It’s Time To Bury Giallos



I saw my first Italian dubbed crime/horror movie at around 16, (Argento’s ‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’) and loved it. The term ‘giallo’ was term used to describe the mainly 1970’s Italian genre of literature and film with mystery, slasher and later fantastical elements. The three star directors to look out for were Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento, but scores of others directed films, which had exotic titles like ‘The Black Belly of the Tarantula’ and ‘Seven Dolls for an August Moon’.

The typical giallo hero was an outsider, perhaps a traveler or a writer on a publicity tour, and a beautiful young woman (gialli rarely featured cops). They would track a black-gloved killer because one had witnessed a crime. The mystery was the identity of the killer, revealed at the end to be a key character concealing his or her identity with a ridiculous disguise. The main source of interest was the elaborate staging of murders as grand guignol set-pieces, most notably in films like ‘Blood and Black Lace’, ‘Deep Red’, ‘Tenebrae’ and ‘Opera’.

Better yet were the gialli which added a supernatural spin. The two absolute high points were the exotic, eerily disturbing ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’, and the brilliantly lurid ‘Suspiria’. Dario Argento’s talents quickly faded but it didn’t stop him from continuing to make films, each more terrible than the last. I had dinner with him once, but as he spoke no English and I had no Italian I didn’t really get a chance to find out what had gone wrong.

Blood and Black Lace Mannequin

Gialli and their counterpart supernatural Italian movies have enjoyed a more lasting success with cult completists than even Hammer horrors, driven by uber-fans like the extremely dedicated Tim Lucas, who turned the study of Fulci into what appears to be a disturbingly therapeutic life’s work, and critic Alan Jones, with whom I have never agreed about a single film. Also, as these films were heavily censored upon their initial release, various video companies like Arrow have been able to rerelease them for years in various uncut versions, as censorship gradually slackened (shops near me still have racks of them).

Last night I made the bad mistake of watching two, ‘A Blade in the Dark’ and ‘Night Train Murders’, back to back. I had forgotten just how surreally boring the rest of them are. Most feature staggering amounts of Italian misogyny, sexism and homophobia and a fetishistic regard for knives. In ‘A Blade in the Dark’ one busty victim stares at a knife wiggling through a cupboard door for what feels like ten minutes. Similarly, an X-acto blade is poked through a wire fence at a screaming girl who obligingly refuses to move out of its way for a further ten minutes.

However, you can learn a lot about 1970’s fashion here – in ‘Night Train Murders’ one man wears loons, a fox coat and a jaunty red tam o’ shanter – and girls’ makeup; swathes of dense matt pastel foundation and big dry-looking hair. Both films seem to feature kitchens decorated by blind optical artists, and have long dubbed conversations of staggering banality between girls smoking and painting their nails. Murders, when they finally arrive (in both cases about an hour in) linger on limbs daubed in what appears to be vermilion paint. Often, early hired-for-cash Ennio Morricone songs screech tinnily over titles. ‘Night Train Murders’ has an achingly long title sequence over random shots of a German Christmas market – mmmm, sausages!

It’s hard to imagine now that Argento et al had any idea of what they were achieving when they produced powerful set-pieces. In the above clip did it occur to the director to symbolise the decadent evil of the coven with maggots, or did he simply fancy conducting some tracking shots across floorboards? In ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Blood and Black Lace’ the use of colour is genuinely enthralling, and the fetishistic attention to detail (hands, shoes, eyes, hair, knives) fascinates.

But in the majority of cases I can only look back now and wonder, were we all mad to admire these films? How were we fooled into thinking that most of them were worth watching? What a handful of gialli have going for them is a lurid, over-ripe atmosphere, something recent filmmakers have tried to copy with films like the tedious ‘Berberian Sound Studio’. If you do decide to check them out, be prepared for the primitive social mores of Italian directors who, despite juxtaposing female flesh and violent assault, never manage to find a real point of connection between the two. The top five films would probably be Deep Red, Suspiria, Zombie Flesh Eaters, Opera, Blood and Black Lace, and the older Black Sabbath.

I should add that the most pleasing aspect of gialli is the totally random incomprehensibility of their plots, which wouldn’t even make sense to Italians (which is saying a lot). That in itself is refreshing (especially over badly dubbed dialogue) and turns the giallo into a sort of modern art form, best projected onto a gallery wall.


9 comments on “It’s Time To Bury Giallos”

  1. Steve says:

    The first, what, 15 minutes of Sleepless is really great, as good as anything Argento ever did. i think the problem is that it’s really hard to sustain that kind of thing through an entire film. That’s where Suspiria succeeds, in the pacing.

    Lisa and the Devil is one (by Bava) that works pretty well too.

    Giallo started on tv aiui and progressed to film.

    Anyone else remember Glenn Chandler’s Taggart episodes? They got more and more giallo-like. The episode Apocalypse had murders from plague etc etc with one woman burning to death in the shower to the accompaniment of Swan Lake music. And the episode Gingerbread with the blood dripping onto the cake! So it’s not only Italians but also Scotsmen!

  2. admin says:

    Wait just a darn minute, I had someone burning to death in the shower! (‘Ten Second Staircase’)

  3. Steve says:

    Chandler was first (1997) for once you were beaten to it 🙂
    The bizarre murders of opponents and ex-members of a religious cult have the team baffled. Each murder follows the Biblical plagues of Egypt which according the Book of Revelation will proceed Armageddon. There are more than fifty members of the cult, most of whom would kill if asked to do so by the cult leader, David Burns. Who is responsible and who will be next?
    Real Giallo stuff!!!

  4. John says:

    That Taggart episode (“Apocalypse”) sounds like THE ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES. At least the murders based on Biblical plagues is similar. It was written twenty-six years earlier and I’m surprised our dear Admin, an avowed Phibes fan, has not already pointed it out.

    Bava and D’Argento’s early films are the only giallo films I can tolerate. The rest are drecky forerunners to the torture porn and splatterpunk movies we’re plagued with now. I though I’d find something worthwhile in Fulci’s weird movies because online movie sites praise them so fulsomely, but they’re so ineptly made and utterly incoherent as far as storytelling goes I’ve finally sworn off him for good. No one can convince me anything he’s made is worth watching after the three “masterpieces” I subjected myself to. Likewise with Ossorio (misogynistic) and Margheriti (unintentionally comic). SEVEN DEAD IN A CAT’S EYE (by Antonio Margheriti) is a riotously accidental spoof of giallo movies and I highly recommend it for the hilarious dialogue and awful line delivery of the dubbed voices. Do they go to a special dubbing school to learn how read dialogue like that? It’s unreal how they all sound the same and how ridiculously unnatural it always is.

  5. Steve says:

    I love both the Phibes movies! Especially the second in fact.
    The tonality of the Taggart Apocalypse serial is Suspiria like rather than Phibes like. If that makes any sense. And a bit daft! But Gingerbread is one of the best things ever on tv, I’ve watched it many times.
    Agree about Fulci!

  6. Ken Mann says:

    I’ve always had a soft spot for the “police gradually work out the serial killer is working to a theme” plot.
    “My god man look at the murder weapons – bludgeoned with a coconut, choked to death with crackers, dragged in feathers behind a horse – the man we’re looking for is clearly a marx brothers fan”, and so on…

  7. Helen Martin says:

    “Disturbingly therapeutic life work” is a very odd phrase. The disturbing part would be easy to recognise but in what way was it therapeutic and how do you know? Curious minds want to know.

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Just heard a warning with regard to fire prevention. Make sure that the air vent in the bathroom is cleared of dust an so on because you could easily have a fire there (i.e. burn to death in the shower).

  9. Wayne Mook says:

    You’ll be pleased to hear they are remaking Suspira, looks like it might happen this time.

    Fulci has been accused of being a misogynist, and having seen New York Ripper it’s hard not to agree, it’s not a film I will watch again and don’t recommend.

    There is some good stuff there but there is a lot of dreary and nasty stuff in there.


Comments are closed.