Junkfood Cinema: Danger: Diabolik

By  · Published on January 8th, 2010

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; the column that raises the issue of cerebral obesity and its underlying causes. Let me be clear, I completely advocate exercising your mind with the most auteur of films on a regular basis. But sometimes temptation takes over and you can’t help but pour on the syrupy, sugary goodness of a less-than-perfect movie. Over the last few weeks we have tackled the five-layer, caramel-centered trash nachos of Hollywood and our cult film gut is coming along nicely. Today we will be chewing on an especially out-there entry from an otherwise legendary director. The director: Mario Bava. The film: Danger: Diabolik.

This is one of my all-time favorite cult films. It is the story of a master thief who spends the entire movie coming up with more and more outlandish ways to outsmart police and thwart capture. His staggering proficiency has the authorities reeling and constantly changing the guard at the chief of police position. Meanwhile a powerful gangster, bent on extending his sphere of influence, decides that Diabolik is a liability and makes it his mission to bring down the masked outlaw. Will Diabolik escape prison and/or the wrath of the syndicate? Can a man really survive wrapped in all that latex?

What Makes It Bad?

To say this movie is a product of the time it was made is like finally having the courage to admit to yourself that the Arctic is cold. It looks like the 1960’s jubilantly vomited all over the screen. This thing is a Technicolor orgasm and there are sequences that will require a cocktail of mind-altering substances to fully appreciate. Part of the reason the film has the aesthetic that it does is that it was based on a giallo comic book. Giallo refers to Italian comics of pulp subject matter that were printed with distinctly yellow-colored covers (the word giallo is actually Italian for yellow). But there is an overwhelming synergy to the pairing the source material with the decade of wanton chromatic eyesores.

If you aren’t convinced Danger: Diabolik takes the spirit of its time to a whole new level, let’s examine the hero’s motivations. Why does he steal? Is it a political statement? Is he biologically predisposed to do so? Or, like so many of us, is he just concerned about the stability of his retirement accounts? Nope, he does it because it turns on his girlfriend. She sees a necklace she wants and he scales castle walls to obtain it for her. It’s the ultimate testament to misplaced rebellion and an odd commentary on feminism. Also, there is a scene where he robs an armored car and, instead of locking the money away in a safe, decides to spread it out on a revolving bed and screw her silly atop it. So we also have the sexual rev0lution well represented here. John Philip Law, the actor playing Diabolik, also sports the most adhesive mod hair cut I have ever seen.

The film does venture boldly into the silly at times. There are scores of overreactions from ancillary characters at which you cannot help but roll your eyes. The gap-toothed inspector character is especially annoying and I spent a great deal ofthe movie hoping something very heavy would fall on his head. There is also the inescapable fact that our hero spends most of the movie covered in black latex. It very much looks like a licorice condom is committing grand larceny. But I think the creme de la creme of absurdity in Danger: Diabolik is the scene where he escapes a castle by catapulting himself from the turrets and into the ocean. Yup, not since William Eduardo Coyote has a getaway displayed such abandon of sensibility and logic.

Why I Love It!

Despite my mockery, I really do love the look and feel of Danger: Diabolik. It’s as if an amalgamation of the first six James Bond films had a love child with the Batman television series. And then, by a hilarious twist of fate, that child was raised by Robin Hood and his band of merry ninjas. There are fast cars, underground hideouts, and a groovy soundtrack that will have you bouncing in your seat. Hell, Adolfo Celi, who played Largo in Thunderball, is the crime boss antagonist. There are ridiculous gadgets, chase sequences, and even a scene where Diabolik uses laughing gas to interrupt a press conference (a la Cesar Romero’s Joker). The swirly, tie-dye opening credit sequence feels as though it were inspired by a Maurice Binder title sequence from one of the early James Bond films. I also really love the matte paintings in Diabolik’s hideout; really makes me pine for this film’s release on Blu-ray

I also really dig the hero. He’s kind of a toolbox who steals just for the heck of it, and to satisfy his girlfriend of course. And my jumping giblets if Marisa Mell isn’t thermonuclear hot! John Philip Law is an actor that just exudes cool from each of his giant pores and it is not difficult to rally behind him. He never loses his composure even when the police are closing in or the gangster has him thrown from a airplane. I love his evil laugh that echoes through the rafters as he makes off with innumerable valuables. The heists he perpetrates are impressively inventive and undeniably fun. The last trick he pulls on the police is incredible; so much so I won’t spoil it but it demands to be seen.

This movie has some formidable weight behind it. It was directed by a member of the Italian Horror Holy Triumvirate: Mario Bava. Bava is, in my opinion, the best storyteller of the three. Argento would be my choice for visual style and nobody can match the gore achievements of Fulci, but I find Bava always weaves the more interesting tales. Here, he tackles a popular Italian giallo and delivers a unique infusion of color and spectacle to balance style with entertainment. So we have a fantastic director and, if that’s not enough, we also have the legendary Ennio Morricone handling the score. It’s equal parts tinny, 60’s rock and slow, psychedelic love songs. Of course, being that it’s Morricone, it all sounds like music from another planet and I absolutely love it. Add into that the great Dino De Laurentiis as producer and you have the perfect team to create something wholly original.

Point of Interest: This film was featured on the very last episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Junkfood Pairing:

Spumoni Ice Cream. When you pop the top off of the carton and take one look at the crazy mismatch and wild use of color, you will be adequately prepared for the mind-altering mod explosion on the screen. If you can procure the frozen treat through nefarious means that is all the better.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.