Classic Rock Corner

Dio Doc Explores the Power of Dreams—Metallic and Otherwise

Ronnie James Dio throws the now ubiquitous "maloik" in concert.
Ronnie James Dio throws the now ubiquitous "maloik" in concert. Photo by Gene Kirkland
Ronnie James Dio didn’t set out to start a phenomenon that would spread across the world and become something far bigger than he could ever imagine. But that’s exactly what did with just the five fingers on his left hand.

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Documentary poster
When he took over as lead singer for Black Sabbath in 1979, Dio was stepping into the shoes of the frequent peace sign-flashing Ozzy Osbourne. Dio wanted to do something similar that would be his own, and also reflect the darker and more mythological tone in his music and lyrics.

He recalled seeing his Italian grandmother occasionally throw a hand gesture called the malocchio or maloik—an old school “evil eye” curse made against one's enemies to them physically. It’s done by extending the index and little fingers while holding the middle and ring fingers down with the thumb.

Dio began doing it in concert and fans would follow with their own gestures. Soon, the “devil horns” spread to other heavy metal bands and fans and became synonymous with the genre.

Today, throwing “metal horns” has become a ubiquitous gesture—both “ironic” and not—as a general sign for “Party!” Thirteen-year-old TikTokers do it, along with soccer moms and football dads. One wonders what Ronnie James Dio himself would think of that today had he not died in 2010.

“He never took credit for it because it was an old Italian sign, but he did make it famous,” his wife and manager, Wendy Dio, says over Zoom. “He used to get a little ticked when he saw someone like Britney Spears doing it because he’d say ‘It’s a metal sign. It’s not for the pop people!’”

The story of the horns—and the life, career, and legacy or Ronnie James Dio—is lovingly and expertly told in the new documentary Dio: Dreamers Never Die. It’s being screened in cinemas worldwide on September 28 and October 2 from Trafalgar Releasing/BMG before becoming available to rent or own.

“I feel like there has not been a definitive documentary after all this time and there are other artists on their fourth or fifth. So I do think the timing is right,” says co-director Don Argott on the same Zoom. “Nostalgia for the ‘80s is big now. Look how Stranger Things has introduced a lot of people to Metallica and Dio.”

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Dio as a young Italian crooner.
Personal photo of Wendy Dio/The Ronnie James Dio Estate
“When you put a film together where you have a guy whose career spans the entire history of rock and roll, Don and I felt a responsibility. And Wendy’s vision really aligned with ours,” co-director Demian Fenton adds.

“It’s about Ronnie as a person and what heavy metal means to its fans and about chasing your dreams. Not letting anyone tell you what you can’t do or can’t achieve. Those are the larger themes we wanted to tap into. And I think it will resonate beyond just heavy metal fans or Dio fans.”

The doc begins with the childhood of the man born Ronald James Padavona in 1942 and whose first instrument was the trumpet! A driving ambition and love for music led him to a series of bands.

Fans used to seeing a long-haired Dio in various metal/mythological outfits will be surprised to see the earlier clean-cut pompadoured version whose career stretches back farther than many think (though even on a straight-up doo wop tune like “An Angel is Missing,” the voice is unmistakably his).

Dreamers Never Die then chronicles his winding path through bands including Elf, Rainbow, Black Sabbath, and eventually his own self-titled group. Their biggest hit was “Rainbow in the Dark” during the heyday of ‘80s heavy metal.

And while his lyrics and image included hellish visions, demons, dragons, dark forces and Medieval mythology and aspects, a closer examination of Dio’s words prove his actual most common themes: Believe in yourself, dream big and then pursue that dream, and do what’s right for you even if others doubt.
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Ronnie and Wendy Dio, somewhere on the road.
Personal photo of Wendy Dio/The Ronnie James Dio Estate
“Ronnie’s message was received by Demian and me. We listened to heavy metal growing up and we both credit those formative years with shaping our world view,” Argott offers. “You never know what is going to resonate with you and when. And it helped us find our passion for film and storytelling. And moving forward at all costs, even when you can get talked out of it for financial security.”

Dio’s sense of humor abounds. When one sober television interviewer asks him about demonic imagery during the “Satanic Panic” culture war years, Dio calmly informs his newsman that he’s has placed a curse on him—and that he’s going to hell.

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Horns Up!
Photo by Gene Kirkland
In another scene, Dio arrives to record vocals for his hilarious guest spot as a “poster come to life” in the film Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny.

Co-star and uber fan Jack Black wonders why Dio brings his own vintage-looking microphone when they’ve got state of the art ones available. He soon finds out after Dio’s voice was so powerful that it blew out those newer instruments, and they end up using his anyway.

The doc features a treasure trove of still photos, interview and concert footage, audio recordings, and talking heads from famous Dio bandmates and admirers like Tony Iommi, Rob Halford, Lita Ford, Geezer Butler, Bill Ward, Eddie Trunk, Craig Goldy, Roger Glover, Glenn Hughes, Vinny Appice, and more.

“We felt like we got to know him in the editing room. To have those people tell us how they’re inspired. Rob Halford listens to Ronnie in his headphones before he goes onstage with Judas Priest!” Fenton says. “We’re fans of Ronnie. The one step further would have been to meet Ronnie, but we didn’t.”

Ronnie James Dio died in May 2010 from stomach cancer at the age of 67. He’d been very active even up until that point with Iommi, Butler, and Appice in the band Heaven and Hell, and had more plans to tour and record.

Medical treatment would bring Ronnie and Wendy to Houston, and specifically MD Anderson Cancer Center. The documentary includes a clip from a segment that local station CW39 did with the Dios in their hospital room.

“The MD Anderson people were amazing. So kind and so nice. From his oncologist down to the nurses,” Wendy Dio says. “We used to travel from L.A. to Houston and get six hours of chemo every two weeks. And we’d skip down the hall going ‘We’re killing the dragon! We’re killing the dragon!' Cancer was that dragon.” [Note: Killing the Dragon was the title of a Dio album].

“We never thought that Ronnie was not going to make it. Three weeks before he died, he was accepting the Revolver Golden Gods Award and he looked good, and we thought he was back. But then he quickly took a turn for the worse.”
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The author (right) and brother with Dio at the Woodlands Pavilion, 2002.
Personal photo
Nevertheless, there’s been enough activity recently to call it a full blown “Ronniessance.”

Recent years have seen the release of Dio’s posthumous autobiography Rainbow in the Dark (completed by Mick Wall), reissues of his studio albums, a graphic novel based on the Holy Diver album, upcoming live re-releases from his 1983 and 1987 Donnington Festival concerts, and now Dreamers Never Die with an accompanying career-spanning new anthology.

And his otherworldly presence even makes it into the film. After a segment was done filming at L.A.’s Rainbow Bar & Grill in which Wendy reminisces at the exact booth in which the pair met, the speaker music comes back on—and it’s Dio’s voice wafting through the club. It was not planned.

“We all got chills!” Wendy laughs. “It was like ‘He’s here!’”

Finally, all three note that it’s a special thing that the documentary will be screening in actual movie theaters, allowing Dio fans a communal experience not experienced since his last live shows.

“I was overcome with emotion when I saw it. This is made with love for the fans, and it was more than my expectations,” Dio says. “Don and Demian really went the extra mile. I’m so proud of it and proud of them.”

“It’s going to be such a cool thing to treat it like an event, a show,” Argott sums up. “And fans having that communal experience with others who have the same shared love. Even today, Ronnie is bringing people together.”

To see the schedule of screenings, visit DioDreamersNeverDie.com

For more on Ronnie James Dio, visit RonnieJamesDio.com.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero