Bava, Mario

Bava, Mario (1914–1980)

(pop culture)

Mario Bava was the horror film director responsible for several of the most memorable vampire films of the 1960s. He was born on July 31, 1914, in San Remo, Italy, the son of Eugenio Bava, a pioneer Italian cameraman. Bava followed his father’s occupation and entered the film industry in the 1930s as World War II began. He worked as a cameraman for two decades before he became a director. The disruption of the industry through the 1940s limited the number of features he worked on; but beginning in 1950, he worked on one or more films almost every year. His first directing work was in 1956 when Riccardo Freda quit his directing position in the middle of filming I Vampiri, one of several movies inspired by the Elizabeth Bathory legend. Bava was asked to finish the film, and his directing career was born.

In 1960, Bava directed La Maschera del Demonio, now an important and classic vampire film. Among other things, the film lifted its female lead, Barbara Steele, to stardom, at least among horror movie fans. The story concerned a seventeenth-century witch, Princess Asa, who was killed by having a spiked mask (hence the name of the movie) driven onto her face. She was revived by a drop of blood that fell on her tomb simultaneously with the arrival of a present-day double named Katia (also portrayed by Steele). Princess Asa, aided by Dominici, a vampire, attempted to find a new life by taking over the body of Katia.

La Maschera del Demonia (released in the United States as Black Sunday and in Great Britain as Revenge of the Vampire) was a black-and-white feature, but it set the stage for Bava’s color productions later in the decade. While Bava often made his films on a low budget, he became known for his ability to take inexpensive sets and, through the utilization of light, convey the gothic atmosphere of the supernatural world. Bava believed in the worlds of the real and the unreal, the natural and the supernatural, and felt that he lived his life at the border between the two. In that borderland horror arose and intruded upon normal reality, and Bava assumed that each person was more or less aware of the presence of that borderland in their own life. In his films, the psychological state of his characters was more important than the plot, which led many viewers to complain about the slow movement and lack of action in Bava productions. Although his plots moved slowly at times, Bava had no problem showing explicit violence on the screen. La Maschera del Demonio was banned in England for many years and faced problems with censors in both Canada and Mexico. Several of its scenes were edited before release in the United States.

Before the 1960s were over, Bava made four more movies that featured vampirism. After Black Sunday, Bava returned to the vampire theme in 1961 with Ercole al Centro della Terra (released in the United States as Hercules in the Haunted World). Bava brought in Christopher Lee from England to play Lico the vampire, Hercules’s opponent. He then returned to Russian literature for inspiration. (Black Sunday was based on a story by Nicolas Gogol). I tre Volti della Paura (released in the United States as Black Sabbath, in an attempt to associate it with the very successful Black Sunday) consisted of three short stories brought together to create a full-length feature. The third story (in the American version) was a rather faithful adaptation of Alexey Tolstoy’s The Wurdalak, and was notable for the only appearance of horror superstar Boris Karloff as a vampire. He played a peasant who returned to his home to attack his family.

Sei Donne per l’Assassino (released in the United States as Blood and Black Lace) was the bloodiest of Bava’s vampire movies. He took a mystery story and rewrote it as a vampire tale. In the movie, the vampire was shown as a serial killer who attacked models at a beauty salon. When found, each victim was half-naked, disfigured, and drained of blood. Blood abounded on the screen, and Bava dwelt on the gore as a means of drawing the audience into the mind of the killer.

In 1965, Bava made his last vampire movie, Terrore nello Spazio (released in the United States as the Planet of the Vampires), which turned out to be one of the pioneering science fiction vampire motion pictures. In the film, a space crew lands on another planet and encounters vampires. The vampires take over the ship and, as the movie ends, are preparing to invade Earth.

Bava continued to make movies regularly through the mid-1970s. He spent part of that time in the United States making some of the early “splatter” movies. His Blood and Black Lace served as somewhat of a transition film into this emerging horror genre. He directed his last movie, La Venere dell’ille, in 1979, the year before his death.

While Bava made more than twenty movies, his vampire movies were his most memorable. Although the vampire movies were only a small percentage of his total output, his name belongs on the short list of directors who made the most vampire movies during their careers.


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