Fans of B-movies know that the come-on is often better than the delivery. A sensational trailer, lurid poster, and fantastic title often combine to create a movie far more exciting in the mind than it could ever be on the screen. In the late '60s, many B-movies constructed their come-ons by combining elements from rock music, the wildly popular James Bond series, the burgeoning counterculture, and psychedelic imagery to promise an escape into a world far more dangerous, sexy, and generally groovy than the real one. Some were just yesterday's cool in disguise; Sammy Davis Jr.'s shtick doesn't change all that much when he's wearing a Nehru jacket. Some got it right, at least in part; a fantastic costume, inspired performance, or groovy score can go a long way. But all the elements came together perfectly at least once, in Mario Bava's 1968 film Danger: Diabolik.
Adapted from a popular (and still-ongoing) Italian comic-book series, Danger: Diabolik takes place in a Europe where square authority figures spend a lot of time combating a masked criminal named Diabolik, played with icy cool and a deadly stare by John Phillip Law. A kind of rogue, epicurean Batman, Law lives in an underground lair lushly appointed with the latest mod furnishings: immense his-and-hers showers, an oversized rotating bed, and of course, a curvy partner in crime (Marisa Mell) to fill both.
As much lifestyle porn as action-adventure, Danger: Diabolik spends a lot of time lingering over Law's belongings to the accompaniment of a ludicrously sensual Ennio Morricone score. When he springs into action, however, the film springs with him. Bava made great B-movies in whatever genre the zeitgeist demanded, from gothic horror (Black Sabbath) to scary science fiction (Planet Of The Vampires). Here, he eliminates any division between comic-book adventure and pop-art commentary. With snappy staging that—as comic-book artist Stephen Bissette observes on a documentary accompanying this new DVD version—smartly mimics the feel of comic-book action, Bava pits his hero against the old-guard forces of stuffiness and conventional morality. Bava lets the action play loose and big, but a sly subversion lurks beneath its camp exterior. After all, who wouldn't want to live like Diabolik? And what's standing in the way, apart from the stodgy old powers-that-be? Maybe the danger of Danger: Diabolik was how it portrayed its B-movie paradise as only an act of defiance away.