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

A Short Biography of Mario Bava


Mario Bava makes a cameo appearance as a portrait on the wall of the heroine's bedroom in The Girl Who Knew Too Much.
Mario Bava was born July 31, 1914 in San Remo, Italy--one day after Germany declared war on France and Russia in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria.

He was the son of Eugenio Bava, who was himself an accomplished technician in the days of Italian silent cinema. Eugenio, a sculptor, entered the film business in the early 1910's as a set designer for Pathe Freres, where he learned much about the art of in-camera special effects. Owing to his sculptor's knowledge of light and shadow, Eugenio rose quickly to the rank of cinematographer. In 1912, he photographed the epic Quo vadis?; in 1913, he assisted Segundo de Chomon with the outstanding special effects of Cabiria (notably the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius); and in 1916, he photographed Cenere, the only film ever to star the legendary stage actress Eleonora Duse. Eugenio was lured to Rome to become a film director and made a few movies, but soon retired from the limelight to become the director of optical effects at the newly-formed Istituto LUCE in 1926.

Mario Bava, therefore, grew up in an environment of filmmaking and illusion, learning everything he used in later life at his father's side. He worked for several years as his father's assistant, subtitling feature films for export and animating title sequences for Italian features, until the late 1930's, when the prospects of supporting a wife and family made it necessary for him to pursue a more ambitious career. He began to work as an assistant to some of Italy's finest cinematographers, eventually becoming a director of photography in 1939. Over the years, he shot films directed by Roberto Rossellini, G. W. Pabst, Raoul Walsh and Robert Z. Leonard, and his stylized lensing was critical in developing the screen personas of such international stars as Gina Lollobrigida and Steve Reeves.

Poster artwork for I Vampiri
[click photo for larger version]

In 1956, Bava collaborated with Riccardo Freda on I vampiri ("The Vampires," 1957), the first Italian horror film of the sound era--initially as cameraman and optical effects designer, then directing half of the 12-day schedule in only two days, when Freda abandoned the project after being denied an extension. Rescuing other men's films became a habit with Bava, who directed a little of Pietro Francisci's La fatiche di Ercole [Hercules, 1957] and even more so of the Flash Gordon-inspired Ercole e la Reina di Lydie [Hercules Unchained, 1958] "while the director took his siestas." Outraged by the way his unambitious friend was being abused, Freda tricked Bava by hiring him to photograph Caltiki il mostro immortale [Caltiki the Immortal Monster, 1959] and once again abandoning the director's chair after only two days. The film's producer, Lionello Santi, rewarded Bava for completing the film by inviting him to select a property for his directorial debut--at age 46.

A sorceress (Barbara Steele) is executed in Black Sunday
[click photo for larger version]

A devotee of Russian literature, Bava chose Nikolai Gogol's story "Vij" as the foundation for La maschera del demonio [Black Sunday, 1960], the last great B&W Gothic horror film. An instant international success, the film made an overnight star of British actress Barbara Steele, who was quickly enthroned as the screen's first Queen of Horror. The film's title was a play on the Italian release title of Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein--La Maschera di Frankenstein--and established an ironic sensibility that was perpetuated in the titles and attitudes of Bava's subsequent work.

Bava was not interested in repeating his success with another B&W horror film, and demonstrated his unparalleled Technicolor prowess with Ercole al centro della terra [Hercules at the Center of the Earth/Hercules in the Haunted World, 1961], a phantasmagorical descent into Hell improvised with leftover props from earlier Cinecitta productions. The title was, again, parodic of Journey to the Center of the Earth, which had been a recent hit in Roman theaters. He returned to B&W one last time with the Hitchcock-spoof La ragazza che sappeva troppo [The Girl Who Knew Too Much/Evil Eye, 1962], an Alphabet Murder mystery that was filmed straight for the European market, and more humorously for English-speaking territories. The former version is now recognized as the origin of the giallo, a peculiarly Italian brand of horror-thriller.

Bava's next films--I tre volti della paura [Black Sabbath, 1963], La frusta e il corpo [What!, 1963], Sei donne per l'assassino [Blood and Black Lace, 1964] and Terrore nello spazio [Planet of the Vampires, 1965] show him at the height of his creative powers. Bava's increasingly ironic worldview resulted in each of these films ending in the deaths of their lead protagonists, and this downbeat quality--combined with other increasingly adult concerns in his stories--eventually led to the dissolution of his contract with American International Pictures, which had been distributing his films with much success in English-speaking territories. In more and more cases, AIP found they could not rework Bava's increasingly violent and erotic films into kiddie's matinee fodder.

Poster artwork for The Whip and the Body
[click photo for larger version]

After breaking his AIP contract with the disastrous comedy Le spie vengono dal semifreddo [Dr. Goldfoot & the Girl Bombs, 1966], Bava rebounded with Operazione paura [Kill, Baby... Kill!, 1966], a low-budget Gothic masterpiece about villagers haunted by the ball-bouncing ghost of a little girl, whose apparition compels them to suicide. Oedipal and unsettling, with unexpected sequences of Escher-like dislocations of time and space, the film received a standing ovation at its Italian premiere from Luchino Visconti. Operazione paura was also an admitted influence on later films by Fellini [Toby Dammit, 1967], Martin Scorsese [The Last Temptation of Christ, 1988], and David Lynch [Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, 1991]. Ironically, the production ran out of money after the first two weeks of shooting, and was completed with Bava and his actors donating their time services without pay, out of love for the project.

Overworked, distressed by personal problems and upset by the death of his father and mentor in October 1966, Bava avoided the genre for the next two years. He was lured back to work when Dino DeLaurentiis offered him the biggest assignment of his career, Diabolik [Danger: Diabolik, 1968], based on the Giussani Sisters' popular fumetti. Budgeted at $3,000,000, Diabolik was completed by Bava for only $400,000. One of the finest comics adaptations ever, Diabolik was enormously lucrative in Europe. Accustomed to the freedom that came with budgets of under $150,000, Bava found that he disliked the production office interference and other pressures that came with hardball budgets, and politely declined DeLaurentiis' invitation to helm a sequel. Bava healed from the experience in a hidden capacity, collaborating with Carlo Rambaldi on the special effects for the miniseries Odissea (1968). Afterwards, Bava happily withdrew to "slumming" in more familiar territory, directing the darkly ironic psycho-thriller Il rosso segno della follia [A Hatchet for the Honeymoon, 1969] in Barcelona.

In the wake of Dario Argento's 1970 debut with L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo [The Bird with the Crystal Plumage], Bava returned to the newly-fashionable giallo with Cinque bambole e la luna d'Agosto [Five Dolls for an August Moon, 1970], which he also edited. He then extended, even obliterated, the frontiers of this sub-genre with L'ecologia del delitto [A Bay of Blood/Twitch of the Death Nerve, 1971], which Bava also co-wrote and photographed. This diabolical black comedy, boasting 13 characters and 13 outrageously splashy murders, was reviled at the time of its release, but proved prophetic when the imitative Friday the 13th (1980) launched a new generation of "body count" movies. In America, Bava's trail-blazing splatter film was eventually retitled Last House on the Left, Part 2.


Elke Sommer enters a room filled with mannequins in Lisa and the Devil.

An association with American producer Alfredo Leone led to the making of Lise e il diavolo [Lisa and the Devil, 1973], an extraordinary combination of horror film, art film and personal testament. Based on Bava's memories of growing up among his father's sculptures, dialogue borrowed from Dostoevski's I Diavoli, and an unrealized project about real-life necrophile Viktor Ardisson, Lise e il diavolo unfolds like a waking dream, following its disoriented heroine (Elke Sommer) through a time-suspended labyrinth of love, sex and violent death. A film ahead of its time, Bava's masterpiece proved unsalable at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival.

It was in the shadow of this crushing defeat that Bava got the green light to direct a personal pet project, Man and Boy, based on a story which he had found in an Ellery Queen Mystery magazine. The title was changed to Cani arrabbiati ("Rabid Dogs") during production. Even when reduced to making a film without sets, Bava encountered bad luck. Shortly before the filming was completed, producer Roberto Loyola declared bankruptcy and his properties were impounded, including the unfinished Cani arrabbiati. Bava never lived to see his most daring film--the only film he ever made outside the context of fantasy--completed or released; it was impounded for 20 years, then acquired and completed by co-star Lea Lander (the fifth victim of Sei donne per l'assassino) 15 years after Bava's death. It had its world premiere in Bruxelles in 1996 under the title Semaforo rosso ("Red Traffic Light"), where it received great critical acclaim.

Lea Lander is kidnapped in Rabid Dogs
[click photo for larger version]

Bava next suffered the humiliation of painting a moustache on his masterpiece Lise e il diavolo in an effort to recover its $1,000,000 cost. The sad result was La casa dell'esorcismo [The House of Exorcism, 1975], a bewildering, johnny-come-lately Exorcist rip-off combining Lise footage with pea soup, priestly guilt and blasphemy. Once again, Bava's boldly original work was packaged with the title of a second-rate imitation.

With a string of failures, misfires and also some non- paying successes behind him, Bava was also finding it harder to work after turning 60. Troubled by his father's inactivity, Bava's son Lamberto (his assistant director since 1966) scripted what proved to be his final feature, Schock [Shock, 1977]--the harrowing story of a woman's mental collapse after returning to the house where she once lived with her late, drug-addicted husband. Bava storyboarded the entire film but directed only parts, feigning illness to help Lamberto gain some directorial experience. The Italian master of illusion was becoming disillusioned with the business of making movies. In America, this original story was retitled Beyond the Door II.

Father and son next shared directorial credit for a lovely adaptation of Prosper Merimee's fantasy La Venere d'Ille ("Venus of Ille," 1978), shot in 16mm for RAI-TV. Even this swan song success found a way to disappoint its maker, remaining unshown for two years, and premiering after Bava's death.

Bava's last assignment was working as an uncredited special effects designer on Dario Argento's Inferno (1980). Mario built maquettes, painted glass mattes and devised optical effects for the film, including its momentous lunar eclipse. As Argento now admits, Mario also directed certain scenes in his absence when he was stricken with hepatitis.

Mario Bava died of a heart attack at the age of 65, within days of a medical check-up that found him to be in perfect health. In a final irony, Bava--who had been born the day before World War I was declared--died on April 25, 1980, the day remembered by Italian survivors of World War II as "Liberation Day."

Article © 1997 Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

Tim Lucas is the editor/publisher of Video Watchdog. He is currently working on a book about Mario Bava. You can check out the Video Watchdog Web site at