Italy attracted international acclaim during the 1960s for its cycle of spaghetti westerns, but what is sometimes overlooked is the emergence of another body of exploitation films: the giallo film. The word “giallo” translates in Italian to “yellow”, and the title of giallo films derived from paperback detective novels released in post-fascist Italy by the Milanese publishing company Mondadori which had yellow covers. “Rosso” – the Italian for red – might have been more appropriate as the films are covered in blood. Cult cinema academic Xavier Mendik proclaimed that the giallo film is “now widely recognised as one of the most significant horror formats of the 1970s”. The conventions vary, but the giallo film is a murder-mystery set in modern-day Italy with amateur investigators, repressed memories, masked killers and elegant murder sequences. As this year marks half a century since the “Godfather of Gore”, Lucio Fulci, made his giallo film debut in 1969 with One on Top of the Other, here are some recommendations on where to start with the film cycle.
Blood and Black Lace (Mario Bava, 1964)
Considered to be one of the most influential giallo films, it is also one of the earliest. Released a year after what is considered to be the first – The Girl Who Knew Too Much – the Founding Father, Mario Bava, has ensured that the black-gloved hands of the killer continue to grip audiences and filmmakers today. In Hitchcock-esque style, Blood and Black Lace explores a relationship between eroticism and violence as a masked assailant stalks and brutally murders female models employed at a fashion house. The “body count” structure of the film and the masked killer are both recognisable influences on anglophone slashers, such as Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The vibrant mise-en-scène, stylish cast and the elegantly choregraphed murders all cumulate to make Blood and Black Lace a visual masterpiece.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Dario Argento, 1970)
The golden age of the giallo film (1970-1975) began with the release of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, loosely based on pulp writer Fredric Brown’s The Screaming Mimi. Dario Argento’s directional and giallo debut now confirms him as an auteur by combining a thriller narrative with stylised horror. It established the vital ingredients of the giallo cycle, such as flashbacks to a murder, a city providing the setting of mayhem and the non-professional sleuth who is an “outsider” – usually from another country who arrives as the brutality begins. The plot concerns Sam, an American writer, who is suffering from writer’s block. He witnesses an attack on a woman in an art gallery by a black-gloved figure. Accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s subtle but harrowing score and the woman’s shortness for breath as she crawls helplessly across the gallery floor, this scene is a voyeuristic spectacle of prolonged violence which gives the viewer their first sip of blood. Argento’s fluent direction and Tony Musante’s superb performance as Sam means The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is rightfully considered to be one of the greatest giallo films.
Don’t Torture a Duckling (Lucio Fulci, 1972)
Recognised as being a darker entry in the giallo cycle, Don’t Torture a Duckling is Lucio Fulci’s beautifully shot commentary on sexuality in the Catholic Church. The film challenges giallo films as it is set within a small Southern Italian village, rather than a metropolitan backdrop, and depicts the brutal murders of children, rather than vulnerable women. Fulci’s use of gory special effects was a first for him in this film, but became crucial to his identity, hence his title: “The Godfather of Gore”. It depicts Southern Italy as archaic and marred with superstition, as the film opens with a Gypsy witch digging up the bones of a baby on a mountainside. Without the vibrant colours and stylised violence that are conventional within giallo, Don’t Torture a Duckling is a disturbing but electrifying contribution to the film cycle.
Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975)
Dario Argento reinvented the style of the giallo film in Deep Red by still utilising a classic murder mystery plot but incorporating supernatural themes. A British jazz musician, Marcus, witnesses a psychic medium being attacked in her apartment while he is walking home. Her head is bulldozed through her window and her neck pierced by broken shards of glass. Marcus works with the police and a journalist in a bid to solve a series of murders as he keeps experiencing flashbacks of paintings within the medium’s apartment. Goblin composed and performed the haunting, progressive rock score, with a gothic organ and booming drums carrying the soundtrack to unnerve the viewer. Not many bands have made a career entirely out of composing horror film music, but Goblin are an exception. The prolonged murder sequences and Argento’s technical swagger merge together to make Deep Red a beautiful nightmare.