Spaghetti Slashers: 20 Giallo Classics
Giallo is the Italian word for yellow and is a reference to the cheap yellow paperback horror/thriller books that were sold in Italy during the mid 20th century. It is also a term used to describe the Italian subgenre murder-mystery films that became popular in the late 60s and early 70s. The gialli (plural) usually involved an unknown killer who preyed on beautiful women. They would only be seen in quick shots and the dark, mysterious figure would often wear black clothing and gloves. They killer would also use sharp razor blades, butcher knives, ropes and other torturous methods instead of guns to murder his victims. The stories often had a protagonist that would try to investigate and solve the murders. When the killer was finally found, he would then commit suicide or be accidentally killed by one of his victims leaving many questions unanswered. Another very cinematic aspect of the classic giallo is the use of nightmare and dream sequences that would take the viewer into other realms. By using psychic visions and eerie dreams the director would twist the audiences thinking patterns and change the films linear storyline into a puzzle of purely cinematic images that added a psychadelic beauty to the story being told.
This new list which is part of our October 2014 Mad As Hell Horror month looks at 20 of our favorites in the genre. We think they are all excellent representations of the macabre world of giallo cinema. Check them out if you dare!
Blood and Black Lace (1964, Dir: Mario Bava)
This early giallo masterpiece is one of the most influential as well. A masked killer begins knocking off fashion models when a diary suspected of holding secrets of various past crimes might be uncovered. It’s a gorgeously photographed, atmospheric murder-mystery from Il Maestro Bava and a perfect place to begin for those new to the genre. Starring Cameron Mitchell, Eva Bartok, Thomas Reiner.
The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970, Dir: Dario Argento)
Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is an American writer living in Rome. On the way back to his flat one night he notices something strange happening in a museum. A man and woman are wrestling on a staircase. As Sam focuses he sees that the two are violently arguing and suddenly the woman is stabbed and the dark figure in black runs quickly out of the museum. Sam tries to get in but is caught in between two separate sliding glass partitions. The woman (Eva Renzi) reaches out to try to let Sam in to help her but can’t. The police finally arrive and Sam is questioned. He is angry when the police led by Inspector Morosini (Enrico Salerno) begin to suspect him as part of the attempted murder of the woman. Sam then decides to do his own investigation and try to find out who the killer really is. The murders have been happening around Rome for several months so Sam visits each of the previous victims places of work and gets pulled deeper into the middle of the mysterious reign of terror. Dario Argento utilizes all kinds of great camera tricks in this film. The use of POV shots, bright and muted colors, shadows, freeze frames, zooms add a dynamic which really makes the film pulse with energy. You can see in ‘Bird’ the influence of Hitchcock’s thrillers as well as Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966) one of the most influential films on the Italian gialli. The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is a brilliant debut.
A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (1971, Dir: Lucio Fulci)
A woman named Carol Hammond (Florinda Bolkan) is the daughter of a rich local politician (played by Leo Genn). When she goes to see her shrink, she explains to him the different dreams she’s been having about her neighbor Julia. He tells her these dreams are a way for her to get out her repressed sexual desires. When Carol finds out later that Julia was murdered and her own letter opener and fur coat were found at the scene, she is in shock and doesn’t know what to believe. Did she do it or did someone read her diary while she slept and murder Julia for unknown reasons? A Lizard In Womans Skin is one of the best of the gialli. I think Fulci knew the thriller/horror genre like no other director and he definitely had a talent that wasn’t fully appreciated while he was alive. You can see by Fulci’s direction and creativity in this film that he was no amateur filmmaker. In fact, I feel he was a groundbreaking visual stylist that used the camera to a brilliant degree. Co-starring Stanley Baker and Jean Sorel.
The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (1971, Dir: Sergio Martino)
The beautiful Edwige Fenech plays Julie Wardh, the wife of an Ambassador who is returning from a trip to her home in Vienna. When she arrives, she finds out there is a mysterious killer wreaking terror, a “Sex Pervert” who slashes his victims with a straight razor (a signature weapon of giallo killers). Soon, Julie becomes a target for the killer and she suspects someone close to her is behind it. Sergio Martino really gave the genre a big boost with his precise and exciting direction in this film. Most giallo stories have a simple premise on the surface, but the real trick is making each story unique and surprising in its own way. Martino mastered it on his first time out of the gates which is very impressive for a then 29 year old director. The hanting theme by Nora Orlandi provides yet another amazing element to the film. Co-starring Ivan Rassimov.
The Psychic (1977, Dir: Lucio Fulci)
After dropping her husband (Gianni Garko) off at an airport, Virginia Ducci (Jennifer O’Neill) makes her way back to their home, but as she drives through the country roads, she begins to have visions. She sees images of an older woman with blood on her head, a beautiful young woman on a magazine, a broken mirror, a lit cigarette and a man limping in the dark. As Virginia’s visions of death grow more intense, they start to come true, leaving her desperate to stop them from happening. This is one of Fulci’s finest works of cinema not because it contains a lot of violence or gore, but because it’s restrained and more about the unfolding plot than anything else. It works like a puzzle to intrigue the viewer into trying to figure things out. A unique work that Giallo fans will really find captivating.
Death Walks At Midnight (1972, Dir: Luciano Ercoli)
A beautiful blonde fashion model named Valentina (Susan Scott) is encouraged to try to a new experimental hallucinogencic drug by her journalist friend Gio (Simon Andreu). As the drug takes effect Valentina begins to laugh crazily and suddenly she begins having a vision of a young woman being attacked by a man with a iron spiked glove. Valentina is frightened by this and begins to be obsessed by it, telling everyone she knows about what she saw. When word gets out that she was on drugs, pretty soon all the tabloids have her face plastered on the covers. Valentina is now an outcast and she’s not sure who to trust. She only knows that what she saw was real and the killer is out to stop her from identifying him. Death Walks At Midnight is an interesting giallo in that it doesn’t really play by the usual conventions. From the beginning we get to see the killer’s face and theres also a lot of humor in terms of wisecracks by the characters. While watching, it will throw you for several loops and take another twist again and again. Look out for a crazy character (Luciano Rossi) who laughs like a hyena and has a special skill with knives.
What Have You Done To Solange? (1972, Dir: Massimo Dallamano)
A killer is targeting young women at a catholic school and the authorities are trying to find out who it is. One of the teachers there, Enrico (Fabio Testi) is seeing a student Elizabeth (Cristina Galbo) who thinks she saw one of the murders taking place. As more bodies turn up dead, Enrico races to help the police in the investigation and solve the mystery. When a young girl named Solange (Camille Keaton) appears, it’s the key Enrico needs to unlock the truth. This one of the very best examples of great giallo cinema. You think you know what’s going on, but just when you think you know it all, it pulls the rug out from under you again and again. The red herrings set up in the film build up more and more and the final payoff is both shocking and exhillerating. This film was followed by a sequel entitled What Have They Done To Your Daughters? Director Massimo Dallamano died in 1976, very early into his career as a professional director, which is very sad because from this film, you can see a truely gifted auteur at work.
The Case of The Bloody Iris (1972, Dir: Giuliano Carnimeo)
After a young prostitute is murdered in an apartment building’s high rise elevator, we are introduced to the stunningly beautiful Jennifer Lansbury (Edwige Fenech) who is an up and coming model. Her photographer’s friend is Andrea (George Hilton) who she begins dating. Andrea also happens to be the architect of the building where the girl was murdered and (coincidentally) where Jennifer is moving in with her friend. Meanwhile, Jennifer’s ex-husband begins stalking her. It turns out she was part of some kind of strange sex orgy cult and since has left him without warning. His calling card is an iris which he tears up whenever he sees her. One night, Jennifer is awoken by the same masked man who has been terrorizing the building. She then begins hearing people talking next door. But, the old woman next to her lives alone…or does she have someone else in her apartment? Jennifer begins suspecting the killer lives next door and when she breaks into the old woman’s home, she finds what she’s looking for. It’s the old woman’s disfigured son. Is he the killer? Is it Andrea? Is it her ex-husband? Is it the new girl who Jennifer meets and befriends? As with most gialli, The Case of the Bloody Iris has a whole host of characters that could be the killer. It’s directed nicely by Carnimeo with beautiful cinematography by Stevio Massi (also a great director). The music by Bruno Nicolai is solid as well. Theres plenty of great twists and turns throughout this film as well as some of that really wacky Italian humor and longtime fans of giallo cinema will surely want to see it!
Black Belly of The Tarantula (1971, Dir: Paolo Cavara)
A visually vibrant, gruesome sexual murder-mystery featuring Barbara Bouchet, Claudine Auger and Barbara Bach. The three beauties (who all appeared in the James Bond movies) are stalked by a killer who wears creepy latex gloves and immobilizes his victims using acupuncture needles after which he slices them up with a large blade. A twisted, bloody giallo classic filled with with nudity, gore and seriously deranged delights!
The Red Queen Kills 7 Times (1972, Dir: Emilio Miraglia)
In this follow up film to his first giallo The Night Evelyn Came Out Of Her Grave, Emilio Miraglia tells a story of two sisters who find themselves caught up in an ancient tale of terror. Kitty Wildenbruck (Barbara Bouchet) and her sister Evelyn have a violent fight over a toy doll. We see from the start that Evelyn is possessed by the spirit of the legendary “Red Queen” who is shown in a painting on their grandfather’s mansion wall. The two girls are told the tale by their grandfather of the Red Queen and the Black Queen, who were also sisters that hated one another. The story goes that every 100 years the Red Queen comes back for her revenge on the Black Queen, killing her and the seven people who are closest to her. Miraglia took the giallo into another arena with his Bava-esque injection of the gothic ghost storylines and themes. Sadly, this was his last known directorial work. The accompanying score by Composer Bruno Nicolai (one of my favorites!) again adds another layer of psychedelic mood to this terrifying tale of the killer Red Queen who has come back to take her revenge! Co-starring Marino Mase and Sybil Danning.
Don’t Torture A Duckling (1972, Dir: Lucio Fulci)
As can be seen in other titles, the giallo genre usually focused on adults being killed but this story focuses on the violent deaths of young boys in a small Italian village which makes it even more psychologically disturbing. A reporter (Tomas Milian) begins his own investigation of the murders with the help of a former drug addict (Barbara Bouchet) that has her own strange personal troubles. Although the mystery isn’t as difficult to solve as in other gialli, it is one of Fulci’s best works of cinema storytelling with many moments that are severely twisted and unforgettable.
Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971, Dir: Aldo Lado)
Jean Sorel plays Gregory Moore an American journalist who is found dead in Prague. The bizarre thing is he is actually still alive. Moore can’t speak or move his hands only see and think. He is forced to remember back on what happened leading up to his predicament. As he tries to piece together the clues, he recalls details about the dissapearance of his girlfriend Mira (Barbara Bach) and receives some help from his friend Versain (Mario Adorf) a fellow reporter. A classic of the genre that relies more on suspense and tension than the usual blood and gore.
All The Colors of The Dark (1972, Dir: Sergio Martino)
Jane (Edwige Fenech) has been experiencing nightmares following a car accident in which she lost her baby. She’s also suffered trauma from the murder of her mother by a crazed blue eyed man (Ivan Rassimov). With her psychological problems affecting her marriage with husband Richard (George Hilton) she needs support. Her sister Barbara (Nieves Navarro) tries to help by involving her in the occult, which obviously isn’t a very good idea. Of course this only leads to more ghastly incidents. A highly stylized thriller set in England (as opposed to Italy) and is filled with spectacular imagery that giallo fans will appreciate.
Twitch of The Death Nerve (1972, Dir: Mario Bava)
This film is often cited as being direct influence on the 80s slasher film genre due to its heavy use of point of view shots and gory methods of death. The story is rather convoluted and features characters that are all somehow involved in the murders taking place. The set up is difficult to follow in some ways but the style and visual elements make it a gem of the genre that aficionados should see.
Deep Red (1975, Dir: Dario Argento)
As a psychic named Helga (Macha Meril) is being murdered in her apartment, a neighbor, Marc (David Hemmings), a jazz pianist, witnesses the attack from the street below. Marc is later questioned by the police and he seems to recall something he saw that could identify the killer but it’s not quite clear to him. Marc is scheduled to work outside the country but stays to help find the killer instead. He is assisted by Gianna (Daria Nicolodi) a female reporter and strong independent woman. Throughout the film its implied that Marc actually has psychic powers himself which leads him to uncovering possible clues. Another dark, twisted Argento masterpiece.
Torso (1973, Dir: Sergio Martino)
This film is infamous for being one of the most graphically violent in the genre and the fact it delves into perverted sexual obsession. Set at an Italian university, the women who are set up as the victims are history students. The killer wears a ski mask and stylish clothes and commits very heinous murders that include a drowning, throat slashing, eye plucking, and fondling of his victims. The kill sequences would clearly be influential on slasher films like Black Christmas and Halloween. Not for the faint of heart or easily offended!
The Night Evelyn Came Out of Her Grave (1971, Dir: Emilio Miraglia)
Lord Alan Cunningham (Anthony Steffen) is released from a mental hospital and goes back to his estate, a large castle which is in partial ruin. In no time, he’s back to his debonaire self. We soon realize that Lord Alan certainly isn’t cured of whatever was wrong with him. His twisted acts are due to his obsession with his late wife. Whenever Alan sees a redheaded woman, he loses control and begins to break down mentally. Alan has Dr. Richard Timberlane (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) try to help him, but when he reveals his thoughts, Timberlane tells Alan he will end up right back in the mental institution if things go too far, not knowing his patient has been preying on women all along. There are some very shocking death scenes that gore lovers will surely enjoy, one of the most thrilling involves a cage of wild foxes.
The Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971, Dir: Dario Argento)
Karl Malden stars as Franco Arno, a blind ex-news journalist that lives with a young girl Lori (Cinzia De Carolis) that looks after him. Franco spends most of his time piecing together daily crossword puzzles on a braille board. One night while out for a walk, he overhears a discussion involving blackmail at a nearby institute. When he hears that one of the men there has been murdered the following day, Franco becomes obsessed with finding out what and who caused his death. This leads him to a young reporter named Giordani (James Franciscus) who he asks to help him solve the case. The unknown killer soon begins stalking them both and they have to work quickly to evade being victims. This is one of the very best gialli with its use of red herrings and Franco’s implied telepathic abilities that only serve to make the plot much more intriguing and mysterious as it unfolds. This film also features some trademark Argento violence in the form of a gruesome train accident, slicings to the face and a brutal elevator shaft fall that is cringe inducing.
The Case of the Scorpions Tail (1971, Dir: Sergio Martino)
Evelyn Stewart stars as Lisa Baumer, whose husband has been killed in an airplane accident. When Lisa gets a call from her late husband’s accountant explaining that she’s the recipient of a million dollars from his life insurance policy, she can hardly believe the news. The accountant calls one of their insurance investigators, Peter Lynch (George Hilton) to trail Mrs Baumer and see if anything foul is going on. Lisa decides to leave town so she travels to Athens, Greece (her husband’s base of business) where she checks into a hotel before going to Tokyo to meet a friend. Soon Lisa is being pursued by several strangers there, all of whom seem to want the money. A mysterious black wetsuit clad killer appears and a bloody trail of murder begins that further intensifies the situation. The Case of The Scorpion’s Tail delivers on all levels of the giallo thriller. It has plenty of blood, thrills, red herrings, beautiful women, great scenery, direction and an atmospheric score.
Five Dolls for An August Moon (1970, Dir: Mario Bava)
A chemist, Gary Ferrell (William Berger), creates a synthetic resin that is sought after by several major corporations. Ferrell has no intention of selling off this experimental compound due to an accident that happened while he was in the lab. A wealthy industrialist George Stark (Teodoro Corr) invites Farrell and several other interested parties to a special gathering on an island. His idea is to hold an auction for rights to the resin. Soon the bidding war becomes more intense than expected and the participants begin turning up dead. Bava’s direction in this production (which wasn’t a favorite of his) is a real testament to his genius at both photography and framing of scenes. 5 Dolls is easily one of his finest efforts.
This is such an EPIC article! Your love for these films is clearly evident here. Its great to know other ppl have the same love and appreciation for old school slasher/splatter/exploitation films as I do. More and more Im discovering that we are not alone. I feel kinda sorry for this generation because of all the B.S. “horror films” that theyre growing up with. Im a 90s baby myself (born in ’88) and was exposed to the likes of Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Urban Legend. And while those werent the worst offerings Hollywood dished out to us horror hounds, they did spark my interest in the movies that might have inspired them. So ever since I was a kid Id go to my corner video store (since theyd let me rent R-rated movies without an ID – they were a mom n pop store, not a big chain like Blockbuster) and look for the most badass VHS covers I could find. Gotta love 80s video boxes! Theyre the BEST. And so, a horror hound was born! I love me some gialli and 80s slasher flicks. And thanks to the advent of Blu-Ray and companies like Arrow Video/Synapse Films/Code Red/Scream Factory/Something Weird/MPI Entertainment/Olive Films/ and other, now the younger viewers can discover these hidden gems as well, and see what TRUE HORROR is! Anyway, I liked this piece you wrote. Got me wanting to re-watch some of these now