Giallo for Beginners

For curious movie buffs and budding cinephiles, discovering the wonders of global cinema can be an awakening. Other people are content to catch the latest superhero blockbuster or sci-fi/action franchise film at the local multiplex, and there’s nothing wrong with that (if one desires a banal, meaningless existence). But some of us are driven by a craving for the strange and exotic.

If you’re in the early stages of your world-cinema adventure, perhaps the term giallo has piqued your interest. Giallo refers to a genre of film—largely produced in Italy but sometimes elsewhere in Europe—that is superficially similar to but predates North American slasher movies.

There are two basic rules:

  1. Gialli are murder mysteries. If there are no murders and no mystery to be solved, it’s not a giallo.
  2. Gialli are not supernatural tales. If the film features a ghost, demon, witch, or a zombie, it’s not a giallo. in a giallo, the killer is human.

Gialli and slasher films are similar in that they involve characters being picked off one by one, and both genres are intended to thrill and frighten by employing cinema’s traditional lurid elements: nudity and graphic violence.

However, gialli are typically richer in commentary on culture and society. They often satirize the decadence and corruption of the wealthy, the church, government, and other institutions, or they mock bourgeois hang-ups and indulgences and the seedier aspects of modern life.

Most importantly, Gialli are stylish, lurid, and sensual. That’s why we watch them.

Characteristics of giallo cinema:

  • They are as much crime dramas as horror movies
  • They tend to be suffused with eroticism
  • They often juxtapose modern lifestyle, music, and fashion with old-world European architecture (sometimes using the latter to symbolize hidden madness or decaying sanity)
  • Genre directors frequently use color and other visual cues to tie characters, scenes, objects, and events together
  • Many feature jazz, jazz fusion, or instrumental progressive-rock scores

Take an Agatha Christie mystery, imbue it with painterly visuals and a cosmopolitan air, and ladle on generous helpings of sex and violence. That’s a giallo.

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972)

A not-too-boring history: The word “giallo” means “yellow” in Italian and refers to the color used for the covers of violent and sexy detective novels had been popular in that country since the 1930s.

Influential Italian director Mario Bava piggybacked on the popularity of these books, inventing the film version of genre either with 1963’s black-and-white thriller The Girl Who Knew Too Much or his 1964 release, Blood and Black Lace, depending on whom you ask (I lean toward the latter because a giallo in black and white is film noir in my view, and Girl seems too naive and comedic to fit the genre proper).

Blood and Black Lace is a vivid, color-saturated body-count thriller set in a fashion house where beautiful models are being killed by a masked slasher. Not long after, director Umberto Lenzi (of Cannibal Ferox notoriety) delivered a string of gialli including Orgasmo and So Sweet … so Perverse. But it was auteur filmmaker Dario Argento’s global smash The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) that unleashed a title wave. As many as 200 gialli followed over the next decade and a half.

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

Every giallo fan has their favorites, but here are 15 I recommend:

Blood and Black Lace (1964): It’s the seminal film in the genre and a must see.

The Bird with Crystal Plumage (1970): Argento’s blockbuster debut is stylish and cosmopolitan, and it cemented the genre’s signature qualities.

The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1970): The first of Sergio Martino’s five gialli is sexy and stylish, and it takes more turns than a Grand Prix driver. Featuring giallo cinema’s favorite star, Edwige Fenech.

Edwige Fenech

Bay of Blood (1971): Mario Bava’s grisly thriller is not only one of the bloodiest of all gialli, it’s also the launch pad for the slasher genre.

Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971): Director Paolo Cavara’s fan favorite features all the classic giallo elements and could serve as a starting point for those who want to discover what the scene is all about (see lead image above).

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971): Horror fans familiar with Lucio Fulci’s blood-drenched zombie classics may be surprised by this sexy and psychedelic murder mystery.

All the Colors of the Dark (1972): Martino’s third giallo, also starring Fenech, isn’t the most coherent story ever filmed, but visually it’s superb.

Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972): Fulci delivers another strong giallo, this time with the darker, gloomier mood we’re used to seeing in his splatter films.

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972): One of the prettier movies in the genre in terms of locations, deployment of color, and cast (led by the stunning Barbara Bouchet).

Barbara Bouchet

What Have You Done to Solange? (1972): Massimo Dallamano’s well-made thriller might be thought of as a “classy” giallo with its Hollywood-grade production values. If crotch stabbings can be considered classy.

Who Saw Her Die? (1972): A eerie and well-shot chiller directed by the underrated Aldo Lado, with an unnerving score by Ennio Morricone.

Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (1973): This lurid and entertaining Spanish giallo demonstrates the difference between the cosmopolitan Italian approach and the Spanish horror industry’s ingrained gothic tradition.

Torso (1973): Director Martino’s best-known giallo eschews the visual elegance of his previous efforts and delivers straight horror. The third act is a blueprint for slasher films, including the “final girl” scenario.

Deep Red (1975):  Dario Argento’s magnum opus is perhaps cinema’s best-known giallo. If you’re only going to watch one …

Tenebrae (1982): Once more, Dario Argento proves the master of the genre by delivering a late-cycle classic dripping with blood and packed with twists that play out with razzle-dazzle camerawork.

All the Colors of the Dark

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My Top 10 Horror Films of 1980

This shit just got real.

In 1980, the horror genre exploded. For makers of Top 10 lists (a noble endeavor to be sure), there are three times as many films to choose from compared to years prior. However, there are also fewer consensus classics.  Your list might look nothing like mine.

To some, Prom Night and Motel Hell are the bees’ knees, whereas I’d take Without Warning or Nightmare City over those two any day.

We can all agree on one thing: mainstream critics hated this stuff.

 

My Top 10 horror films of 1980

 

  1. The Shining

 

The most quoted, homaged, and parodied horror movie ever made, The Shining is famously hated by Stephen King, yet I feel it’s by far the best movie based on one of his books. Honestly, I’m in it for Stanley Kubrick. The film is mesmerizing; the novel leaves me colder than snow falling at the Overlook Hotel on a Wednesday.

 

  1. Friday the 13th

 

When I discuss a movie’s “scares,” I’m often talking about effective genre filmmaking, not actual fear. I’m not literally scared watching The Exorcist. The sensation is more akin to pleasure at how successfully it delivers the thrills.

Friday the 13th, on the other hand, is scary to me for real. Like, “sprint up the stairs from my man cave after watching it, hoping to outrace the hand that is sure to grab me any second” scary. I’ve had multiple nightmares about this film.

Viewed out of context, it’s a cheap-looking, unstylish slasher flick, so I’m not sure what makes it so effective and influential. The isolation of the characters? The fact that you never see the killer but you see the kills? The location shooting? The score? Whatever it was, director/producer Sean S. Cunningham captured lightning in a bottle. Critics be damned, this film is among my all-time favs.

 

  1. City of the Living Dead

 

Does anyone know what this movie is about? Coherence was never a strength of Lucio Fulci’s horror oeuvre, but this entry is especially dreamlike and disjointed. My plot summary: something séance, something buried alive, something table drill, puking entrails, here come the zombies.

 

City of the Living Dead AKA The Gates of Hell may be little more than a 90-minute string of horror set-pieces, but they are wonderfully shot, gruesome, eerie, and atmospheric set-pieces. Phantasm, Fulci style?

 

  1. Zombie Holocaust

 

Back in the early days of VHS, we rented every single new horror flick that hit the shelves in the hopes of finding that rare grindhouse jewel: A flick that delivered everything you wanted and more. If you ever wanted “Zombie meets Last Cannibal World meets Island of Lost Souls,” this was that one time it happened.

 

  1. Cannibal Holocaust

 

Cannibal Holocaust is such a vile film, I contemplated bumping it from the list. But to do so would be a violation of the sacred oath taken by list-makers: Thou shalt be as honest as possible (even if thine moods are known to change like the shifting wind).

Appalling qualities aside, this grindhouse epic is well-directed, intense, and influential. It’s certainly more significant than the goofy gore-fest with the similar title that I slotted right above it. I never promised you I have good taste.

 

  1. The Fog

 

Auteurs sometimes trip up after creating their first masterpiece, such as when Tobe Hooper followed Texas Chainsaw Massacre with Eaten Alive or when George A Romero somehow thought There’s Always Vanilla to be the right vehicle after Night of the Living Dead.

Not John Carpenter. Perhaps The Fog isn’t quite on par with Halloween, but Carpenter still delivered an effective and eerie ghost story that serves as a fine example of how to wring maximum horror from a minimal budget. I think it misses a few opportunities, which is why it isn’t higher on this list. Nevertheless, it’s one of the top films in a busy year for the genre.

 

  1. Maniac

 

This is a grim fucking movie. Audiences hoping for shriek-then-laugh jump scares and scenes of good-looking teenagers getting picked off one by one instead got a grimy character study about a serial killer. And they had to look at Joe Spinell’s sweaty, crying mug for 90 minutes.

The character-study approach to horror in the early 80s was surely an artistic rather than commercial choice. It tended to limit the crowd-pleasing aspects of a film and might even have suppressed word-of-mouth. How many casual moviegoers viewed Maniac and then told their friends, “I just watched this sickening and depressing flick about a fat, greasy killer with mommy issues. You gotta see it!”?

Then again, the film does boast brutally realistic gore FX by Tom Savini. I doubt we’d be talking about it if it didn’t.

 

  1. Humanoids from the Deep

 

It’s well known to horror fans that the director of this film, Barbara Peeters, attempted to deliver a PG-rated eco-horror movie, but the producers sabotaged her vision by inserting new footage laden with gratuitous gore and nudity.

I can’t say I’m sympathetic. They took what would have been a dull and anachronistic monster movie and turned it into a grindhouse classic. Sit back and enjoy the royalty checks, Ms. Peeters!

 

  1. Hell of the Living Dead

 

That’s right. Of all the options I had available to me for this list, I went with a Bruno-fucking-Mattei flick so famously dumb it should come with its own wisecracking shadow robots.

“Borrowing” liberally from Dawn of the Dead and Zombie, and making use of egregiously inappropriate stock footage, Hell of the Living Dead is funnier than most comedies and more entertaining (to me) than the last ten Best Picture winners put together.

 

  1. Terror Train

 

1980 had plenty to offer slasher movie fans. Terror Train, a stylishly shot and well-paced film, was one of the best. Sure, the characters are dimwitted even for a slasher film, but the above-average cinematography and the claustrophobic setting make up for its flaws.

 

Honorable mention

 

Alien Contamination Alien gave you one chestburster. Alien Contamination gives you 12! That means it’s better. It also stars Ian McCulloch of Zombie and Zombie Holocaust fame.

Wait a minute. Why the hell isn’t this film on my Top 10 list?

 

Alligator – Animatronic gators. What more do you need in life?

Altered States – A story ideally suited to Ken Russell’s psychedelic-kitsch aesthetic.

Anthropophagus Joe D’Amato’s famously dopey cannibal horror film has its charms.

Invasion of the Flesh Hunters John Saxon + Giovanni Lombardo Radice + cannibalism = a movie both actors seem embarrassed about.

Don’t Go in the House – Gloomy, gruesome character-study-slasher overshadowed by the similar but better Maniac.

Dressed to Kill Brian de Palma does a giallo and it turns out pretty well.

Fade to Black – Fan-favorite slasher features a sympathetic killer a lot of viewers can relate to. It’s not the least bit scary, though.

 

House on the Edge of the Park – Any similarity to Last House on the Left, including the casting of the same lead actor, is purely intentional.

Inferno – I love Dario Argento movies, but this one falls a bit short for me. That underwater room scene, though! If I ever obtain an HD version, I may be forced to revise my opinion.

Motel Hell – I dig the black-comic horror elements, but this film is way too long for the flimsy plot. It should be 80 minutes, not 103.

Mother’s Day – Now here’s a black-comic horror I love. It’s brutally violent, though, which can be off putting to some.

 

Nightmare City –Did Umberto Lenzi just invent the “fast” zombie?

Prom Night – Hot take: this film is a slashiallo (a giallo-slasher hybrid).

The Boogie Man – The most terrifying film ever made about a little piece of broken glass that sticks to a lady’s face.

The Changeling – A subtle, psychological ghost story lost in a sea of splatter.

The Exterminator – I’m not sure it’s a horror movie, but genre fans have embraced it as one.

Without Warning – That time two Oscar winners and an Emmy winner starred in a $5 piece of trash about an alien that kills people with fleshy hamburger buns.