Last week, Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn added 1972 giallo film What Have You Done to Solange? to his production company’s list of cult-movie remakes. Deep-cut horror nerds were intrigued by the news. But more casual genre fans wondered: “WTF is a giallo, exactly?” Luckily, we’re here with all the answers.
Initially, giallo referred to the pulpy crime novels Italian authors started penning in the Mussolini era, after Il Duce banned the import of American and British books of the popular genre. They sported yellow covers, hence the name—giallo means “yellow” in Italian.
In the 1960s, the genre shifted to include movies, too, although as film scholar Gary Needham points out, “the giallo in its cinematic form is that it appears to be less fixed as a genre than its written counterpart... it functions in a more peculiar and flexible manner as a conceptual category with highly moveable and permeable boundaries that shift around.”
In other words, if you were looking at a shelf of giallo DVDs, you’d find films produced in Italy in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s that could also be classified as historical horrors, crime dramas, and mystery thrillers. The boundaries of what makes a giallo aren’t as well-defined as, say, those of 1980s American slasher films, which tend to follow the same exact story beats. But there are stylistic elements that are inextricable parts of giallo DNA. Nearly all contain gushing gore, erotic themes, a heavy emphasis on visuals (with things like script coherence often taking a back seat), questionable/campy English dubbing, characters gripped by paranoia, gorgeous women in peril, and ruthlessly brutal masked killers fond of sharp objects, rope, and black leather gloves.
So, if that list didn’t make the biggest reason to get into giallo films exceedingly obvious, here it is: these lush, sleazy, over-the-top movies are fun as hell to watch. No doubt that’s a huge reason that Winding Refn (clearly a fan of the genre, considering its influence on his own works, including Pusher, Only God Forgives, and the insane-looking upcoming Neon Demon) selected one for his do-over list.
And Winding Refn isn’t alone in being tempted by giallo style; it’s popped up in other indie movies, like Peter Strickland’s recent homage Berberian Sound Studio. Giallo has also informed mainstream hits like Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct and much of Brian De Palma’s filmography, most notably Dressed to Kill (as well as the lesser-known but no less eerie Sisters).
But to really delve into the giallo realm, you’ve got to go directly to the source. Be warned: once you start going down the blood-slicked giallo rabbit hole, you may become dangerously obsessed. Get your black gloves handy and begin here, with four films (plus a few to grow on) from master filmmakers that we suggest giallo newbies rip into first.
The first name in Italian horror is Mario Bava, and 1964's Blood and Black Lace is just one of the master’s contributions to giallo. “Suddenly, these lace curtains ignite a drama that will lacerate your emotions!” promises this version of the film’s trailer. And the movie itself, which stars frequent Bava leading man Cameron Mitchell and features a masked killer stalking fashion models, doesn’t disappoint.
Bava’s other giallo entries are also essential, including The Girl Who Knew Too Much, with future Enter the Dragon and A Nightmare on Elm Street star John Saxon; Five Dolls for an August Moon, with frequent giallo vixen Edwige Fenech; and slasher prototype Twitch of the Death Nerve, a.k.a. Bay of Blood. But the deliciously lurid Blood and Black Lace is maybe the ultimate embodiment of what makes these films so damn titillating—and since it’s by Bava, it’s also eye candy at its finest.
Lucio Fulci is maybe best-known for his films that are classified as straight-up horror: The Beyond, Zombi 2, The House By the Cemetery, etc., but his giallo game was also strong. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is our top Fulci pick; it’s about a woman whose freaky dreams become even more terrifying when she imagines she’s murdered her seductive neighbor... and the crime, perpetuated by an unknown assailant, takes place in real life. SHRIEK! A police investigation involving not-so-helpful “hippies” and psychoanalysis of a decidedly psychedelic nature soon ensue. (Madness, the fear of going mad, and the fear that others believe you’re going mad are all frequent giallo plot points.)
Fulci’s other giallo films of note include the wondrously bizarre Don’t Torture a Duckling, which also features Lizard star Florinda Bolkan (playing a hot witch) and showcases Fulci’s apparent fascination with Donald Duck, which later resurfaced when he made The New York Ripper. And if you’re ever in the vicinity of the weirdest thriller Fulci ever made—that’d be the leotard-and-leg-warmer-filled descent into violence that is Murder-Rock: Dancing Death—do not hesitate to drop everything and watch it.
Obviously a Dario Argento film had to make this list—though like Fulci, he’s more known for his horror output, especially the visually striking Suspiria, which has become a classic. But Argento has a deep affection for giallo, too—he even made a film literally titled Giallo in 2009. His most influential genre efforts, though, came earlier in his career, and none more so than his 1970 debut film, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage.
After an American writer witnesses a brutal attack in Rome, he’s drawn into the police investigation and soon realizes he’s being targeted by a mysterious killer in a twist-filled tale that also includes fashion models (again), the art world, exotic birds, and raincoat-wearing fiends. Argento’s fondness for artfully-deployed yet garish color schemes is already in full flower, as is his distinctive use of unsettling music.
The Bird With the Crystal Plumage was a critical and commercial success, and Argento went on to make two more standout giallo films, The Cat o’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet, in quick succession. A decade later, he made another giallo that’s worth adding to your list: Tenebre. Like Bird, it’s about an American author who gets wrapped up in some seriously freaky business, with all the requisite gory plot twists; it co-stars John Saxon as well as the delightful Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s then-wife and frequent collaborator. It’s also maybe the most meta film Argento ever made, since the main character is depicted as deflecting criticism over the extreme violence in his books. Ripping soundtrack, too.
Director Umberto Lenzi’s name is most-often associated with the European cannibal-movie genre, though he also made several poliziotteschi (a.k.a. Euro-crime) films and the memorably horrific zombie flick Nightmare City. Plus, the prolific filmmaker also made this loose adaptation of Seven Blood-Stained Orchids, a story by British writer Edgar Wallace (King Kong), which is a giallo through and through.
It’s about newlyweds who are menaced by (you guessed it) a black-gloved killer, and it contains a scene involving a drill that’s absolutely on the level of brutality that you’d expect from a guy who went on to make a film entitled Cannibal Ferox, a.k.a. Make Them Die Slowly. Impressively disturbing stuff.