A Short Biography of Mario Bava
Mario Bava: The Illusion of Reality
I Vampiri
Black Sunday
The Whip and the Body
The Girl Who Knew Too Much
Black Sabbath
Blood and Black Lace
Knives of the Avenger
Planet of the Vampires
Kill, Baby ... Kill!
Four Times That Night
Hatchet for a Honeymoon
Five Dolls for an August Moon
Twitch of the Death Nerve
Baron Blood
Lisa and the Devil



Secluded castles, musty hallways, tree branches that reach like hands, mist-shrouded forests, stranded travelers, duplicitous lovers who conspire to murder, secret passageways that descend to deteriorating crypts--this is the stuff of Italian gothic horror, one of the most exciting and atmospheric sub-genres of film, and Mario Bava was one of its greatest practitioners.

Bava's career as a director got started only with the assistance of director Riccardo Freda. After Freda left the set of I vampiri (American title: The Devil's Commandment) due to a disagreement with the producers, Bava completed the final days of filming. Until I vampiri (1957) presented the opportunity for him to take the director's seat, Bava was content as a cinematographer and special effects artist. He may have lacked the ambition to become a director on his own, but Freda suspected Bava needed a little extra push. When Freda signed on to direct Caltiki: The Immortal Monster (1959), he insisted upon Bava as his cinematographer. Midway into the production, Freda left again, turning over the direction to Bava. The resulting movie looks much more like Bava's movie than Freda's.

As a reward for saving Caltiki, the president of Galatea Studios offered Bava the opportunity to film any story he wanted. Bava followed the lead of Hammer Studios: "As Dracula had just been released," Bava said, " I thought I would make a horror movie myself." So Bava chose a ghost story by Ukranian writer Nikolai Gogol called "The Vij." And he wrapped it in gothic trappings. The resulting movie, Black Sunday (Italian title: La maschera del demonio, "The Mask of the Demon"), is a masterpiece of gothic horror, a film arguably the equal of any horror film ever made. With magnificent sets that evoke a treacherous world of deep black shadows and prowling cameras that pull us into a world of deteriorating crypts and barren graveyards, Black Sunday (1960) creates a world of foreboding imagery, a world of near Lovecraftian implications, as the forces of evil are constantly in danger of emerging from the shadows and squeezing life from the living.

Visually, Black Sunday hearkens back to the glory days of Universal Studios in the '30s. It gives us beautiful macabre sets and evocative lighting. However, the evil creatures that inhabit this world are difficult to define. They aren't exactly ghosts: their presence is definitely corporeal. And they aren't exactly vampires: they don't suck blood but they have the ability to drain life out of a victim. Because the creatures don't fit into any well-defined category, they're unsettling. We don't know how they can be defeated.

Barbara Steele stars as a witch named Princess Asa who in the movie's first scene is convicted of consorting with a pawn of the devil. Before she's executed, she curses her executioners and their progeny. Two hundred years later, a doctor (Andrea Checchi) and his young assistant (John Richardson) are traveling through this same country when they stumble across the ruins of a cathedral. While their coachman repairs a broken wheel, they roam through the ruins and find a huge crypt with heavy arches and crumbling masonry. When a bat attacks them, Dr. Kruvajan strikes and kills the bat, but he cuts his hand in the process. His blood drips through the broken front panel of a coffin and onto the corpse within--which happens to be the body of Princess Asa. Mushy maggot-ridden material oozes around her skull as her body begins to revive.

As Tim Lucas points out in his liner notes for this DVD release from Image Entertainment, Black Sunday functions like a dark fairy tale. The story contains an evil witch, a haunted forest, an ominous castle, a spectral coach, and a mysterious coachman. And much of the story concerns a struggle between forces of light and dark. But Black Sunday also contains shocking violence. In the opening scene, an iron mask (lined with spikes) is driven onto the face of a young woman courtesy of a large wooden mallet. As the mallet smacks the mask in place, blood sprays into the air. In 1960, this was tough stuff indeed. Great Britain banned Black Sunday until 1968. AIP released Black Sunday in the U.S. but only after re-dubbing and re-scoring the movie--as well as removing three minutes of potentially offensive scenes (a quick fadeout after the mallet strikes the mask effectively obscured most of the spray of blood in the AIP version).

stills from
Black Sunday
[click photos for larger versions]

This DVD presentation of Black Sunday contains Bava's original cut, which has never before been officially released in the United States. In the past, public domain video companies such as Sinister Cinema have offered the movie for sale, but Image Entertainment's DVD is easily the best version. The image quality here is sharp in a pristine widescreen transfer that renders all other copies of the movie completely obsolete. Among the disc's many special features you'll find audio commentary by Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog, a Mario Bava biography and filmography, a theatrical trailer, and a photo and poster gallery. The only thing missing is an Italian language version of the movie with English subtitles.

Lucas's commentary is well-worth listening to. He has been working on his own book about Bava for several years and has plenty of background information on the movie's production. For example, he points out that the man, named Igor Javutich, who is executed during the same ceremony as Princess Asa, is her brother. The crest on his chest gives him away: the same crest appears on Asa's family's hearth. Their relationship becomes muddied in the translation to English. Lucas also points out several inconsistencies and suggests they were tied to the script revisions that were taking place as the movie was being filmed. He suggests that after Princess Asa rises from the dead, she may have impersonated her descendant, Katia. (This is the only way to explain Katia's coquettish behavior immediately after the death of her father.)

Black Sunday served as our introduction to one of the crucial icons of Italian horror: the face of Barbara Steele. In Black Sunday, she played both Princess Asa and Katia. Without Barbara Steele, Italian horror might have been very different. Her face evoked both beautiful and demonic features--instantly suggesting a dual and possibly dangerous power of character. With her sharp nose, Joan Crawford-style eyebrows, angular jaw and large eyes, shadows became accentuated on her face. Compare her, for example, with Daliah Lavi in Bava's What (Italian title: La frusta e il corpo, "The Whip and the Body"). Lavi's face was soft, smooth, and sensual. Her face didn't suggest the wicked duality of Steele. While Lavi's performance in What is one of the finest performances in the golden-age of Italian horror (her eyes, in particular, are marvelously expressive), she didn't possess the iconic features of Steele, who simultaneously presented a gentle child-like visage and a perverse, twisted countenance. It's no wonder that Steele would star in many of the greatest movies from this period of Italian filmmaking. A list of her movies is very nearly a list of the greatest Italian gothic horror movies, including in addition to Black Sunday, Freda's The Horrible Dr. Hichcock and The Ghost, Antonio Margheriti's Castle of Blood and The Long Hair of Death, and Mario Caiano's Nightmare Castle.

Unfortunately, Steele worked with Bava only this once. On the DVD's audio commentary track, Tim Lucas reveals why: Bava didn't want to work with her again because of her unprofessional behavior. She arrived late on the set on numerous occasions, and Bava had no patience for dilettantes. (Steele had recently fled to Europe after an argument with director Don Siegel on the set of the Elvis Presley-vehicle Flaming Star.)

But the real star of Black Sunday is Bava's camera and the images that it provides. Bava keeps the camera moving, as if it's a shark that must keep moving or die. When the two doctors enter Princess Asa's crypt, the camera follows them and turns 360 degrees, showing us the crumbling stonework and the shadowy recesses. This is no mere movie set. The 360 degree turn eliminates the removable fourth wall from the set and traps us in the movie's world of palpable, exotic evil. Bava's camera moves throughout much of the movie, as if stalking prey. In one of the movie's most famous sequences, Dr. Kruvajan becomes trapped in Princess Asa's crypt. Her coffin begins to shake and then it explodes. The camera tracks toward her, revealing her reconstituted body, her chest heaving, and her mouth gasping for air. With gaping spike scars on her face, she pants as if in the throes of passion while greedily eyeing Kruvajan. She's simultaneously erotic and horrifying. (The scene ends in a necrophilic kiss which was originally removed by AIP editing. This shot has now been restored.)

See the coffin explosion,
an excerpt from Black Sunday.
(Animated GIF, 25 frames, 140 KB)

Whereas many horror movies are burdened by heaps of dialogue that fill-in the time between the shocking episodes, Black Sunday conveys everything visually. The dialog scenes never become padding. In the world of dubbed Italian horror movies--where poorly matched voices frequently destroyed characterizations--the emphasis upon visuals is welcome.

Mario Bava was already 46 years old when he directed Black Sunday, therefore his career as a director was relatively short. He directed his final theatrical movie, Shock, just 17 years later. Between Black Sunday and Shock, Bava created one of the finest bodies of work by any filmmaker in the horror genre. However, Black Sunday is arguably the high point of his career. When I first saw Black Sunday nearly 20 years ago, it was my introduction to Italian gothic horror. It launched me on a lifelong quest to find more great Italian horror movies. While the journey has led me to several real gems, such as Antonio Margheriti's Castle of Blood and Riccardo Freda's The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, the journey has never really lived up to the promise offered by Black Sunday. I suppose that's the danger of starting the quest with one of the greatest horror movies ever made.


Black Sunday is now available on DVD from Image Entertainment in a widescreen presentation (1.66:1 aspect ratio). The DVD has been enhanced for 16x9 TVs. Special features: audio commentary by Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog; Mario Bava biography; director and cast filmographies; theatrical trailer; and a photo and poster gallery. Suggested retail price: $24.99. For additional information, we suggest you check out the Image Entertainment Web site.