by Marcus Ogden
Since our screening of The Beyond (Lucio Fulci, 1981), a few people have asked me about what other Italian horror films are worth watching. I wouldn’t call myself an expert on the topic, but I’ve definitely made it my niche. My main interest has been the giallo, which is an Italian subgenre of horror and thriller named for the yellow covers of the pulp books they were based on. If I were to describe the genre briefly, I would say it’s where the play of gender dynamics and mystery found in film noir meet the stylized sex and violence of 80’s slashers. There are certain hallmarks people attribute to the genre such as leather-gloved killers, an emphasis on sexuality and gender, an obsession with Freud, and highly stylized filmmaking. These films reserved a space among the exploitation/B-movie milieu of the 60’s and 70’s, but later into the 80’s and even in the present many filmmakers are inspired and influenced by giallo films. This list will explore 6 ‘deadly’ giallo films from some of the major directors of the movement that I believe are great entryways to the genre.
Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975)
The first film I’ll recommend is Dario Argento’s Deep Red, as it was the first giallo I watched and it spurred me to find more. Argento is the most prolific Italian horror director, with a streak of great movies starting in 1970 with Bird With the Crystal Plumage and ending with The Stendhal Syndrome in 1996. Deep Red follows pianist Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) trying to solve the murder of a famous psychic, with the help of journalist Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi). This film serves as both an interesting mystery as well as an exciting slasher flick. Argento has such a strong way of infusing a film with energy and intense visual pleasure through his use of shot composition, vibrant colourization, and very rhythmic editing. Deep Red is his first collaboration Nicolodi, who went on to write Argento’s landmark film Suspiria (1977). The film is also Argento’s first collaboration with the band Goblin, who would go on to produce memorable soundtracks for Argento’s later films, as well as work for other filmmakers such as George Romero.
Blood and Black Lace (Mario Bava, 1964)
I would be absolutely remised to not include this Mario Bava directed classic. Blood and Black Lace is critically acclaimed and often considered the archetypal giallo, even the name hints towards the interplay of sex and violence that makes up the genre. The film stars western star Cameron Mitchell, Eva Bartok, and Thomas Reiner. It opens with the murder of a model by a masked assailant, and what follows is a murder investigation that unearths the many secrets of a Rome fashion house. Establishing the narrative template of slashers to come, Blood and Black Lace is an excellent mixture of noir and horror. The film dons a classical aesthetic with a jazzy brass rich soundtrack and a focus on vice, but injects vivid colours and violence into the interplay of darkness and lightness. Bava was part of an older generation of horror directors than the others I’ll be mentioning, but his films are considered highly influential to later slashers as well as to directors like Quentin Tarantino.
A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Lucio Fulci, 1971)
Lucio Fulci is best known for his surrealist horror classic The Beyond, as well as his film Zombi 2 which was marketed as a fraudulent Dawn of the Dead sequel. Fulci also directed a handful of giallo films, one being A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. The film follows bourgeois wife Carol (Florinda Bolkan) who murders her licentious neighbour Julia (Anita Strindberg) in a dream only to find the following morning that her neighbour was murdered in the same way that she dreamed of. As she struggles to parse reality from dreams, her family members investigate the murder to clear her name as well as their own. Set in London, this intricately plotted whodunit is beautifully shot and paired with a score by the legendary Ennio Morricone. Managing to be one of the more grounded and procedural films from Fulci, there is still a few psychedelic dream sequences and exciting scene found within. A certain scene in the film was convincing enough to be brought into court, where special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi had to prove that the gore in the film was fake to prevent Fulci from being jailed.
The Fifth Cord (Luigi Bazzoni, 1971)
Although I love the genre, I often accept the fact that a lot of giallo films are thinly plotted and unevenly written. However, Luigi Bazzoni’s The Fifth Cord is a giallo I would label as Cinema. The film stars Franco Nero as Andrea, a journalist whose life is starting to spiral as he suddenly becomes a suspect when people around him are murdered. Andrea decides to investigate when it’s clear that the killer is cutting off a finger of each victim as a countdown. The Fifth Cord has a very structurally sound and intriguing mystery and the viewer is just as compelled to investigate as the characters are, which is possibly owed to the film being an adaptation of a book with the same name. The film leans much more into being a neo-noir thriller rather than a horror film and fits right in with the New Hollywood films of the 70s. The Fifth Cord is a great giallo for anyone not interested in horror as it is still an effectively thrilling and stylish mystery.
Torso (Sergio Martino, 1973)
Between 1971 and 1973 Sergio Martino directed 5 well regarded giallo films, one of which being Torso which leans heavily towards the slasher end of the spectrum. The film follows Dani (Tina Aumont) and her friends as they are targeted by a masked killer who believes they can identify him. Although the film features more exploitative sexuality, it is worth watching for the many brilliantly shot and inventive slasher scenes, and its mystery that is rife with red herrings. There is also an interesting discussion around what could, and what could not, be shown as among the violence and nudity in the film, a certain scene stands out as being uniquely censored. Additionally, the film features an excellent soundtrack from Guido and Maurizio De Angelis. While a fairly simple film, Torso is credited as an early slasher and was screened as a double feature with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in American grindhouse theaters. The film has also been cited as an inspiration for horror director Eli Roth.
Death Walks at Midnight (Luciano Ercoli, 1972)
Luciano Ercoli is another notable director with a handful of good giallo films, his most well-known being his two Death Walks films. Death Walks at Midnight is a campier giallo, but still just as entertaining and stylish as the others. Valentina (Nieves Navarro) is fashion model who takes an experimental drug and hallucinates seeing a man killing a woman with a spiked metal glove. When she comes to, she finds out that the murder had actually happened and that the killer is targeting her next. While the films plot may be convoluted at times, it builds up to a surprising twist and an epic conclusion well worth the journey. The film is well shot and appropriately exciting, with a great performance from Navarro who often portrayed capable and dominant female characters. Death Walks at Midnight also features a very catchy soundtrack from composer Gianni Ferrio and singer Mina Mazzini. Death Walks at Midnight stands out as one of the more outlandish and entertaining giallo films.
As I conclude this article, it is hard for me to not list more and more films, as there are lots of strange, entertaining, and interesting films I’ve left out. Even the directors I already listed had other films I’d highly recommend. If you feel particularly drawn in to watching these and any other giallo films, I definitely recommend Tubi, and if you have a Calgary Public Library card then you can find some great ones on Kanopy. Of course, Shudder and Google Play are also good options for those willing to pay. Lastly, I should note that a lot of these films have very dated and problematic elements, but I think that they can still be enjoyed and seen through a critical and analytical lens that takes those elements into consideration. I lament that there isn’t any examples I know of directed by people of any diverse group, although recent works such as Knife + Heart (Yann Gonzalez, 2018), The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, 2013) and Cold Hell (Stefan Ruzowitzky, 2017) have shown that elements of the genre can be reworked to tell stories from more current and diverse perspectives.