses frame the reflection of his future victim (the criminal doctor); and this device is echoed in the sequence immediately following (EVA in mirror):
01:40.35.09 – 41.25.20
These frames-within-frames — inset panels, if you will — are composed with considerable wit –
1:50.16.14 – 38.06
– and are not just visual flourishes: they are central to the visual narrative. Consider this crucial sequence, in which Eva is identified and, essentially, “framed”:
01:52.33.19 – 57.16
When EVA is captured, she is “trapped” within the bed frame –
01:55.22.13 – 36.00
– and again, as she is tortured:
02:01.32.14 – 02.01.09
The delightful emerald-robbery sequence at the film’s core brings this use of panels-within-panels to its logical extreme, elevating Bava’s visual motif to active application within the story itself:
DIABOLIK enters the room through a panel — a window, an inset panel within the motion picture screen — then spies the spy camera lens framed within the framed painting — another ‘inset panel’ which watches rather than reveals! — and carefully replaces the image on Ginko’s spy monitor with a substitute snapshot photo to steal the emeralds undetected just long enough to escape –
01:46.57.07 – 48.36.01
– all within the context of an attempt by the law to “frame” DIABOLIK in a way that indeed leads to his capture.
I love, too, how the climax of the film weds key elements of DIABOLIK’s precursors and his successors: The organ alarm evokes both THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and the Vincent Price DR. PHIBES films, just as EVA’s escape (dissolving into the darkness) anticipates the entrances and exits of Phibes’ mute female ‘familiar’ Vulnavia –
02:33.30.20 – 34.08.25
– just as EVA’s costume when she visits the gold-entombed DIABOLIK anticipates Vulnavia’s costumes in those PHIBES movies –
02:37.03.10 – 38.13.00
– which were themselves marvelous fusions of comics, pulps, and horror movies of yore.
As British author John Baxter noted in SCIENCE FICTION IN THE CINEMA, the final shot evokes Louis Feuillade and Georges Franju, Fantomas and Judex:
02:39.52.20 – 40.08.02
Note that Baxter was the first and perhaps only critic or film scholar to recognize DANGER: DIABOLIK as the masterpiece it was and is.
Though no one was aware of it at the time, Bava broke the mold of all previous comics-adaptation and costumed superhero films once and for all, and created a vital new template for all to follow over a decade later.
Seen today, DIABOLIK is the clear precursor to the contemporary fusion of comics and cinema, with Tim Burton’s BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS marking the point at which mainstream Hollywood finally woke up to the potential Bava had codified in 1967 (Burton knew Bava’s work well, as SLEEPY HOLLOW demonstrated).