Based on a cult comic strip, this mix of fantasy and madcap criminality is directed with mischievous glee by horror specialist Mario Bava. In many respects, the film is a companion piece to Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968). Producer Dino De Laurentiis set in motion these two Euro-trash comic book adaptations in the wake of the phenomenally successful Batman TV series.
The films are cut from the same kitsch cloth, share a star in John Phillip Law – as the master criminal who curries favour with the populace by destroying Italy’s tax records – and both were released in the same year.
Yet while Barbarella enjoys the stronger cult following, Danger: Diabolik – a psychedelic pop art extravaganza with colours that sear your eyeballs – is the superior offering.
Its high camp flourishes are offset by a gleefully amoral sensibility – our protagonist, Diabolik (John Phillip Law) is a nihilistic master criminal and supervillain who barely utters a word on screen, yet we find ourselves rooting for him as he faces off against idiotic government bureaucrats and crass opportunist criminals, fighting evil with evil – even resorting to murder if necessary.
Like any good super-criminal, Diabolik has a pretty snazzy underground lair packed with electronic gadgets where he chills out with his sexy blonde assistant, Eva (Marisa Mell) in between capers.
Utilising stylised sets and encouraging his multinational cast to camp it up something rotten, Bava borrows heavily from the Bond series to craft a series of increasingly outlandish action set pieces, but offers the viewer a chance to delight for once in the bad guy emerging victorious. All of this is set to a background of groovy 60s cocktail lounge music by the maestro himself, Ennio Morricone.
The finale, with its radioactive gold shower, is justifiably famous, and the press conference given by the pompous Minister of Finance (Terry-Thomas), under the influence of laughing gas, is riotously funny.
Danger: Diabolik was a troubled production from the start. French heartthrob Jean Sorel (Belle de Jour) was originally cast as Diabolik, and American actor George Raft had been given one of the bad guy roles but became ill and was replaced by Gilbert Roland.
The film’s first director was British-born Seth Holt but when Dino De Laurentiis saw early footage of the film, he was so horrified that he stopped production immediately.
The producer wasn’t happy with Gilbert Roland, nor with Elsa Martinelli who had been cast in the role of Diabolik’s sexy accomplice, Eva – but mostly he wasn’t happy with Seth Holt’s take on the movie and so he gave Seth his marching orders and Bava came on board.
By now the film’s original $3 million budget had been cut in half, but it was still the most money that Bava had ever been given to work with. Using his camera trickery skills, he actually managed to bring the movie in for under half a million dollars, which delighted Dino no end, but Bava later passed up on the chance to film a sequel because he said the experience of working for De Laurentiis was not a happy one.
John Phillip Law
Minister of Finance
Sir Harold Clark
Edward Febo Kelleng