Thirteen Landmarks of Italian Horror; or, There’s Always Room for Giallo

A mysterious stranger stalks a lovely young woman as the camera creeps in like a voyeuristic partner in crime. Black gloved hands reach for the lovely neck of a young maiden. The faceless killer strangles, stabs, slashes, or otherwise horribly murders her in front of our eyes, the camera lovingly recording every perverse detail. This description of the giallo, a distinctly Italian twist on stalk and kill horror genre, could fit the hundreds of slasher films but the true giallo combines a poetic, haunting beauty with grand guignol gore and a bent of sexual perversity.

“Black Sunday”

Italian horror did not begin and end with giallo, but it certainly put the genre on the map and influenced the direction of Italian horror (as well as, among others, Spanish and French horror) for decades. Mario Bava and Dario Argento are the king and crown prince (respectively) of the genre that was born in the sixties and bloomed in the seventies and beginning in the late nineties, as scores of gialli rolled out on videotape and, later, DVD, in restored and uncut versions, I devoured these releases. But like so many other fans, I also discovered that the genre continued to grind through the decades. As the rest of the world took the lead, the Italian film industry – apart from inspired exceptions –continued cranking out imitations of its own creation. The excitement waned as the pool of classics was quickly drained and I worked my way through lesser and lesser horrors just waiting for a moment of inspiration. In recent years, Japan and Spain have, in turn, taken the lead in carving out their own territory in the horror genre, and I’ve left the giallo spelunking for hardier souls than I. But I still treasure those discoveries and revel in the lush, visually stunning cinematic spectacle of the giallo at its best, a waking nightmare with the poetic grace of a musical: Italy’s dance of death. Let the ball begin.

For more on Mario Bava, see my overview/appreciation Mario Bava: Master Choreographer of the Giallo’s Dance of Death.

Black Sunday (1960), Mario Bava

Barbara Steele, her eyes glaring hate even as her face registers terror, spits curses with hellfire as a spiked mask is slowly placed over her face. Suddenly a massive mallet pounds the iron mask and the credits explode in fire. Even in his directorial debut, Mario Bava knew how grab an audience’s attention, and he doesn’t let it go. It’s not really a giallo, but it is the first great Italian horror and the feature debut of the man who would define the giallo over the next decade. Steele only starred a couple of Italian horror films, but her distinctive, unusual beauty seemed to capture something primal in the mix of sex and sadism, innocence and corruption, victim and victimizer. She is terrifyingly lovely in a double role as the vengeful witch burned at the stake and her guileless descendant who unwittingly resurrects her with a drop of blood, and she’s both innocent and devilishly wicked with equal fervor. The moody, macabre, hauntingly beautiful cult classic of cruelty marked the beginning of great talent and the first great work of Italian horror.

Blood and Black Lace (1964), Mario Bava

Many experts of the genre have cited Bava’s lighthearted 1963 “American abroad” thriller The Girl Who Knew Too Much as the birth of the giallo, but I say this elegant slasher picture and its mix of poetic, haunting beauty with grand Guignol gore and a bent of sexual perversity is where it really happened. Forget the plot, which has something to do with a masked stalker hunting the gorgeous models of a Rome fashion house, and just take in the color and style. Bava lovingly delivers every elaborate killing like a dreamy dance of death, choreographed with sadistic precision, delivered in lurid color, spied upon with a restlessly gliding camera. There’s an undeniable edge of misogyny to the whole thing, but the psycho-thriller aspects seem beside the point as the narrative melts into abstract moments of dreamy, disconnected beauty.

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970), Dario Argento

“The Bird With the Crystal Plumage”

Dario Argento stakes out his claim as heir to the baroque visual symphonies of violence and terror of Mario Bava with this handsome thriller (shot by the great Vittorio Storaro), about an American in Rome (Tony Musante) who witnesses an attempted murder in a locked art gallery (helplessly trapped behind the panes of glass as he watches the assault). Argento wrote the script with the popular mystery novelist Bryan Edgar Wallace (whose works are part of a similarly sadistically violent genre of German thrillers known as krimi), but it’s really an uncredited adaptation of Fredric Brown’s novel Screaming Mimi (previously made into a 1958 film). The mystery ultimately collapses into bizarre and silly twists, but the story is only a structure for Argento to spin his painstakingly choreographed visions of violence and terror with a fluid camera and carefully controlled colors. It’s all about the spectacle, and while it’s only a rough draft for the delirious giallo to come, Argento fills it with inventive character bits (a stuttering pimp, an artist who lives in a house with no doors) and a moody score by Ennio Morricone.

Lisa and The Devil (1973), Mario Bava

On first glance Lisa and The Devil is a typically lush Bava shocker: a twisted family haunted by the sins of yesteryear murders the guests of their spooky of old manor house. But there’s something sinister in Telly Savalas’ sardonic, lollipop sucking butler manipulating his own behind-the-scenes psychodrama for the benefit of innocent American Elke Sommer. Mixing slasher movie and ghost story conventions with ingenious Satanic mindgames, Bava drops the bottom out of genre expectations and creates a genuinely surreal nightmare horror film.

"Suspiria"
“Suspiria”

Suspiria (1977), Dario Argento

Argento had his only American hit with this stylish, surreal, downright puzzling piece of Grand Guignol weirdness. Jessica Harper is an American ballet dancer in creepy European dance academy run by Joan Bennet and Alida Valli, who seem to preside over a series of bizarre murders as well. The story has something to do with witchcraft and a coven that has made its home in the sinister school, but then plot was never Argento’s strength. Suspiria‘s fame comes from bravura set pieces of lovingly choreographed violence—a young woman is assaulted and dropped through a stained glass ceiling until a rope around her neck breaks her fall (among other things) and another student swims through a room filled with razor wire—and Argento’s lyrical cinematography and vivid, full blooded imagery. He brings a grace to the dirty business of murder and a dream logic to terror. Which may be why his films have found little favor in the U.S., where audiences are more interested in literal explanations.

Zombie (1979), Lucio Fulci

Known as Zombi 2 in Italy (to cash in on the Italian title of Dawn of the Dead) and Zombie Flesh Eaters in England (where it was banned), Lucio Fulci’s notorious flesh eating classic is considered one of the most graphic and gory zombie films every made. Certainly that’s what was on Fulci’s mind when he concocted the rather silly story of tropical island experiments gone wrong — it was merely an excuse to get Tisa Farrow and Ian McCulloch out of New York and onto an island where the dead rise from the grave and attack the living with a ferocity that defies logic. It does, however, provide possibly the most famous eye-gouging “gag” in horror history and an underwater battle between a zombie and a shark (is nothing safe from these undead monsters?!!).

Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Ruggero Deodato

It’s no exaggeration to call this one of the most notorious films ever made. Ruggero Deodato’s cannibal thriller is one of the most extreme portraits of gore put onscreen, made all the more effective by a grimy sheen of documentary realism and an unsettlingly lovely, elegiac score by Riz Ortolani, but it’s also a blunt commentary on portrayals of violence in the media and the manipulation of violence in news and documentary footage. Or at least it aspires to that in its admittedly ambitious story, about a New York anthropologist (Robert Kerman) who travels to the Amazon jungle (“the Green Inferno”) to look for a quartet of American documentarians. What he discovers is a quartet of ruthless ugly Americans who brutalize the natives for the benefit of their cameras (and their own cruel desires) and manipulate the tribes to satisfy their fictions of native cruelty. On the one hand it’s a statement about the civilized world’s rape, exploitation, and demonization of the third world, creating monsters out of innocents who rise up against their oppressors. On the other, it’s a great excuse for Deodatto to make a fetish of primitivism and exploit sex, violence, and cruelty. It’s both a satire of and an extreme example of Mondo moviemaking, embracing and criticizing its fakery all the while playing the spectacle as pure exploitation. “I wonder who the real cannibals are,” muses the anthropologist after enduring the ordeal of watching it all, a comment supposed to point the finger at the media, but Deodato can’t escape the charge. That ambiguity and hypocrisy, oddly enough, is what makes it so interesting. (Be warned: the gore and violence against humans is explicit, if fake, but the violence against animals is real.)

The Beyond (aka Seven Doors of Death, 1981), Lucio Fulci

Lucio “King of the Eyeball Gag” Fulci is hardly a favorite of mine, but this film is a wild, eerie, mad masterpiece. The largely incoherent plot has something to do with a turn of the century curse and a doorway to hell in the cellar of an old New Orleans hotel, but then plot in giallo is rarely more than an pretense. If you can overlook little things like wooden acting and clumsy dialogue and arbitrary twists, you’ll find an insane tale of zombies from hell invading Earth and eating their way through a cast of crucified martyrs, blind visionaries, creepy hotel handymen and befuddled cops, while a plucky pair of heroes desperately fleeing a horde of hungry undead. The blood red art direction is eerily beautiful and Fulci’s relentless long takes, punctuated by jolting shock cuts and eruptions of grotesque violence, creates a mood of sheer paranoid horror right down to the final, mind bending image. Just let yourself get carried away on the creepy visuals and it’s a surprisingly stylish treat, an eerie, edgy bit of gothic gore pitched in all it’s bone crunching, flesh ripping, organ splatting glory. But beware: this sadistic, sanguinary hell-spawn tale is for gore-hounds only.

Tenebre (1982), Dario Argento

This story of a mysterious killer who acts out the murders of a best selling horror novel when the author (Anthony Franciosa) comes to Rome to promote the book isn’t any better or worse than hundreds of such tales, but Dario Argento’s execution of the crimes become bravura bits of cinematic orchestration. From the simple beauty of a straight-razor shattering a light bulb as the camera catches the red hot filament slowly black out to an elegant crane shot that creeps up and over the sides of a house to peek in on the work of killer who choreographs his murders, Argento turns the art of murder into stylish spectacle and the film into a dislocated voyeuristic exercise. There’s something creepy about Argento’s fascination with the slicing and dicing big eyed, scantily clad Italian beauties, but his cinematic command of color and movement and point of view gives it a perverse beauty.

Zeder (1983), Pupi Avati

Did you know that the director of such lush ironic Italian romances as The Best Man and The Story of Boys and Girls began as a horror stylist? Pupi Avati’s Zeder, a bizarre mix of science fiction conspiracy, supernatural investigation, and zombie horror (think Pet Semetary as a corporate experiment), eschews the baroque stylistic flash of Dario Argento for eerie imagery and beautifully sustained mood. Gabriele Lavia makes a rather bland lead (his flat English dubbing doesn’t help) and the plot gets a bit confused but the film never slackens and the visuals are arresting: houses strain and moan as if coming alive and hands push through walls and floors like flowers of death. Others prefer The House of Laughing Windows, but the Cronenberg-ian strain to this odd film fascinates me.

Demons (1985) / Demons 2 (1987), Lamberto Bava

I’m not actually treating these two films as one as I am splitting the difference between them. The first, which takes place in a gothic German cinema, is a gory high concept horror film in the Night of the Living Dead tradition and spiced with a little pre-Scream self-reflection. The slick, stylish ooze-fest tosses all it carefully plotted set-up out the exit doors for a bizarrely grim conclusion. Part 2 – half remake, half sequel – borrows liberally from David Cronenberg (self contained apartment complex from Shivers, horrors escape from the TV like Videodrome) and ups the gore and creative dismemberment. It’s fun horror excess as long as you don’t worry about it making any sense.

Dellamorte Dellamore (aka Cemetery Man, 1994), Michele Soavi

“Dellamorte Dellamore” (“Cemetary Man”)

Italian horror auteur Michele Soavi takes a Night of the Living Dead premise and turns it on its head his demented adaptation of the European comic book Dylan Dog. Rupert Everett is the cemetery groundskeeper who has become blasé about the way the dead come back to life with clockwork regularity in his graveyard. But the steady diet of corpse killing coupled with some nasty accidents (including one that interrupts a very hot interlude with an oversexed young widow) eventually twists his psyche in knots and he starts targeting the living. Soavi bounces from satire to horror to slapstick to insanity and back with a deadpan keel that never flinches. François Hadji-Lazaro is perfect as his loyal mute assistant Nhagi, a sidekick the merges Gothic horror clichés with a punk modernism, and the voluptuous Anna Falchi plays three different women he meets through his odyssey to complete madness.

Honorary giallo pick: The Dead Hate the Living (2000), Dave Parker

Yes, I know this is actually an American indie, but it’s also a dead-on tribute to the genre. The idea isn’t new by any means: low budget horror filmmakers tempt fate while shooting in an abandoned hospital and become the victims in a real monster mash when they inadvertently activate the portal to a demon dimension. But if the plot echoes every made-for-video chiller of the past decade and the gimmick is affectionately cribbed from Phantasm, writer/director Dave Parker marries his love of the genre with genuine style, surprisingly competent performances, and cool zombie make-up. The film is chock full of references to cult Italian horror director Lucio Fulci (the final image even echoes his classic The Beyond) and is awash in bright, artificial colors like a Dario Argento film. Think of Scream for the zombie crowd: not particularly scary, but accomplished, cool, clever, and made with as much confidence as passion.