Danger: Diabolik was Bava’s first and only big budget film. He had been used to making $50,000 films. Here, Dino De Laurentiis gave him $3 million to work with. Bava left $2.6 million on the table. Since his forte had long been using camera trickery and special effects to bring things in under budget, maybe he just didn’t know what to do with that kind of money. While some of his shots are obviously faked, Diabolik doesn’t look cheap. But then his films had always looked more expensive than they were.
Diabolik does show a continuing evolution in Bava’s visual style. The comic book colors we had seen him employ since Hercules are still present, but used more subtly. Many of the daytime shots show a greater sense of realism in lighting and color. The night sequences were dark and kind of muddy in the YouTube version I watched, but I suspect this is due to copy degradation. “Comic book colors” may not be the best term to use, since pulp printing processes of the 60s weren’t capable reproducing those Frank Frazetta/Rich Corben tones – it would be more accurate to say Frazetta and Corben were using Bava colors.
The color yellow is prominent in many scenes, which connected to the covers of Italian gialli, at least in the domestic audience’s mind. Later in the film the color gold appears more frequently, foreshadowing the climax. Another visual motif, the use of horizontal and vertical lines, is used to good effect throughout the film to remind us of the comic book panel grid.
The comic was successful for three main reasons: its practical format, its controversial protagonist and its readership who saw their new anti-hero as an incarnation of their deepest fantasies.
In the commentary on the Diabolik DVD, John Phillip Law says part of the appeal of the character was that he was “sticking it to the man.” The scene where he blows up all the tax offices exemplifies this. It’s not a Robin Hood act, but it’s a kind of rebellion that people can secretly or otherwise cheer. Thinking about the appeal of making a hero-character out of a thief and killer brings to mind the Plato quote from Schecter’s True Crime anthology: “the virtuous man is content to dream what a wicked man really does.”