Black Sunday (Italian: La maschera del demonio, lit. 'The mask of the demon') is a 1960 Italian gothic horror film directed by Mario Bava in his official directorial debut, and starring Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi, Ivo Garrani, Arturo Dominici and Enrico Oliveri. Loosely based on Nikolai Gogol's short story "Viy", the film takes place in Moldavia and tells the story of a witch who is put to death by her brother, only to return two centuries later to seek revenge upon his descendants.
Having provided cinematography on Hercules (1958) and Hercules Unchained (1959) for the production company Galatea and helping finish two of their other films, Caltiki – The Immortal Monster (1959) and The Giant of Marathon (1959), Bava was permitted by the company's president, Lionello Santi, to make a film for foreign markets; he chose to make a horror film to capitalize on the recent success of Terence Fisher's version of Dracula (1958) for Hammer Film Productions. After he developed a four-page outline faithfully based on Gogol's story, several other screenwriters, both credited and uncredited, worked on the script. Former Rank Organisation contract players Steele and Richardson were cast as Bava felt that British leads would allow the film to compare favorably to Dracula. Filming took place in the studios of Scalera Film in Rome and on location at Castle Massimo in Arsoli; shooting was complicated by Bava's frequent reworking of the script and Steele's conflicts with the crew.
Black Sunday had limited financial success upon its initial Italian release. It was acquired for distribution in the United States by Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson of American International Pictures (AIP), who oversaw numerous alterations to the film prior to its American release, including the removal of some scenes of violence and sexuality, redubbing the dialogue, and replacing Roberto Nicolosi's musical score with one by Les Baxter. The film found greater success upon its American release in 1961 when it became the highest-grossing film to be released by AIP in its first five years of existence. The film was banned for several years in the United Kingdom and did not receive a wide release there until July 1968, when it was released by Border Films as Revenge of the Vampire.
The film received generally negative reviews in Italy but garnered far more positive reviews abroad in France and the United States, where it received favorable notices in Cahiers du Cinéma, New York Daily News, Time, and Variety. Retrospective reception of Black Sunday remains positive: it was placed at number 84 on a Time Out poll of the best horror films, while critic James Marriott praised the film as the "crowning achievement of Italian gothic horror". The film is now considered to be a pioneering work that set the standards for Italian horror films due to its juxtaposition of beautiful and horrific elements, with strong depictions of eroticism and graphic violence. These elements would be found in later Italian genres, such as the Spaghetti Western and the giallo. The film turned Steele into a movie star in Italy, and led to her appearing in several horror film productions throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
In 1630s Moldavia, Asa Vajda, a vampiric witch, and her paramour, Javutich, are sentenced to death for sorcery by Asa's brother Griabi. Asa vows revenge and puts a curse on Griabi's descendants. Bronze masks with sharp spikes on the inside are placed over Asa and Javutich's faces and hammered into their flesh, but a sudden storm prevents the villagers from burning them at the stake.
Two centuries later, Dr. Choma Kruvajan and his assistant, Dr. Andrej Gorobec, are traveling through Moldavia en route to a medical conference when one wheel on their carriage breaks. While waiting for their coachman to fix it, the two wander into a nearby ancient crypt and discover Asa's tomb. Observing her death mask through a glass panel, Kruvajan breaks the panel (and the cross above it) by accident while striking a bat. He removes Asa's death mask, revealing a partially preserved corpse. He cuts his hand on the broken glass and some of his blood drips onto Asa.
Returning outside, Kruvajan and Gorobec meet Katia Vajda. She tells them she lives with her father and brother Constantine in a nearby castle that the villagers believe is haunted. Struck by her haunting beauty and sadness, Gorobec becomes smitten with Katia. The two men leave her and drive to an inn. Meanwhile, Kruvajan's blood brings Asa back to life. She contacts Javutich telepathically. He rises from his grave and goes to Prince Vajda's castle, where Vajda holds up a crucifix to ward off the reanimated corpse. However, Vajda is so terrified by the visit he becomes paralyzed with fear. Constantine sends a servant to fetch Dr. Kruvajan, but the servant is killed before he can reach the inn. Javutich brings Kruvajan to the castle under the pretext that his services are needed. Javutich leads Kruvajan to Asa's crypt. The witch hypnotizes Kruvajan and says she needs the rest of his blood. Asa then kisses him, turning him into her servant. By Asa's command, Kruvajan follows up on the request to tend to Vajda. He orders the crucifix removed from the room, ostensibly so it will not upset Vajda; this allows Javutich to return later and murder him.
Asa's plan is to revive herself by draining Katia of her life since Katia is physically Asa reincarnated. Puzzled to hear that Kruvajan abandoned his patient shortly before he died, Gorobec questions Sonya, a little girl who saw Javutich take Kruvajan to the castle. She identifies Kruvajan's escort with a painting of Javutich. A priest and Gorobec go to Javutich's grave and find Kruvajan's body inside the coffin. Realizing he is now one of the undead, they kill him by driving a nail through his eye.
Javutich throws Constantine into a death pit and takes Katia to Asa. Asa drains Katia of her youth. When the witch goes to take her blood, the crucifix around Katia's neck thwarts her. Gorobec enters the crypt to save Katia, but Javutich attacks him and pushes him to the edge of the death pit. Constantine uses the last of his strength to pull Javutich into the pit and push Gorobec to safety. Gorobec finds Asa and Katia. Asa pretends to be Katia and tells Gorobec that Katia is the witch. Accordingly, he goes to kill Katia but notices the crucifix she is wearing has no effect on her. He turns to Asa and opens her robe, revealing a fleshless skeletal frame. The priest then arrives with many torch-carrying villagers, and they burn Asa to death. Katia awakens from her stupor, her life and beauty restored, and is reunited with Gorobec.