Italian Horror Movies
The words “Italian horror” are enough to send shivers of excitement up the spines of hardcore horror fans around the globe. Sure, these movies may sometimes contain lackluster acting and bad dubbing, but Italian horror films are also known for brutal violence and plenty of gore (with neither women nor children being spared). Often containing surreal scenes and plotlines, Italian horror movies tend to be a breath of fresh air when compared to their more formulaic cousins from the United States.
While the scariest Italian horror tends to be found in the films of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the tradition of Italian horror movies stretches back all the way to the ‘50s. In recent years, the number of genre films have suffered a notable decline, but the occasional brutal gem still gets made.
Below, I have attempted to give an overview of the Italian horror movie industry. While this list is by no means complete, it should serve as a guide to some of the more essential Italian horror movies and Italian horror directors. If you see even one movie on this list--and enjoy it--then I’ll feel as though my efforts haven’t been in vain.
Origins of the Italian Horror Movie
To find the origins of Italian horror, we must journey back to 1956. It was in this year that director and sculptor Riccardo Freda made I Vampiri (also known as The Devil’s Commandment), a film revolving around young women being abducted and having their blood drained. While the film was a box office disappointment, it did pave the way for more successful Italian horror movies. It should also be noted that Freda left the project with two days to go, and the film was completed by a cameraman named Mario Bava (who would himself go on to become one of the best-known Italian horror directors).
In 1960, Renato Polselli directed The Vampire and the Ballerina, but it wasn’t met with much enthusiasm. At this point, the Italian horror movement looked to be over before it even got started. That all changed later in 1960, however, as Mario Bava exploded onto the scene with The Mask of Satan (also known as Black Sunday in the U.S.). Considered one of the all-time scariest Italian horror films, The Mask of Satan told the story of a witch who returned from the grave to seek revenge on the descendents of her killers.
The film was a hit in Italy and abroad, and many critics pointed to Bava’s intricate use of light and shadow to create mood and tension. The film launched Bava’s directorial career, and it also served as a star vehicle for actress Barbara Steele (who would star in a total of nine Italian horror movies).
With the origin of Italian horror now firmly set, the genre was allowed to flourish throughout the rest of the ‘60s. Riccardo Freda (under the pseudonym Robert Hampton) returned to the horror genre with The Terror of Dr. Hitchcock (aka The Horrible Dr. Hichcock) in 1962 and a sequel, Ghost, in 1963. Antonio Margheriti made Castle of Blood in 1964, and later that year the Italian horror director would also release The Virgin of Nueremburg and The Long Hair of Death.
Mario Bava was especially busy during this period. Coming off his success with The Mask of Satan, Bava followed up with The Evil Eye (1961), Black Sabbath (1963), What!The Whip and the Body AKA (1963), Blood and Black Lace (1964), and Kill, Baby, Kill (1968). The latter, a story about a series of murders in a small village, is considered another high point of the Italian horror movie genre.
Rise of the Giallo
Giallo, a style of Italian horror film known for its combination of sex and violence, emerged onto the cinematic landscape in the ‘70s. In Italian, the word giallo means “yellow,” which indicates its origins in cheap paperback mystery novels with yellow covers. In English, the word has come to mean an entire range of Italian horror films, especially those with unique musical scores (often featuring the works of composer Ennio Morricone or the rock band Goblin), stylized scenes of blood and mayhem, nudity, and creative camerawork. While many of these films retained the element of mystery found in their literary predecessors, the conventions of the slasher film were also added. Themes of paranoia and madness are also quite common. In their native land, these films are known as “Giallo all’italiana” or “Thrilling.”
While these giallo films were separate from those of the gothic-horror genre, the two began to combine over time. This resulted in even more creative cinematic endeavors, and a legion of devoted fans flocked to such films. Many giallo were not initially well-received in the U.S., however, as the films were often poorly dubbed and re-edited. But their fan base grew over time, establishing the reputations of Italian horror directors such as Lucio Fulci, Umberto Lenzi, Pupi Avati, Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Sergio Martino and Aldo Lado.
The first giallo film, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, actually appeared in 1962, and it was made by none other than Mario Bava. Now a veteran director, the former cameraman for Riccardo Freda cemented the popularity of the genre in 1964 when he made Blood and Black Lace (or Six Women for an Assassin). While containing a whodunit aspect, the film was also shockingly violent for the time. Bava would later make the giallo films Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970) and Bay of Blood (or Twitch of the Death Nerve) (1971).
Of all the Italian horror directors, the one to become best-known to international audiences was Dario Argento. With his unique visual style and over-the-top violence, Argento brought giallo into the Italian mainstream and provided a face for the global horror community. His first film, Bird With the Crystal Plumage, was released in 1970 and inspired a number of Italian horror movies containing the names of animals. Argento’s next films were Cat o’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet, both released in 1971.
Dario Argento made Deep Red (or Profondo Rosso) in 1976. It took giallo films to new heights, and while it did retain a certain narrative structure, Argento was clearly more interested in exploring visual symbology throughout the movie. The trademark Dario Argento violence is still present in Deep Red, as teeth are bashed out, heads are decapitated, and one unlucky victim is severely scalded in a bathtub full of water.
Giallo films would continue to be popular throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, with the following titles being some of the best examples of the genre:
- The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (aka Next!) (Sergio Martino, 1971)
- Don’t Torture a Duckling (Lucio Fulci, 1972)
- Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (Sergio Martino, 1972)
- What Have You Done to Solange? (Massimo Dallamano, 1972)
- Torso (Sergio Martino, 1973)
- Eyeball (Umberto Lenzi, 1974)
- A Dragonfly for Each Corpse (Leon Klimovsky, 1974)
- The Psychic (Lucio Fulci, 1977)
- Tenebrae (Dario Argento, 1982)
- The New York Ripper (Lucio Fulci, 1982)
- Deliria (Michele Soavi, 1987)
- Opera (Dario Argento, 1988)
The Golden Age of Italian Horror Movies
The Italian horror movement entered its golden age with the release of Dario Argento’s Suspiria in 1976. This was followed up by his equally influential Inferno in 1980. During this period, many Italian horror films were also turning to themes of zombies and demonic possession, obviously inspired by movies such as Dawn of the Dead and The Exorcist. Lucio Fulci’s Zombi II (1979), for example, remains a film which is still talked about due to its high gore content and the surrealistic showdown between a zombie and a shark. Gates of Hell, also known as City of the Living Dead (1980), is another Lucio Fulci film which still receives attention from fans of Italian horror movies. Exceedingly graphic, Gates of Hell features a scene in which a character vomits up her own intestines (in reality, the actress actually vomited up sheep intestines).
As the zombie genre continued to grow in popularity, a number of cannibal-themed films also began to get made. The most notorious of these is Cannibal Holocaust, made in 1980 by Ruggero Deodato. In it, a documentary crew heads into the Amazon jungle to search for a mythical tribe of cannibals. In order to get more interesting footage, they take to raping, torturing and killing the natives they encounter. Besides the extreme violence simulated in the film, Cannibal Holocaust is also known for showing the real-life deaths of a number of animals. Deodato continued to work in the genre after this film, with 1993’s Washing Machine widely regarded as his other notable work.
Mario Bava’s son, Lamberto Bava, also made his mark with films such as Demons (1985) and Demons II (1987). Lamberto Bava outdid those who were ripping off The Exorcist or Dawn of the Dead or by combining the themes of zombies and demonic possession into one film.
The Decline of Italian Horror Movies
As the 1990s rolled around, the momentum of the Italian horror film had started to slow. Dario Argento tried his hand at Hollywood, but the results were disappointing. Mario Bava passed away in 1980, and Lucio Fulci died in 1996.
One of the few significant Italian horror movies to be released in the ‘90s was Cemetery Man (aka Dellamorte Dellamore), directed by Michele Soavi. Starring Rupert Everett, Cemetery Man tells the story of a cemetery caretaker whose corpses won’t stay in the ground. Filled with plenty of nudity, gore, and dark comedy, many credit it with single-handedly keeping the Italian horror movie alive during the decade.
But by the dawn of the new millennium, the state of the genre was rapidly deteriorating. Dario Argento’s movies lacked their former visceral power, Sergio Martino had transitioned to working in Italian television, and even Lamberto Bava expressed a preference for making movies aimed at children.
At the same time, the mainstream Italian cinema was experiencing a resurgence led by men such as Giuseppe Tornatore, Gabriele Salvatore, Roberto Benigni and Nanni Moretti. This, coupled with the explosion of the Asian horror market, served to diminish the popularity of Italian horror films both at home and on the international market.
As of this writing, the horror genre has been somewhat forgotten in Italian cinema. While fans can still choose from hundreds of “classics,” anyone looking for new Italian horror films will have to wait patiently until the next Argento, Bava or Fulci comes along and reignites the industry.