Danger: Diabolik (1968)

The trick to appreciating a good comic book is to savor the art as well as the story. The same holds true for appreciating the merits of 1960s and ’70s European exploitation cinema. Comic books “for adults” were huge in Europe at the time, featuring master criminals in black masks (as the good guys), sexy females, poison gasses, fast cars, and dangerous thugs. In Italy, the master criminal of the comics was Diabolik, and the master of exploitation cinema was Mario Bava.

Bava has come into his own with DVD, finding a new audience for his widescreen compositions, colored gel lighting, low-budget special effects, and funky matte paintings. Danger: Diabolik, propelled by an outrageous electric guitar and sitar-laden score by Ennio Morricone, is a glorious, super-stylish experience, accompanied on DVD by a documentary and commentary by Bava historian Tim Lucas and the film’s star, John Phillip Law.

The “rob from the rich, keep for myself” approach of Diabolik (Law) and his girlfriend Eva (Marissa Mell) seems so odd in a comic book film that it bears examination. In any U.S. comic book, he’d be the super-villain, but here he’s risking death and outsmarting the cops to fill his coffers and keep his girl in jewelry. The year of film’s theatrical release, 1968, was famously a time of “youth” revolution; May saw a full-scale Parisian uprising and protests against the Vietnam war were worldwide. Diabolik’s criminal behavior could, in this context, be read as “sticking it to The Man,” especially if you consider his and Eva’s fashion sense.

At the same time, however, Diabolik’s actions betray him as the ultimate consumer. No matter how large, his takes are never enough. He and Eva are increasingly alienated, “Deep Deep Down” (the title song) in their ultra-mod secret hideout. They have no friends, and it seems they barely speak the same language (mostly, they gaze into each other’s eyes and kiss passionately). Seen in today’s sociopolitical contexts, Diabolik is no freedom fighter (or even a terrorist). He’s a neo-conservative. One can imagine him growing up to be a member of Bush’s cabinet, fighting for the right to pay fewer taxes and keep the country’s wealth for himself and his trophy wife, so they can add more security alarms to their bomb-proof lair.

Yet, in the tradition of classically repressed auteurs, the Catholic Bava can’t bear to portray healthy sexuality without showing dire consequences. The world of crime is stacked like a pyramid, with a wide base of ugliness and a pinnacle of isolated beauty; gangster Morlocks try to pull down Diabolik and Eva (the beautiful Eloi). Compared to the gangsters’ drunken lasciviousness, Eva and Diabolik’s gropings seem “pure.”

Within this perverse ideal, money and social power are less valued than beauty, in the most superficial sense. Because of their attractiveness, youth, and wealth, Diabolik and Eva could be the toast of the town, welcomed everywhere and partying all night with the jet set. Instead, they rob from the old, snaggle-toothed, and ugly, as if their precarious self-esteem demands they humiliate those less genetically fortunate. Once they are alone, back in their gigantic pad, they seem despondent, prisoners of their own fulfilled desires.

Though we have no choice but to dig their crazy underground pad, it’s hard to root for a girl who decides she wants another woman’s emerald necklace, and so forces her man to climb steep walls, kill innocent people, and fake his own death, just to steal it for her, knowing she can’t ever wear it in public. The couple resembles those depressed suburbanites whose only relief comes from shopping for ever higher priced items at the local mall.

But that’s just the narrative. More important is the cinematic “experience” in the artistic sense. The DVD’s documentary, “Danger: Diabolik: From Fumetti to Film,” examines the film’s appeal as a function of Bava’s uses of the rhythm and flavor of the original, nonlinear “eurosleaze” comics. Lucas’ commentary also helps in this. He applies a mini-bio treatment to all the character actors, “no matter how small their roles,” and details Bava’s bargain basement special effects. In the character Diabolik, Bava found a kindred spirit, a trickster who delights in showing off his talents, especially his creation of elaborate fantasies out of little more than smoke and painted glass. For Bava as for Daibolik, aesthetic beauty and tactile sensation trump emotional connection and spiritual depth.