How Barbarella and Danger: Diabolik Shaped 1960s Psychedelics

In one of the first cases of a comic book adaptation for cinema, the producer Dino De Laurentiis worked simultaneously alongside two directors, Mario Bava and Roger Vadimto adapt two iconic European comics, Angela and Luciana Giussani‘s crime thriller comedy Danger: Diabolical and Jean-Claude Forestsci-fi strip Barbarelle. Sharing multiple cast and crew members, including Diabolical star John Phillip Law, along with funding from Paramount Pictures, De Laurentiis intentionally sought to release the films as a stylistic pair. Both as an act of aesthetic unity and a creative maneuver around Paramount’s budgetary constraints, the concurrent productions of Danger: Diabolical and Barbarelle established the shifting tones and textures of genre cinema, embodying a sexually liberated camp aesthetic indicative of the sociopolitical shifts of the 1960s.


While movies like Bullit and 2001: A Space Odyssey of the same year pushed the boundaries of action thriller and science fiction, respectively, into a realm of critical acclaim and formal perfectionism, Diabolical and Barbarelle served as a foil to the refined visuality and structural meticulousness of the old movies, engaging with a particular playfulness that would define psychedelia as much as the Stargate sequence in 2001. Although much has been written about the similarities of the two films, this feature film will explore how the two Danger: Diabolical and Barbarelle helped transform the psychedelic visuality of cinema through a particularly political aesthetic expression. By comparing the threads of satire in both films with the tactile worlds presented on screen, the dual productions of Danger: Diabolical and Barbarelle helped to embolden the sociopolitical powers of genre cinema to critique the rise of political distrust and the movement towards sexual liberation, respectively.

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evil danger
Image via Paramount Pictures

Coming off the screen with a chaotic collision of james bond-story style beats and aesthetics of Adam Westit is Batman, Danger: Diabolical is a nod that also upends the antics of conventional crime thrillers and reframes the central hero as an anti-establishment vigilante. Centered on a police detective’s attempt to thwart Diabolik’s multi-million dollar gold heist, Danger: Diabolical immediately positions the corrupt police force alongside the Italian Mafia, solidifying Diabolik as the sympathetic anti-hero in the public eye. Fusing a mid-century space-age aesthetic with the grandeur of a spy thriller, Mario Bava maximizes Diabolik’s symbolic potential as an antithetical fusion of Bond and Batman, even eliminating Diabolik’s signature outfit from the cabinets of crime fighting icons.

Rather than shedding light on Diabolik’s attempts to thwart Inspector Ginko, played by Michael Piccoli (Contempt), as an honorable effort to bring peace to a community, Danger: Diabolical sees the protagonist thwart systemic corruption for his own personal gain, illustrating the endemic distrust of the socio-political structures of the time. In particular, the sequence of Diabolik and Eva making love on a silver bed covered in cash satirizes the extremes of personal excess that drive Diabolik to commit the heist, ironically expressing the self-satisfied capitalism that drives each character in the film. Although the movie captures the anarchic energy of the comic books it’s based on, Danger: Diabolical playfully reveals the pervasive international skepticism of the late 1960s centered on Cold War anxieties and anti-Vietnam sentiments, claiming the film’s spectacular stupidity as a sociopolitical critique.

image of barbarella jane fonda
Image via Paramount Pictures

Since the release of Roger Vadim’s cult hit Barbarelle in 1968, many critics and scholars highlighted the film’s role in establishing Jane Fonda as a feminist and anti-war icon in turn as a powerful, peacemaker, and sexually liberated titular character. From the opening striptease sequence that presents the starship as a surreal pop interpretation of outer space to the camp climax of the organ-like “Excessive Machine”, the expressive visuality seems linked to an idiotic subversion of sexual mores; however, as Diabolical, Barbarelle behaves like a cinematic Trojan horse in the way it introduces anti-war sentiment and gender-centric social commentary into every vision. Between John Phillip Law’s Blind Angel, Pygar and David HemmingsDildano, the clumsy prison guard, Barbarelle sees its titular figure emasculate the male characters at every turn, culminating in his triumphant escape from Sogo with The Black Queen and a recently rescued Pygar.

By creating a camp sci-fi spectacle centered on female political and sexual power as well as the subversive use of male imagery, Barbarelle complicates the common attribution of the male gaze by transforming the film and the central figure into fluid expressions of femininity. Even the planet Sogo on which most of the film takes place exists atop a bubbling, energy-generating lake called The Matmos, establishing SoGo as a space of political liberation grounded in the powers of literal and metaphorical fluidity. While Fonda’s hyper-sexualization of the body has been rightly denounced as evidence of the misogynistic practices of mid-century cinema, Barbarella’s recuperation as a signifier of sexual liberation and the subversion of power sets male on screen Barbarelle apart as essential 1960s camp satire.

evil danger picture
Picture via Paramount

While it is essential to recognize the narrative and social complications of Danger: Diabolical and Barbarelle as countercultural texts, both films use a specific brand of psychedelic world-building to offer a vision of the utopian longing that characterized the peaceful protests and anti-establishment movements of its time. TV towers in cave-like interiors Diabolical to the fantastic shimmering bursts of space-age architecture from Barbarelle, De Laurentiis’ association of the two images merge to create a fantasy focused on the progress of an alternative future, capitalizing on the cultural textures of the time to reimagine a more dynamic future. While John Phillip Law’s donning of the Diabolik super-suit redefines the comic book hero’s role as an adventurous vigilante who upends political corruption for personal gain, Jane Fonda’s Barbarella took the heroic role one step further. , becoming a psychedelic symbol of female power and a supporter of anti-war ideology by fusing her fictional persona with real-life activism. Equally transcendent and transportive in their visions of alternate worlds both on Earth and on distant planets, the dual productions of Danger: Diabolical and Barbarelle redefined psychedelic cinema as a force for cultural advancement and a means of personal expression in an era of avant-garde revolution.

illustrated slice of barbarella

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