Odds and Dead Ends : An introduction to the Giallo

Most people have a fair understanding of the classic slasher flick. Made popular by Halloween in 1978, with predecessors including The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Black Christmas, Psycho etc, the idea of killing people off one by one has been immortalised by the formulae refined by films of this type. However, the slasher film is very closely linked to the Giallo (roughly pronounced jea-low), a type of Italian film which was very popular in the sixties and seventies, and bred a slew of filmmakers still admired and imitated today. This article won’t be a comprehensive discussion of the Giallo, as I’m a fan of the genre and not a scholar of it, but it will hopefully provide an introduction to those not aware of it, and give you a couple of movies to add to the ‘to-be-watched’ list.

Originally, gialli were cheap crime paperbacks, a bit like pulp novels, that were printed by Mondadori and trademarked with an instantly recognisable yellow cover. Hence this gave birth to the term Giallo, meaning ‘yellow’. These were mostly translations of Agatha Christie, Edgar Lee Wallace, Arthur Conan Doyle, and other similar authors. It’s important to make a distinction between the types of crime fiction, however. Gialli focused more on the graphic violence and the sleuths, rather than gun-toting noir police work. As Gary Needham says:

The publication of gialli increased throughout the 1930s and 40s, however, the importation and translation of the 1940s “hard-boiled” detective fictions from the US were prohibited from publication outright by Mussolini on the grounds that their corrupting influence and glamorisation of crime would negatively influence “weak-minded” Italians. (Needham, 2002)

Despite some of the restrictions, the Italians began writing their own gialli, and the literature boomed in the ’30s and ’40s. By the late ’50s, it had started to make its way across to film. The main mastermind behind its initial translation to the screen was Mario Bava, a film legend in his own right. After all, it was his film, Black Sabbath, which gave the band their name, who helped invent and pioneer the Heavy Metal genre of music.

Though he made a splash in ’63 with his film The girl who knew too much, it was his 1964 film, Blood and Black Lace, which really kicked things off. Dispensing with the police-procedural elements of previous films, Bava upped the sex and violence, turning the stalking sequences into major set pieces in their own right. Despite being a financial failure at the time, it has gone on to be critically appreciated and influenced dozens of filmmakers after. It set the template of what was to come after. It also introduced the killer in a black coat with black gloves, very much like Jack the Ripper, which would be the usual getup for Giallo killers as time went on.

A few years later, the most influential Giallo filmmaker would take up the mantle. Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage incorporated a twisted, convoluted plotline with stunning visuals that earned him the nickname ‘the Italian Hitchcock.’ The film was an international success, and still has one of my personal favourite twists of all time. He followed this up with Four Flies on Grey Velvet a few years later, and then release one of his masterpieces in 1975, Profondo Rosso (Deep Red).Deep Red Poster

Around the early seventies, Sergio Martino also released films such as Torso, All the colours of the dark, and the incredibly titled, Your vice is a locked room and only I have the key. Lucio Fulci also breaks onto the scene here, directing films such as A lizard in a woman’s skin and Don’t torture a duckling in the early seventies. I’ve already written an article on Fulci here on HorrorAddicts.net, and I’ll include a link to that at the article’s end.

Because of their frequency of production and release at this time, gialli ended up like the Saw films did, with each film trying to out-do the previous in terms of twists and turns. I recall hearing Luigi Cozzi talk about this in relation to when he and Argento were batting around ideas for a film in which someone foresaw their death, then had to try and explain how it happened without psychic powers. The film, Profondo Rosso, was eventually made without Cozzi’s involvement, but he does own a horror memorabilia shop in Italy named after the film.

The gory death sequences continued throughout the seventies, continuing into Argento’s most famous film, Suspiria, which had a remake released last year. The brutal opening death scene with a body crashing through a stain glass window is as in horror history as Johnny Depp’s demise in the original Nightmare on Elm Street, and Goblin’s score for the film is something you find yourself humming walking down the street. Filled with vibrant colours and haunting imagery, it’s still shocking even today.

By the time the eighties came around, however, the Giallo was beginning to fade. Fulci’s return to the genre after doing his Gates of Hell trilogy were fairly laughable (Murder Rock is just funny, and there’s not a person in existence that can’t think of The New York Ripper without saying ‘quack’. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it and you’ll understand what I mean), and Argento has been making movies to this day, but nothing of any real note after the mid-eighties with Phenomena and Opera. The American slasher had taken the spotlight, and even that was, by the late eighties, beginning to run down its original formula.

These films are still influential, however. The film Abrakadabra, released last year by the Onetti Brothers, is a wonderful homage to the giallo, nailing everything from the groove-rock soundtrack to the quick zooms and grainy footage. Gialli are a wonderful time, those made around the late sixties/early seventies especially, as they have their own unique vibe, shooting style, and soundtracks. Unlike the slasher or the ghost story, it’s something that I highly doubt will ever make a proper return, but will stay immortalised as the brilliant pieces of cinema that they are. Sleazy, shocking, suspenseful; the Giallo is one of a kind.

-Article by Kieran Judge

-Twitter: KJudgeMental

FURTHER READING ON HORRORADDICTS.NET

Bibliography

A Nightmare on Elm Street. 1984. [Film] Directed by Wes Craven. United States of America: New Line Cinema.

Abrakadabra. 2018. [Film] Directed by Nicolas Onetti Luciano Onetti. Argentina/New Zealand: Black Mandala.

All the colours of the dark. 1972. [Film] Directed by Sergio Martino. Italy: Lea Film.

Black Christmas. 1974. [Film] Directed by Bob Clarke. Canada: Ambassador Films.

Black Sabbath. 1963. [Film] Directed by Mario Bava. Italy/France: Emmepi Cinematografica Societe.

Blood and Black Lace. 1964. [Film] Directed by Mario Bava. Italy: Emmepi.

Don’t Torture a Duckling. 1972. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Medusa Produzione.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet. 1972. [Film] Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: Seda Spettacoli.

Halloween. 1978. [Film] Directed by John Carpenter. United States of America: Falcon International Productions.

Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. 1971. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: International Apollo Films.

Murder Rock. 1984. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Scena Film.

Needham, G., 2002. Playing with genre: an introduction to the Italian Giallo. [Online]
Available at: http://www.kinoeye.org/02/11/needham11.php
[Accessed 20 07 2019].

Phenomena. 1985. [Film] Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: DAC Film.

Profondo Rosso. 1975. [Film] Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: Seta Spettacoli.

Psycho. 1960. [Film] Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. United States of America: Shamley Productions.

Saw. 2004. [Film] Directed by James Wan. USA: Twisted Pictures.

Suspiria. 1977. [Film] Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: Seda Spettacoli.

Terror At The Opera. 1987. [Film] Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: ADC Films.

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. 1970. [Film] Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: CCC Filmkunst GmbH.

The New York Ripper. 1982. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Fulvia Film.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown. 1976. [Film] Directed by Charles B. Pierce. USA: Charles B. Pierce Film Productions, Inc..

Torso. 1973. [Film] Directed by Sergio Martino. Italy: Compagnia Cinematografica Champion.

Your room is a locked vice and only I have the key. 1972. [Film] Directed by Sergio Martino. Italy: Luciano Martino.

Odds and DEAD Ends: Lucio Fulci, Italy’s Godfather of Gore

When people think of Italian horror, Dario Argento is the first name that invariably comes to mind. And why wouldn’t it? With some of the most influential films in the horror genre, (Suspiria (1977), Profondo Rosso (1975), and Opera (1987), to name but a few), he brought Italy to our attention with the care and style that few could match.

After Argento we might think of Mario Bava, who brought stylised violence to the screen with Blood and Black Lace (1964) and Black Sabbath (1963), and set Italy going in horror movies, and their closely related counterpart of the giallo, like never before. Slasher films in the 80’s consistently came back to the ’64 movie time and time again for inspiration.

Next on the list, however, is Lucio Fulci, this article’s focus. This is a man who created some of the most astounding visuals, in the pulpiest films you’ll ever see. He crafted a unique oeuvre of gore and gristle, but with a mastery that few have touched.

Born in Rome in the mid nineteen-twenties, Fulci was first set on medicine, and whilst working as an art critic, turned his mind to film. Whilst starting off with comedies in the fifties, as the sixties neared their end he began crafting violent thrillers which, understandably, saw him fall out of favour with the Catholic Church.

Beginning really with Lizard in a woman’s skin in 1971, and Don’t torture a Duckling the following year in 1972, Fulci began to blend the stylish giallo of his contemporary, Argento, with graphic violence, pushing extreme filmmaking to new levels.

He brought out a slew of films in the next few years, a particular favourite of mine being Seven Notes in Black (also known as Seven Black Notes or The Psychic) in 1977, but Fulci really left his mark on cinema starting two years afterward. Zombie Flesh Eaters (or Zombi, or Zombie 2) released in 1979, was Italy’s answer to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). Coincidentally, Dario Argento, worked on Romero’s film. Flesh Eaters really brought something a little exotic to the zombie genre, as well as conceiving two of the greatest scenes in horror history, the first being the zombie vs. shark fight. The second, which I’m indulging myself to discuss at length now, is the famous eye piercing scene.

Fulci takes his time to construct this scene, heightening the tension up like stretching an elastic band. He focuses on the shadow of the light from outside in the battle with the zombie to close the door, with no loud noises or music. There are no tricks, just showing an image of two sides struggling for purchase, pure cinema, as Hitchcock would have called it. The door closed, the heroine puts a chest in front of the door, and then, two minutes into the scene, the zombie bursts through and grabs her head. Splinter on the shattered door. And an eye to be pierced.

Fulci is obsessed with eyes and sight, one of his directorial trademarks being a quick zoom into the face for a reaction, almost a crash cut. This time, however, he takes his sweet time. Her head comes closer, and we cut to a POV of the splinter, tracking in. Reaction shot, and in we go a little tighter. Fulci does this as many times as he can get away with, building, building. And then, as with all scenes of suspense, you need a pay-off. If you’re a gore-hound, what a magnificent pay-off it is.

This scene is incredibly Hitchcockian in its construction, that you begin to understand that there’s a great talent behind the camera. Fulci isn’t just about gore; he’s about crafting a memorable scene. So memorable, in fact, that although I’ve no confirmation of it being conscious, I invite you to take a look at the spike eye-gouging scene in Saw 3D (2010). It’s almost exactly the same construction. Over 30 years later and a pulpy little Italian film is referenced in one of the biggest horror franchises of all time.

Fulci might have had his moment in the spotlight here with Zombie Flesh Eaters, were it not for his crowning glory. The triple-header of City of the Living Dead in 1980, and both The Beyond and The House by the Cemetary in 1981, formed his ‘Gates of Hell’ trilogy. These three films, and especially The Beyond, are his masterpieces. Fulci doesn’t so much create or direct these films as dream them, surreal images like a collage of nightmares, culminating in a dark, mist-soaked atmosphere of unutterable dread. Buckets of gore thrown in for good measure help to create some of the most beautifully constructed nightmare-fuel ever to emerge of Italy. Fulci knows how to create an image worthy of putting up on your wall, and these three films are his perfect showcase.

I was lucky enough to see Fabio Frizzi, who scored many of Fulci’s films, perform his new composer’s cut for The Beyond, as a live accompaniment, at Abertoir Horror Festival 2016. Sat on the row behind me was Luigi Cozzi, another Italian director of the same period and good friend of Argento and the Bava family. It was the European Premiere of the new music as a live score, and there was something magical in the room that night. I won’t get too romantic, but it was there. Every second of that film and performance dripped with something special, from every zombie killed to each misty alleyway, right to its surrealist final moments in that landscape of beyond, it was like watching a lovechild between Salvador Dali and David Cronenberg, with a perfect prog-rock accompaniment. If Fulci’s ghost was there, I think he would have been proud to see a packed house enjoying his film decades later.

Unfortunately, a few years later, Fulci released Conquest (1983). An epic fantasy trying to cash in on the trend being started by films like Conan the Barbarian (1982), it flopped. This was Fulci’s big break, and it killed him instantly. There wasn’t much more of note ever produced, and I’m inclined to think that Fulci was a little bitter by it all. The House of Clocks (1989) is a very nice supernatural home-invasion style thriller, and A Cat in the Brain in 1990 is good fun, but that’s about it. Succumbing to medical conditions in the mid nineties, he passed away in 1996, in the middle of production for a remake of Vincent Price’s House of Wax with Dario Argento, with whom Fulci had finally agreed to work with after many decades of petty spites.

Fulci’s work is vastly underappreciated, even, I think, within the casual horror scene itself. He was a craftsman that was severely overlooked, and it wasn’t perhaps until Quentin Tarantino used the theme for Seven Notes in Black as a part of his Kill Bill (Kill Bill (Vol. 1), 2003) score, and released a few of his movies in cinemas for limited release, that people really paid attention to him. His writing could be as tightly plotted as any Argento giallo; his love of voyeurism and tension could rival Hitchcock. He used as much gore as Cronenberg, and yet his vivid imagination never really caught the public. His is a volume of work that takes a little digging to get into, but once experienced fully, is never forgotten.

And that’s the point. Fulci’s movies are never forgettable, even some of the later films where his declining health undoubtedly played a part in their quality. A horror hack he might have seemed to the public, but underneath it all was an incredibly talented individual who is only now, decades after his passing, beginning to get the true recognition that he deserved.

Article by Kieran Judge (2018)

Bibliography

A Cat in the Brain. 1990. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Exclusive Cine TV.

Black Sabbath. 1963. [Film] Directed by Mario Bava. Italy: Emmepi.

Blood and Black Lace. 1964. [Film] Directed by Mario Bava. Italy: Emmepi.

City of the Living Dead. 1980. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Dania Film.

Conan The Barbarian. 1982. [Film] Directed by John Milius. USA: Dino De Laurentiis.

Conquest. 1983. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Clemi Cinematgorafica.

Dawn of the Dead. 1978. [Film] Directed by George A Romero. USA: Laurel Group Inc..

Don’t Torture a Duckling. 1972. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Medusa Produzione.

House of Wax. 1953. [Film] Directed by Andre DeToth. USA: Warner Bros..

Kill Bill (Vol. 1). 2003. [Film] Directed by Quentin Tarantino. USA: A Band Apart.

Lizard in a Woman’s Skin. 1971. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: International Apollo Films.

Profondo Rosso. 1975. [Film] Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: Seda Spettacoli.

Saw 3D. 2010. [Film] Directed by Kevin Greutert. USA: Lionsgate.

Seven Notes In Black. 1977. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Rizzoli Film.

Suspiria. 1977. [Film] Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: Seda Spettacolli.

Terror At The Opera. 1987. [Film] Directed by Dario Argento. Italy: ADC Films.

The Beyond. 1981. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Fulvia Film.

The House by the Cemetary. 1981. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Fulvia Film.

The House of Clocks. 1989. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy: Dania Film.

Zombie Flesh Eaters. 1979. [Film] Directed by Lucio Fulci. Italy : Variety Film.