Startling sapphire blues, sickly citrine yellows, and raging ruby reds define the gemtone soaked world of the Italian giallo horror film. Add in a mix of Italian classical music blended with high strung electronic music and screeching sound effects and you have a recipe for giallo–the razorwire tense balance of horror and crime thriller that defined the genre.
The name comes from the cheap horror thriller novels at the time, often known for their bright yellow covers (with giallo translating to yellow in Italian). While not all of the giallo films on this list fit squarely into horror in the traditional sense, all of them have a deep sensibility of the genre, particularly with the other the top camp quality of the acting and design. There’s an air of the erotic ever-present to giallo film, even moreso in some ways than the American sexploitation film movement that made movies such as Deep Throat enter the cultural lexicon.
The movies below are all giallo films that define the genre to me personally. As with all of my list articles, I do not rank hierarchically, I only discuss things I have seen, and I fully admit that all of my choices are subjective matters of opinion.
DISCLAIMER: Some of the text is copied from a prior list of the same theme that I wrote for a different blog years ago. All text is original to me, but may have appeared on the web prior under a different pseudonym.
Tenebrae / Unsane (1982)
Tenebrae is a far more subdued film than some of the more action or bloodsoaked examples of the giallo genre, more murder mystery than supernatural romp. The plot sounds almost like a Stephen King novel, and it plays out not dissimilarly to what one would expect from thriller authors like Patricia Cornwell.
An author goes on a book tour of Rome, promoting his latest mystery novel, when a series of murders begins. Clearly inspired by the author’s books, he and two detectives must get to the bottom of the film’s main mystery before another life is lost.
Tenebrae is one of Argento’s more complex works, dealing with unique themes not deeply explored but definitely present in other aspects of his ouevre: deviancy, sexual repression, voyeurism, and deep-seated trauma. The film is Argento’s critical self-examination after accusations of misogyny after the film Suspira (1977). The film’s major theme of guilt transference–the author blaming himself for being the killer’s inspiration–is perhaps the clearest reflection of this. I would say that despite the murder of women, Tenebrae also has feminist themes, with the killer’s hatred of liberated women being framed as not only evil, but also a symptom of a sick society, not only inhibited but outright diseased by what we now call toxic masculinity. It dares the viewers not to become the voyeur of these murders, but to rather be disgusted as they should, while still tempting the viewer into aligning with the perverted, patriarchal views of both society and the killer.
Tenebrae is a beautiful, psychological horror film that any fan of the genre should see at least once.
Torso has a strange dynamic with American horror in that it both borrows from and lends to one of our horror culture’s most long-standing film traditions: God’s prettiest little idiots making the worst possible choices. Though the first half meanders with much of its violence veering well into outright, unsubtle misogyny, the twist ending pays off in a fairly satisfying way that many giallo mysteries don’t conclude with when attempting a twist.
Its visuals and writing are unique enough to the sensibilities of director Sergio Martino that the film has significant artistic value, and its influence on the genre of giallo for films that followed cannot be underestimated. Being able to get past the first half is an achievement, but one that’s worth attempting for fans of the genre.
Black Sunday (1960)
My personal favorite of Mario Bava’s films, Black Sunday is also one of his first. Opening on a brilliant shot and imaginative execution scene during the witch hunts of the 1600s, the majority of the film takes place in a small Moldavian province in the 1800s. When the executed witch is accidentally woken from her slumber by a pair of clumsy traveling doctors, she begins a rampage of revenge that should culminate in her finally regaining her body in the form of her great-great-grandniece. Can the handsome young doctor save his newly beloved in time or will she be permanently erased in favor of the evil witch?
Both young maiden and old witch are played brilliantly by the preeminent scream queen Barbara Steele. With her unique beauty, she captures the viewer as both characters and all of the men surrounding her become secondary. The only film on this list filmed in black and white, Steele’s dramatic looks are enough color to capture audiences in a way that many of the colorful giallo beauty queens cannot. For any fans of classic horror, Black Sunday is required viewing.
Deep Red / Profondo Rosso (1975)
After a psychic giving a lecture has a strange vision relating to an unidentifiable member of her audience, she becomes the first seen victim of the film’s demented serial killer. When musician Marcus discovers her body, he becomes embroiled with the police in the investigation of the strange, black-gloved figure. As the brilliant but deranged killer begins leaving horrific clues for the police and Marcus, they begin closing in on a suspect. But do they have the right man? Or is the real killer more clever than they know?
In this film, Argento crafted several unique murders, designed to relate to real-life painful experiences that would be familiar to the audience. “Not everyone knows how it feels to be shot, but everyone knows the feeling of striking oneself into furniture” (Argento, paraphrased). Seen more as a cult classic than a critical success, Argento’s attempts at relatability nonetheless entertain an invested audience, and it’s worth a watch to see one of Argento’s early, transitional films.
When the ill-tempered diva playing Lady Macbeth in a daring new production of Macbeth is mysteriously injured outside of the theater, her role goes to her ingenue understudy. Following the tradition of the original Phantom, she is viewed opening night by a strange, looming figure in one of the closed theater boxes. Soon after, the ingenue’s boyfriend is gruesomely murdered. This is an Argento film after all; bright red blood is not only de jour, but necessary. As the body count in the theater rises, the Phantom comes closer to catching his prize. Can ingenue Betty and her manly costar Marco stop the Phantom and escape in time?
By far Argento’s most commercially successful film, Opera is a sharp, gory take on a legitimately, psychosexually-obsessed Phantom. It follows the formula of the core story in many important ways, but diverges beautifully in its horror. Whether you’re a fan of the Phantom, or just a fan of giallo, Opera is a fun, nasty little viewing that you should treat yourself to.
Blood and Black Lace (1964)
One of Italy’s most popular exports is its fashion, and in Blood and Black Lace, Bava brilliantly combines fashion with fear. When various fashion models working for the same fashion house begin being hunted and killed, it’s up to the police to solve the mystery before it’s too late.
The strength of this film is truly in its beautiful costumes and set pieces. Everything about this film is utterly lavish, and seeing it be destroyed in the name of creating this film is horrific enough on its own. One scene involving a pale, dark-haired model in a blood red coat being stalked, is the film’s most iconic moment; it truly brings home the exact feeling the entire movie is trying to create. The film also truly incorporates the mystery and crime-thriller aspects of giallo, letting the audience know exactly how much of a founding father of the genre Bava was.
Probably one of the most famous giallo films, and certainly the most famous of Argento’s works, Suspiria is one of the most brilliantly made films of all time, let alone this list. The story follows an ingenue arriving at a strange ballet school in the Black Forest of Germany. She begins to see strange things on the grounds and in her windows. Soon other girls begin going missing. It’s up to her to get down to the bottom of this supernatural mystery.
The first of Argento’s “Three Mothers” witchcraft trilogy, Suspiria is a cult classic and a highly influential gem of the horror genre. Its vibrant colors and creative filming techniques give the film a highly unique look that many have imitated, but few successfully. It is bolstered a good deal by its incredible, almost all female cast. Rotten Tomatoes ranks it number 41 on their top 100 list of greatest horror movies of all time, and my only disagreement is that I would put it higher. While the reimagining is also fantastic, it’s a stark departure from the source material, making the original very much worth seeing and letting it stand–or en pointe–on its own.
In The Folds Of The Flesh (1970)
Y’all this movie is wild, I ain’t even gonna try to play with y’all about that. The name alone makes it sound like softcore at minimum and given the inherent eroticism of the genre of giallo, that’s not….entirely inaccurate. Directed by Sergio Bergonzelli, the film flips the usual giallo script by the mystery being the identity of the victim as opposed to the killer. The visuals are colorful and contain many nods to pop art sensibilities, the strength and singularity of In The Folds Of The Flesh is it’s storytelling framing itself in a way apart from other giallo of the time.
It also wastes no time bogging itself in too much exposition; you absolutely spend every second on a frenetic ride through the plot, which makes the gruesome murder feel urgent as it should–a rarity in a genre that sometimes meanders in odd places. It certainly doesn’t shy away either from showing plenty of naked flesh either, making sure to emphasize the eroticism of its name while never demurring from more gruesome elements either.
The unofficial sequel to Suspiria, Inferno is the second entry in the Three Mothers trilogy. It follows the tale of a woman living in a New York City high rise apartment, who discovers the book “The Three Mothers” in the basement. In the book, she discovers the tale of the three Mothers of Sorrow, and their temples. She begins to suspect that the apartment building she lives in may be the home of one of these Mothers. Begging her brother Marc to come home from Rome, she is overwhelmed by horrible visions of the dark Mother haunting her. As strange deaths begin occurring within the building, it becomes a race against time to stop the Mother before it’s too late.
While not as constantly visually stunning as Suspiria, Inferno has a subtlety to it that I greatly enjoy. Its visually stunning scenes are brilliantly arresting against the stark grayness of the dark apartment high rise. It’s a truly worthy successor to the masterpiece of Suspiria, one that I enjoy greatly. While the third entry into the series, Mother of Tears, isn’t a very good finisher to the brilliant series, it’s definitely important to not forget Inferno after watching it’s more famous sister film.
Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)
Directed by Lucio Fulci this is a film that is a bit more challenging than the others in the victimology of the killer. A child killer is on the loose in a small Italian town, and as the case baffles investigators, suspicions and tensions rise, causing the villagers to begin to turn on each other. This darkness is symbolized through a heavy departure from the defining visuals of other giallo films, Fulci’s included; it eschews vibrant colors and slick visuals in favor of more naturalistic color palettes and grittier set pieces.
While the killer is fairly obvious upon reveal, Fulci expertly weaves so many convincing red herrings into the story that it’s never overly predictable or stale. One of the perspective characters is truly vile, adding to the unease of the tension crafted by the film. While the finale is…a bit of a misstep that veers into the comedic, it doesn’t entirely ruin what the film built prior.
Directed by Lamberto Bava and produced by Dario Argento, Demons is a wickedly fun horror film to watch with a large group of friends. If you’re lucky like me and happen to have a vintage theater near you (in my case, one that specializes in vintage horror films), it’s definitely worth springing for tickets if you happen to see this come up on the marquee.
Demons is an 80s, technicolor nightmare. After a large and varied group of people are offered free tickets to a film screening, they crowd the mysterious theater, only to soon discover the horror within. The theater hides a dark secret and the movie-goers soon begin becoming possessed by demons! It becomes a fight against the hoard as one young couple begins battling their way out of the theater by any means necessary.
The set design, costuming, and hair of this movie are hilarious. Intentionally so to a degree. The film is so raucously stuck in the 80s that it’s like watching a wonderful time capsule of blood and guts. The film lays it on thick with both the gore and the over-the-top acting. It’s incredibly fun, and it should definitely be watched with company to fully enjoy how amazing it is.
Zombi 2 (1979)
Okay so teeeechnically not a giallo film, but hear me out.
Often referred to as Italy’s unofficial (or rather unlicensed) sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Zombi 2 tells the story of a Caribbean island haunted by voodoo-powered zombies. After her missing father’s boat turns up in New York Harbor with nothing but a zombie aboard, a horrified Anna becomes determined to find out what happened to her father. Journeying to the Caribbean with a cadre of companions, she discovers a doctor researching voodoo rituals and zombies in a hospital overrun with strangely ill patients. Once the zombies corner them all in the hospital, it becomes a fight for their lives.
Known primarily for its infamous “shark fighting a zombie” scene, Zombi 2 is a fun, campy take on the Dawn of the Dead universe. While not filled with the biting social commentary of the original Romero films, Fulci’s take on the universe is energetic and nasty. Originally censored in several countries, it’s recently gained somewhat of a cult following for its non-stop action horror scenes and the brilliant makeup design of the zombies.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
After the tragic death of their young daughter to an accidental drowning at their English countryside estate, a couple move to Venice for the husband’s work to try to distance themselves from the site of the tragedy. As the wife and the women she meets sense doom on the horizon, the husband and other men of the film try to rationalize away such feminine superstitions, only to be proven drastically wrong by the film’s gruesome and outright strange conclusion.
One of the most cinematically striking films on this list, Don’t Look Now soaks the viewer more in water imagery than saturated colors; however, the use of water as imagery muttered with bright pops of color (particularly red) serve to make this film all the more stunning. Though it occasionally gets reduced to remembrance for the odd twist ending and the possibly real scene of sexual intimacy between the married-off-screen husband and wife costars, the film has an oddly feminist message regarding believing women, even though the framing is odd to say the least. It’s an amazing film which stands apart from many others of the giallo style, and I highly recommend it to even those who do not typically enjoy the genre.
Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
Kill, Baby, Kill! (1966)
The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970)
Black Sabbath (1963)
Lisa and the Devil (1973)
The Beyond (1981)