Steve Lovecraft’s review published on Letterboxd:
"Ahh, we'll put it right in here. Good. This laser gun can melt anything...except you honey."
Is this the greatest comic book movie or just the best? From the first time I saw it being lampooned on the series finale of Mystery Science Theater 3000, this movie has held a complex and cherished place in my heart. Danger: Diabolik is at the confluence of many disparate aspects of cinema that I grow to appreciate more and more each year. The team of writers, artists, producers, and musicians behind the film have all left a nearly indelible mark on film history, and it's my go-to obscure cult favorite. But one can't properly contextualize Danger: Diabolik without bringing up the far more popular Barbarella, a staple of (if not the quintessential) camp film.
After all, the two films share star John Phillip Law and co-writers Brian Degas and Tudor Gates -mostly due to them both being Dino De Laurentiis productions. Of course, Laurentiis produced several of my favorite films of the 80s Conan: The Barbarian, Blue Velvet, and Evil Dead II, as well as films by other master directors like Bergman and Fellini. It is Laurentiis' involvement that both helped and hindered this schlock masterpiece. You see, Danger: Diabolik was intended as a quick, cheap ($ 120,000) flick for dredging up money to fund the more extravagant (most conservative estimate: $ 4,000,000) production of Barbarella.
Laurentiis' choice to direct this project was none other than the inventor of Giallo film, Mario Bava. Anyone who has seen Bava's earlier divergence from his slasher roots, Planet of the Vampires, would be well aware of the man's skill and ingenuity at creating an entirely other world with such a cheap budget. With literal smoke and mirrors (and a few matte paintings) Bava made a psychedelic neon planet to captivate even the most cynical 70's Doctor Who fan while staging what is essentially the premise and plot of Ridley Scott's Alien. Say what you will of any other aspect of Danger: Diabolik, but Bava's production design is immaculately colorful and expansive. From the overweening fascist motor police headquarters that open the film to Diabolik's groovy, Jaguar-filled, underground lair, the scale and detail of the sets, ironically, put that of the far more expensive Barbarella to shame.
Let me be perfectly clear up front, I think Barbarella is a flat-on-its-face piece of trash. Sure, it's good for a chuckle, but in the context of the money spent on it, I'm flabbergasted at the the sheer waste of the whole thing. I mean, it's too boring and bored by itself to be even ironically good. It's a garish and tacky stage production that blends a completely banal space fantasy with non-sequitur visual design, and it was directed by an overpaid drunk who was all too willing to belch out "Cut! That's a wrap." If not for the completely over the top (and, admittedly, sometimes gorgeous) costumes and sets, this film's canister, filled with all of its sexual "liberation" and "science" fiction, would have been relegated to some Italian film exec's desk as an ashtray. Considering the unmitigated amount of influential import placed on Barbarella over the subsequent 50 years, I envy for Danger: Diabolik the financial priority placed on such a vastly inferior product.
So, what makes one schlocky comic book adaptation that much better than the other? For one, Danger: Diabolik is scored by Ennio Morricone. Since we're talking context, the year is 1968, and no big deal but this was the year he wrote for two of the greatest spaghetti westerns of all time: The Great Silence and Once Upon a Time in the West. While both of them are masterpieces in their own right and contain some of Morricone's most beautiful compositions, I can't help but tout the soundtrack to Danger: Diabolik as second only to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The cornerstone of the film lies in a very sexually charged, Bond-esque theme song "Deep, Deep Down", a tune containing the majority of leitmotifs that permeate the soundtrack. Plenty of vocal "wah-wahs" and surf guitar aid a truly psychedelic orchestra of bongos, electric sitar, and claves - "psychedelic", that is, if you don't prefer the Herb Alpert-esque lounge farts of the Barbarella OST.
Then there are the sets. Then there are the set pieces. Then there's Eva, played by Marisa Mell, who is in my mind the 60's silver screen sex Goddess. Then there's character actor Terry-Thomas who would go on to play iconic roles in A Clockwork Orange and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Then there's the flagpole of French acting himself, Michel Piccoli, taking a pay cut for a little exposure early in his career. Then there's Adolfo Celi, perhaps more recognizable as Largo in one of my favorite Bond films Thunderball. And is that the first blurry "pass the joint around" panning sequence in movie history?
With all of these great connections, how could Danger: Diabolik end up as the focus of the penultimate televised episode of a show predicated on poking fun at bad films? Following the trend of pretty much every movie made in Italy until the 90s, ADR, or dubbing, was the most efficient way to make up for the loud noises produced by standard film making equipment at the time. As disjointed as it may seem, I really love dubbing in movies for the element of unreality added to the escapist proceedings, but I gotta say it looks and sounds a little cheesy. I really can see why people think this movie is crap, and maybe it is a little.
Back in the day, there would be a domestic edit, an international edit, and (if it made the market) an American edit. With the American edit called simply Diabolik, you get such woeful lines as "Is that Stud coming?", but the 2005 Paramount Pictures DVD preserves the majority of the film, visually and vocally. The only thing holding it back from a concerted restoration is the fact that the master tapes - yes, the same master tapes of one of the best Morricone compositions - are possibly no longer extant. Well, perhaps upon the 50th year of the movie's existence we will get a higher quality restoration.
Diabolik blew up the financial institutions and wiped out debt before Fight Club. Diabolik was a cynical anti-hero based on a graphic novel before Batman, Deadpool, and Logan. Diabolik is the 1960's. It's beyond cult and camp and comic, and it really does prove that Italians do it better. Next time you think about wasting time on spandex man in CG, go ahead and find a decent copy of Mario Bava's Danger: Diabolik instead. You can thank me about 50 years from now.