If you are a fan of horror movies, you may have heard of the Italian Giallo film genre, or you may have seen some examples of it. But what exactly is Giallo? Where did it come from? And why is it so important for cinema and culture? In this article, we will explore the origins and development of this fascinating and influential genre, from its roots in pulp novels to its peak of popularity in the 1970s, and its revival in recent years.
What is Giallo?
Giallo is a term that refers to a genre of Italian films that combine elements of horror, thriller, mystery, and eroticism. The word giallo means yellow in Italian, and it comes from the yellow covers of the pulp novels that inspired the genre. These novels were mostly translations of British and American crime fiction authors, such as Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace, and Raymond Chandler.
Giallo films are characterized by their use of elaborate and gruesome murders, often committed by a black-gloved killer who hides his or her identity and motives. The victims are usually beautiful women who are stalked and killed in various ways, such as stabbing, slashing, strangling, or decapitating. The films also feature complex and twisted plots, with many twists and turns, red herrings, and false clues. The films often deal with psychological themes, such as madness, obsession, paranoia, trauma, and sexuality.
Why is it called Giallo?
The term giallo was originally used by Italian critics and audiences to refer to any kind of thriller or crime film, regardless of its origin or quality. However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the term became more associated with a specific type of Italian film that had a distinctive style and content. These films were influenced by the yellow-covered pulp novels that were popular in Italy since the 1930s. These novels were called gialli (plural of giallo), because they were published by Mondadori, a publishing house that used yellow as its trademark color.
The gialli novels were mostly translations of British and American crime fiction authors, such as Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace, and Raymond Chandler. They featured stories of murder, mystery, suspense, and intrigue, often set in exotic locations and involving aristocratic or wealthy characters. The novels were cheap and widely available, and they appealed to a mass audience that was looking for entertainment and escapism. The novels also influenced many Italian filmmakers who adapted them into films or used them as inspiration for their own stories.
What are the main characteristics of Giallo films?
Giallo films have many distinctive features that make them recognizable and unique. Some of the most common characteristics are:
- The use of elaborate and gruesome murders, often committed by a black-gloved killer who hides his or her identity and motives.
- The use of bright colors and stylish cinematography, creating a contrast between the beauty and the horror.
- The use of atmospheric and haunting music, often composed by Ennio Morricone or Goblin.
- The use of psychological themes and surreal imagery, creating a sense of ambiguity and unreality.
- The use of beautiful women as victims or protagonists, often portrayed as sexually liberated or repressed.
- The use of exotic or urban settings, such as Rome, Venice, London, Paris, or New York.
- The use of references to art, literature, mythology, or religion.
These are some of the main characteristics of Giallo films, but they are not exclusive or definitive. There are many variations and sub-genres within the Giallo genre, such as supernatural horror (e.g., Suspiria), comedy (e.g., The Case of the Bloody Iris), sci-fi (e.g., The Tenth Victim), or eroticism (e.g., The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh). The genre is also very flexible and adaptable to different times and contexts.
The origins and evolution of Giallo films
The influence of pulp novels
The origins of Giallo films can be traced back to the pulp novels that were popular in Italy since the 1930s. These novels were called gialli (plural of giallo), because they were published by Mondadori, a publishing house that used yellow as its trademark color. The gialli novels were mostly translations of British and American crime fiction authors, such as Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace, and Raymond Chandler. They featured stories of murder, mystery, suspense, and intrigue, often set in exotic locations and involving aristocratic or wealthy characters. The novels were cheap and widely available, and they appealed to a mass audience that was looking for entertainment and escapism.
The gialli novels influenced many Italian filmmakers who adapted them into films or used them as inspiration for their own stories. Some of the earliest examples of Giallo films are based on the novels of Edgar Wallace, a prolific British writer who created stories of mystery and horror, often involving a masked or hidden killer, a secret society, a cursed family, or a supernatural element. Some of the films based on Wallace's novels are The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1939), The Secret of Dr. Mabuse (1964), The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), and The College Girl Murders (1967). These films were mostly produced by German studios and co-directed by Italian filmmakers, such as Riccardo Freda, Mario Bava, and Antonio Margheriti. They were popular in both countries and created a demand for more Giallo films.
The first Giallo films by Mario Bava
The first Giallo film that is usually considered to be the originator of the genre is The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963), directed by Mario Bava, who is also regarded as one of the masters of the genre. Bava was a cinematographer who became a director and created many influential films in various genres, such as horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and western. Bava's films are known for their use of bright colors, stylish cinematography, atmospheric lighting, and innovative special effects.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much is a film that pays homage to the gialli novels and to Alfred Hitchcock's films, such as Rear Window (1954) and Psycho (1960). The film tells the story of Nora Davis (Letícia Román), an American tourist who witnesses a murder in Rome and becomes involved in a mystery involving a serial killer known as "the Alphabet Murderer. The film mixes elements of comedy, romance, suspense, and horror, creating a tone that is both playful and frightening. The film also introduces some of the conventions and tropes that would become common in Giallo films, such as the use of an amateur detective as the protagonist, the use of black-and-white flashbacks to reveal clues or memories, the use of subjective camera shots to show the killer's point of view, and the use of a twist ending that reveals the killer's identity and motive.
Bava's next film, Blood and Black Lace (1964), is considered to be the first true Giallo film, as it establishes many of the features that would define the genre. The film is set in a fashion house where models are being killed by a masked killer who wears a black raincoat and black gloves. The film is a showcase of Bava's visual style, as he uses bright colors, elaborate sets, and creative camera movements to create a stunning and violent spectacle. The film also introduces some of the themes that would become common in Giallo films, such as the corruption and decadence of high society, the exploitation and objectification of women, the perversion and sadism of sexuality, and the psychology and pathology of the killer. The film is also one of the first to use graphic violence and gore to depict the murders, creating a shock effect that would influence many other filmmakers.
The masters and classics of Giallo cinema
Dario Argento: The king of Giallo
One of the most influential and acclaimed directors in the Giallo genre is Dario Argento, who is often called the "king of Giallo". Argento started his career as a film critic and a screenwriter, working on films such as Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist (1970). He made his directorial debut with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), a film that was a huge success and established him as a master of the genre.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a film that follows the story of Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), an American writer who witnesses an attempted murder of a woman in an art gallery and becomes obsessed with finding the killer. The film is a homage to Alfred Hitchcock's films, such as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Psycho (1960), and it also incorporates elements of the gialli novels, such as the use of an animal motif, a psychological twist, and a black-gloved killer. The film is also notable for its use of inventive and shocking violence, its use of vibrant colors and stylish cinematography, and its use of an iconic score by Ennio Morricone.
Argento's next films, The Cat o' Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), are also part of his "animal trilogy", as they feature animal-related titles and themes. These films are also examples of Argento's skill in creating suspenseful and complex plots, with many twists and turns, red herrings, and false clues. Argento's films also explore psychological themes, such as memory, identity, trauma, and madness, often using surreal imagery and symbolism to convey them.
Argento's most acclaimed film is Deep Red (1975), which is considered to be his masterpiece and one of the best Giallo films ever made. Deep Red is a film that tells the story of Marcus Daly (David Hemmings), a British pianist who witnesses the murder of a psychic (Macha Méril) and teams up with a journalist (Daria Nicolodi) to solve the mystery. The film is a showcase of Argento's visual style, as he uses elaborate camera movements, stunning set pieces, and vivid colors to create a stunning and violent spectacle. The film also features one of the most memorable scores by Goblin, a progressive rock band that collaborated with Argento on many of his films. The film also introduces some supernatural elements to the genre, such as psychic phenomena, paranormal visions, and occult symbols.
Lucio Fulci: The godfather of gore
Another influential director in the Giallo genre is Lucio Fulci, who is also known as the "godfather of gore". Fulci was a prolific filmmaker who worked in various genres, such as comedy, western, sci-fi, and fantasy. He became famous for his horror films, which are known for their extreme violence, gore, and brutality. Fulci's films are also known for their use of surreal imagery, atmospheric music, and nihilistic themes.
Fulci's first Giallo film is A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971), which is a film that follows the story of Carol Hammond (Florinda Bolkan), a wealthy woman who has a nightmare of killing her neighbor (Anita Strindberg) and then finds out that she actually did it. The film is a psychedelic thriller that explores themes such as sexuality, drugs, hallucinations, and paranoia. The film is also notable for its use of graphic violence and gore, such as a scene where Carol finds herself in a room full of mutilated dogs. The film was so realistic that Fulci was accused of animal cruelty and had to prove that the effects were fake.
Fulci's next Giallo film is Don't Torture a Duckling (1972), which is a film that tells the story of a series of murders of young boys in a rural Italian village. The film is a social commentary that criticizes the hypocrisy and corruption of the Catholic Church, the media, and the police. The film also features some controversial scenes, such as a scene where a priest (Marc Porel) is beaten to death by villagers or a scene where a witch (Barbara Bouchet) is stripped naked and dragged by a car. The film was banned or censored in many countries for its violence and blasphemy.
The decline and revival of Giallo films
The crisis of the Italian film industry in the 1980s and 1990s
The Giallo genre reached its peak of popularity and quality in the 1970s, when dozens of films were produced by various directors, such as Lucio Fulci, Sergio Martino, Umberto Lenzi, Pupi Avati, and Lamberto Bava. Some of these films were more faithful to the original pulp novels, while others experimented with different genres and themes, such as supernatural horror, comedy, sci-fi, and eroticism. Some of the most notable Giallo films from this period are Torso (1973), The House with Laughing Windows (1976), The New York Ripper (1982), and A Blade in the Dark (1983).
However, in the 1980s and 1990s, the Giallo genre declined in popularity and quality, as the Italian film industry faced a crisis and the audience's taste changed. The crisis was caused by several factors, such as the rise of television, the competition of Hollywood films, the censorship and taxation of violent films, and the lack of funding and distribution for independent films. The audience also became more interested in other genres, such as action, comedy, and fantasy, or in more realistic and social films, such as those made by Nanni Moretti or Gianni Amelio.
As a result, many Giallo filmmakers either stopped making films or switched to other genres or markets. Some of them tried to adapt to the new trends and demands, but often with disappointing results. For example, Dario Argento made Phenomena (1985), a film that mixes Giallo elements with supernatural horror and fantasy, but it was poorly received by critics and fans. Lucio Fulci made Murder Rock (1984), a film that tries to capitalize on the popularity of dance movies and slasher films, but it was a commercial failure. Sergio Martino made Screamers (1981), a film that is a remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) with sci-fi and horror elements, but it was a flop. Umberto Lenzi made Nightmare Beach (1989), a film that is a slasher film set in a beach resort, but it was a disaster.
The homage and tribute films by contemporary filmmakers
Despite the decline of the Giallo genre in the 1980s and 1990s, some filmmakers continued to make Giallo films or pay homage to them in their works. Some of them were Italian filmmakers who were fans or collaborators of the original Giallo masters, such as Michele Soavi, Lamberto Bava, Dario Argento, or Pupi Avati. Some of them were foreign filmmakers who were influenced or inspired by the Giallo genre, such as John Carpenter, Quentin Tarantino, Brian De Palma, or David Lynch.
Some examples of homage or tribute films are:
- Stage Fright (1987), directed by Michele Soavi, a film that is set in a theater where actors are rehearsing a musical and are killed by a masked killer who wears an owl costume.
- Opera (1987), directed by Dario Argento, a film that is set in an opera house where singers are killed by a masked killer who forces them to watch their own murders with needles attached to their eyes.
- The Church (1989), directed by Michele Soavi, a film that is set in a church that is built over a mass grave of witches and demons and unleashes a supernatural evil.
- Body Puzzle (1992), directed by Lamberto Bava, a film that is about a woman who receives body parts from a serial killer who is obsessed with her.
- Sleepless (2001), directed by Dario Argento, a film that is about a retired detective who investigates a series of murders that are connected to an old case he worked on.
- The Card Player (2004), directed by Dario Argento, a film that is about a police officer who plays online poker with a serial killer who kills his victims if he loses.
- Cigarette Burns (2005), directed by John Carpenter, an episode of the TV series Masters of Horror that is about a film collector who searches for a rare film that can drive people insane.
- Death Proof (2007), directed by Quentin Tarantino, a film that is about a stuntman who kills women with his car.
- Mother of Tears (2007), directed by Dario Argento, a film that is the third and final installment of his "Three Mothers" trilogy, after Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980).
- Giallo (2009), directed by Dario Argento, a film that is about a detective who tries to save his sister from a serial killer who calls himself "Giallo".
In this article, we have explored the history and evolution of the Italian Giallo film genre, a unique blend of horror, thriller, mystery, and eroticism that influenced many filmmakers. We have seen how the genre originated from the yellow-covered pulp novels that were popular in Italy since the 1930s, and how it developed into a cult phenomenon in cinema, with its distinctive style and violence. We have also seen how the genre reached its peak of popularity and quality in the 1970s, with the works of masters such as Mario Bava, Dario Argento, and Lucio Fulci, and how it declined in the 1980s and 1990s, due to the crisis of the Italian film industry and the change of the audience's taste. Finally, we have seen how the genre has been revived in recent years, with the homage and tribute films by contemporary filmmakers, both in Italy and abroad.
The Giallo genre is a fascinating and influential branch of cinema that combines elements of horror, thriller, mystery, and eroticism. It is a genre that challenges and entertains the viewer, with its complex and twisted plots, its inventive and shocking violence, its atmospheric and haunting music, and its exploration of the dark side of human nature. It is a genre that has left a legacy and an impact on cinema and culture, and that continues to inspire and intrigue new generations of filmmakers and fans.
What are some of the best Giallo films to watch?
There are many Giallo films to choose from, but some of the most acclaimed and representative ones are:
- The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963), directed by Mario Bava.
- Blood and Black Lace (1964), directed by Mario Bava.
- The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), directed by Dario Argento.
- Deep Red (1975), directed by Dario Argento.
- Suspiria (1977), directed by Dario Argento.
- Don't Torture a Duckling (1972), directed by Lucio Fulci.
- The House with Laughing Windows (1976), directed by Pupi Avati.
- Tenebrae (1982), directed by Dario Argento.
What are some of the main influences of Giallo films on other genres or filmmakers?
Giallo films have influenced many other genres or filmmakers, such as:
- The slasher film genre, which is a sub-genre of horror that features a masked or hidden killer who kills a group of people, usually teenagers or young adults. Some examples of slasher films that are influenced by Giallo films are Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Scream (1996), etc.
- The neo-noir film genre, which is a sub-genre of crime or thriller that features a dark and cynical tone, a complex and twisted plot, a morally ambiguous protagonist, and a femme fatale. Some examples of neo-noir films that are influenced by Giallo films are Blade Runner (1982), Basic Instinct (1992), The Usual Suspects (1995), Memento (2000), etc.
- The psychological thriller film genre, which is a sub-genre of thriller that features a protagonist who is mentally unstable or unreliable, a plot that involves mind games or manipulation, and a twist or revelation that changes the perception of reality. Some examples of psychological thriller films that are influenced by Giallo films are The Silence of the Lambs (1991), The Sixth Sense (1999), The Others (2001), Shutter Island (2010), etc.
- The horror-comedy film genre, which is a sub-genre of comedy that features elements of horror or gore, often in a parody or satire way. Some examples of horror-comedy films that are influenced by Giallo films are Evil Dead II (1987), Scream (1996), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Zombieland (2009), etc.
- Some filmmakers who have been influenced or inspired by Giallo films are John Carpenter, Quentin Tarantino, Brian De Palma, David Lynch, Nicolas Winding Refn, Luca Guadagnino, etc.