A glorious, cult classic, Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik is based on a fumetti (Italian comic book) created by a pair of schoolteachers (!), the Guissani sisters. Arch super-criminal Diabolik (super-cool John Phillip Law) and his glamorous partner in crime, Eva (super-sexy Marisa Mell) are the scourge of the establishment. They stage a daring daylight robbery, waltzing away with $1,000,000 right under the nose of the dedicated Inspector Ginco (Michel Piccoli). Escaping to Diabolik’s swanky, hi-tech lair, the pair make love on a bed covered in $100 bills, in one of most iconic scenes in cult film history. At a press conference, Diabolik doses the Minister of Interior (Terry-Thomas) with laughing gas humiliating him in front of the assembled newsmen. Inspector Ginco cranks up his war on crime, until only Diabolik and crime boss Valmont (Adolfo Celi) remain in his sights. Valmont, a far more murderous criminal than Diabolik, offers to help Ginco trap our leather clad supervillain, leading to a showdown between the ageing establishment types (both the police and the mob) and the youthful, free-spirited anti-heroes.
Produced by Italian mega-mogul Dino DeLaurentiis (as a companion piece to his charming Barbarella (1967)), Danger: Diabolik saw Mario Bava working with the biggest budget of his career: around $3 million. True to form, Bava used his technical wizardry to craft an exquisite looking comic book caper for a mere $400,000. DeLaurentiis was overjoyed and offered Bava the chance to make a sequel with the remaining money. Irked by the producer’s creative interference and alleged megalomania, Bava refused and subsequent attempts to lure him into directing King Kong (1976) and Flash Gordon (1980) also came to naught. While Bava’s independent streak remains admirable, it is nonetheless a shame a second Diabolik adventure was never made. It would have undoubtedly catapulted him onto bigger, international co-productions, part of the sixties superhero boom, a genre perfect for his pop art sensibilities. Imagine how Kong and Gordon could have turned out had Bava made them.
Everything about this live-action cartoon, clicks: the pop art production design, the outlandish gags, dynamic action, and an ebullient atmosphere of carefree sensuality, perfectly served by the casting of John Phillip Law and Marisa Mell (Replacements for a miscast Jean Sorel and Catherine Deneuve, who refused to strip off for the love scene, even though it contains no actual nudity). Having excelled as an angelic innocent in the earlier Barbarella, here Law essays the exact opposite, a literally diabolical genius. As with his later turn in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), he imbues the daredevil anti-hero with swashbuckling verve. Sadly, following this triumvirate of colourful characters, Law seems to have lost his way. Many of his later performances are regrettably wooden, although cult film aficionados should check out his cameo in Roman Coppola’s delightful CQ (2001), which pays affectionate tribute to both DeLaurentiis productions. The legend goes that Marisa Mell was an unexceptional Italian starlet, until a car crash and subsequent plastic surgery resulted in her Frankenstein-style transformation into the blonde bombshell beloved by cult film fans the world over today. As Eva, Mell remains effortlessly sexy and never descends to the level of token girlfriend. Eva is one of the most striking heroines in cult film, confident, capable and totally devoted to her lover.
Though they are ostensibly criminals, there is something appealing about Diabolik and Eva’s playful rebelliousness, underlined in the witty script co-authored by Bava, Dino Maiuri and British writer Tudor Gates (Gates went on to write the mid-seventies lesbian vampire trilogy for Hammer, and co-wrote a comedy-giallo with Bava titled Cry Nightmare! (1968) that was eventually filmed by Antonio Margheriti). While the government officials and boorish mobsters remain callous and crass, the criminal couple never hurt anyone innocent and are clever, stylish and genuinely in love. Their anti-establishment antics must have played really well to young people in 1968 (One scene has Diabolik destroy Italy’s tax records, to the public’s delight). However, Bava plays fair by depicting an establishment figure, Inspector Ginco, as a decent, caring, honourable man and has Diabolik ultimately undone by his own greed and self-interest. Though that sequel never arrived (Although Terry-Thomas returned for the spoof Arriva Dorellik (1968)), Diabolik’s entrapment during the serial-like climax remains only a temporary setback. As his diabolical laughter suggests, the spirit of rebellion can never be entirely suppressed.
Italian director/writer/cinematographer and one of the few Italian genre film-makers who influenced, rather than imitated. Worked as a cinematographer until the late 1950s, during which time he gained a reputation as a hugely talented director of photography, particularly in the use of optical effects.
Bava made his feature debut in 1960 with Black Sunday/The Mask of Satan, a richly-shot black and white Gothic gem. From then on Bava worked in various genres – spaghetti western, sci-fi, action, peplum, sex – but it was in the horror genre that Bava made his legacy. His sumptuously filmed, tightly plotted giallo thrillers (Blood and Black Lace, Hatchet for the Honeymoon, Bay of Blood) and supernatural horrors (Lisa and the Devil, Baron Blood, Kill, Baby...Kill!) influenced an entire generation of Italian film-makers (and beyond) – never had horror looked so good. Bava’s penultimate picture was the harrowing thriller Rabid Dogs, while his last film, Shock, was one his very scariest. Died of a heart attack in 1980.