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Happy Birthday Diabolik

“Danger: Diabolik is a fever-dream experience. It intoxicates the viewer with its rarefied, almost alien, European opulence.”

Pop and optical art, an explosion of colours, psychedelic and futuristic interior designs a la Joe Colombo and costumes inspired by the work of iconic ‘60s designers: these are just some of the ingredients Italian director and master of horror Mario Bava threw into his magic cauldron when he turned into a film “Diabolik”, an iconic comic series written by sisters Angela and Luciana Giussani. Bava’s film turned 40 this year, but it’s still considered a cult movie.

Chronicling the adventures of anti-hero Diabolik (John Phillip Law), a dark criminal madly in love with his glamorous girlfriend Eva Kant (Marisa Mell), Danger: Diabolik s a fantastic vision of the ‘60s filtered through comics. While the Diabolik character represented a constant inspiration for some fashion designers - Dolce & Gabbana’s Autumn/Winter 2008-09 menswear collection features tight shirts and sweatshirts inspired by Diabolik’s style, while the Italian design duo often claimed Brazilian model Giselle represents for them an incarnation of sensual Eva Kant - the film has kept on inspiring a new generation of directors. Rumours about a remake have circulated for years, in the meantime Bava’s Diabolik has also spawned a Facebook fanclub led by London-based director Ben Robinson.  

Dazed Digital: What fascinates you about Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik?
Ben Robinson: To many people used to mainstream, Hollywood fare, the film is a curiosity at best. At worst, they find it slow-moving and even boring; and many just thinks it’s a ‘60s Batman TV series rip-off. I hold the complete opposite opinion. Danger: Diabolik is a fever-dream experience. It intoxicates the viewer with its rarefied, almost alien, European opulence. John Phillip Law and Marisa Mell exude ultimate sex appeal, but they’re also weird-as-hell characters, homicidal and hell-bent on fulfilling their own secret pleasure agenda. Diabolik does what the very best movies do: it creates a completely captivating internal universe that the viewer can revel in; brimming with erotic fantasy, amoral role-play, sensuous music by the genius Ennio Morricone and the unique Edda Dell’Orso and mind-expanding Pop Art colours and designs.
The combination of fashion, music, action, humour, comic-book styling and cinematic innovation explodes out of almost every scene. I literally inhabit the film every time I watch it. The other thing that fascinates me about this film is its director. I have seen almost every Bava film since my fascination with Diabolik began, and he is only now being acknowledged as the true European master that he really was. He always worked with a meagre budget, and yet always created innovative shots and sequences that have been ripped-off ever since by lesser directors. There will never be anyone like him again, as much as Tim Burton wishes he could be his second-coming.

DD: As a director, what does this film mean to you?
BR: Diabolik represents the film-maker’s potential ability to create a compelling, outlandish universe that truly takes on a life of its own on the screen, and in the minds of the audience; and you cannot ask for much more than that. You have to be pretty obsessed with cinema to want to make films too. But not all directors have the depth of vision or belief in their own abilities like Bava did. So when you witness that level of skill and vision at work, it sets your own cinematic aspirations free.  

DD: Have you ever been inspired by the bright colours – those yellows, violets and greens - of Diabolik?
BR: Right now, and for the last 3 years, my whole film-making style has revolved around the Italian use of colour and chiaroscuro as pioneered by Mario Bava in films like Diabolik and Blood and Black Lace. They aren’t just colours on the screen, they’re psychological triggers. They take the audience far away from their standard consciousness and place them deep within an extended dream-state. That sounds like nonsense, but it’s true. When you combine extreme use of colour with kinetic, experimental camera moves, provocative use of sound and music, then the cinematic experience transcends to another level. Hitchcock, Powell and Pressburger, and Douglas Sirk were all doing the same thing with their colour palettes. You can see his influence on my short film Slash Hive.

DD: What’s your fave Diabolik scene?  
BR: My favourite scene is probably more of an extended sequence; when Diabolik and Eva return from their opening heist. They descend into their extravagant, underground pleasure dome, shower and make love in the huge pile of dollars they have just stolen. It’s not strictly about narrative. It’s about living vicariously through the extreme pleasure of two people doing whatever they most desire: to commit crime and make love. Every frame of this sequence is a work of the finest Pop Art. Vital to these scenes are Edda Dell’Orso’s angelic vocals, which are instrumental in Diabolik’s overall effect.

DD: And your fave crafty trick Bava used on Diabolik?
BR: The use of matte paintings, mounted on glass plates. Bava could actually move the camera and have characters walking through these paintings, and still maintain the perfect illusion of vast sets that never existed! This was virtually unheard of in 1967 on low-budget movies.

DD: A while back you met John Phillip Law, the star of the film; what memories did he have about Diabolik?
BR: I met John Phillip Law at the Hollywood Collector’s fair in 2002. He was clearly very proud of Diabolik, and had recently returned from a big Diabolik celebration in Rome. Even though he must have been asked constantly about the film, he spoke with a freshness and excitement that revealed how much he loved it. He mentioned that Bava was a constant joker on set, and that the director had made the film very quickly, and vastly under budget, even returning some of the money to Dino De Laurentiis as a kind of friendly joke. De Laurentiis immediately requested that Bava shoot “Diabolik 2”, but Bava felt that he had explored the character as much as he could, and declined the offer. John Phillip Law also spoke very fondly about Marisa Mell, who died in 1992. They were an item during production, which is clear to see from their amazing onscreen chemistry.

DD: Is the Giussani sisters’ comic popular in the UK?
BR: Diabolik is virtually unknown in the UK outside of cult film and comic circles, where it’s really only the film that anyone has seen. The comics are not stocked anywhere in the UK to my knowledge. I have had to buy all my copies from Italy.

DD: The male actors’ suits in the film were designed by famous Rome-based tailor Bruno Piattelli; the face of model Twiggy seems to magically appear in a Pop Art-meets-comic identikit at a certain point of the film; Dolce & Gabbana recently took inspiration from Diabolik for their menswear collection, while Givenchy and L.A.M.B. relaunched last season jackets with gold punch-outs that remind of Eva’s jacket and bikini. Do you think Diabolik is a fashionable film?
BR: Diabolik is so incredibly fashion-driven that it seems light years ahead of British films of the same period. The big difference is that Diabolik’s costume designers Piero Gherardi and Luciana Marinucci are going way out on an artistic limb, rather than just emulating current trends in high fashion, they’re creating their own radical fashion statements. Producer Dino De Laurentiis must have been instrumental in this, as Barbarella (1968) is also a costume designer’s fantasy come true. Diabolik and Eva’s dress-sense is vital to illustrate their internal fantasies and unquenchable desire for pleasure and physical gratification. Their lifestyle, and what they wear, is their raison d’etre as dramatic characters. By extension, they represent the audience’s deepest narcissistic fantasies.

DD: Do you think a new version of Diabolik will ever be as good as Mario Bava’s film?   
BR: My Facebook Diabolik Appreciation members are mostly strongly against any form of remake, but I am keen to see the character reborn. There is still much to do for Diabolik on screen. French Film Producer Samuel Hadida (Resident Evil, Silent Hill) told me recently that there is a great new script being written that he is aware of. I just hope it doesn’t happen for a couple of years, as I fully intend to be the man who directs it.
Ben Robinson’s latest film is the Bava-influenced horror short “Neon Killer”.