by Cheryl Eddy
Mainstream horror fans have it good, what with films like The Sixth Sense, 28 Days Later, and Freddy vs. Jason flooding multiplexes, video stores and prime-time cable airwaves. Fans of Italian horror, however, have been forced by circumstance to be a craftier bunch. For years, even the most widely seen films in the genre -- Dario Argento's Suspiria, for example -- were carefully sanitized before reaching any American audiences. Fortunately, the DVD era has brought with it a torrent of "uncut and uncensored" versions, replete with lavish gore effects, brilliant color schemes, and pounding, fully restored soundtracks. In short, there's never been a better time to get acquainted with Italian horror films. But before you dive in headfirst, consider the following:
- In Italian horror films, plots tend not to move from Point A to Point B in reassuring, M. Night Shyamalan-fashion (nor are they tied up with a coda that answers all questions about what came before). Style, passion and emotion take precedence over logic and realism.
- Bad dubbing is a fact of life. Yeah, it's distracting and can add unintentional humor to even the grimmest of scenes. But, if you're going to watch a lot of Italian horror, you have to get used to it.
- Italian horror films are incredibly gory and can be mean-spirited. Violence against women is de riguer; sweet little kids are frequently brutally killed (or are themselves brutal killers). Unlike cautiously tasteful American filmmakers, Italians are absolutely not afraid to go over-the-top with dramatic effects; decaying body parts, copious amounts of maggots, spurting arteries and faces smashed through mirrors and windows are common motifs.
The "golden age" of Italian horror kicked off with Riccardo Freda's 1957 I Vampiri, also known as The Devil's Commandment; indeed, you'll find nearly all Italian horror films have multiple titles, thanks to the vagaries of international distribution. Directors often have multiple names, as well -- Freda is sometimes billed as "Robert Hampton." The black-and-white I Vampiri mixes a number of key gothic horror elements -- a monstrous woman, a murder mystery, a crumbling castle, etc. -- and was photographed by one Mario Bava (who also created the innovative optical effects and wound up overseeing the last few days of shooting). The fantastically talented Bava was 46 before he finally got full directorial control of his own project: 1960's Black Sunday (a.k.a. The Mask of Satan).
Having a bad skin day in Black Sunday
With enough mist, fog, graveyards, and musty crypts to fill a year's worth of Hammer films (indeed, Bava admitted he was directly influenced by the British studio's version of Dracula), Black Sunday features an unforgettable performance by Barbara Steele, as both a 200-year-old witch/vampire and her virtuous descendant. Filmed in shadowy black and white (they don't call it "the Citizen Kane of horror" for nothing), Bava's great skill as a cinematographer (plus some daring special effects, including an exploding coffin) make this atmospheric film essential viewing.
Bava's subsequent works -- thereafter delivered in masterfully manipulated Technicolor -- cemented him as Italy's most influential horror director. Some of his other notable works include The Whip and The Body (1963), starring Christopher Lee; Black Sabbath (1963), a chiller comprised of three different stories, with Boris Karloff as the patriarch of a family fending off the wandering undead; the horror/sci-fi hybrid Planet of the Vampires (1965); Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971, a.k.a. Bay of Blood), a murders-by-the-lake shocker that directly influenced American slasher films, notably Friday the 13th; and The Ring, Ghost Ship, etc.)
With 1963's The Girl Who Knew Too Much (a.k.a. The Evil Eye) and 1964's Blood and Black Lace, Bava is credited with introducing one of Italian horror's most important subgenres: the giallo. Named for a popular series of Italian pulp novels packaged in yellow jackets ("giallo" is Italian for "yellow"), gialli are erotically-charged thrillers that follow the same general template: a faceless killer (usually clad in a hat and coat, and always with suggestively kinky black leather gloves) stalks and creatively executes a string of victims; at the same time, and often to the consternation of the local police, a curious outsider/witness attempts to solve the mystery. The killer is inevitably a familiar character to whom we've already been introduced, and is unmasked by film's end. (No, Scooby and Shaggy aren't to be found here.)
You can't talk about giallo without talking about Dario Argento. His first film, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1969), was an immediate success; its plot, familiar to any giallo fan (see above, with art gallery setting inserted) takes a back seat to Argento's stylish direction and inspired imagery. The film also boasts an unsettling score by Ennio Morricone, better known for scoring spaghetti Westerns but one of the most versatile and prolific film composers ever. Argento filled out his "animal trilogy" with The Cat O' Nine Tails (1971), starring Karl Malden as a blind man-turned-murder investigator; and the chilling Four Flies on Gray Velvet (1971), also scored by Morricone. Deep Red (1975) is one of Argento's most outstanding works, with some vivid gore (including a decapitation by elevator) and great performances by English actor David Hemmings (as a jazz pianist-turned-murder investigator) and frequent Argento collaborator/onetime partner Daria Nicolodi (mother of Argento's actress daughter, Asia). Deep Red was also the first Argento film to feature music by Goblin; the group's synthesized scores instantly became one of the director's trademarks.
Tenebre (a.k.a., Unsane, 1982) is Argento's other giallo masterpiece, the self-reflexive story of an American author (Anthony Franciosa) who travels to Rome to promote his latest mystery thriller (also called Tenebre). When a strange string of murders rock the city, and the author begins receiving threats, he takes it upon himself to do a little investigating. Is it the jealous ex-wife? The off-putting television host? The detective who happens to be a rabid Tenebre fan? Sensational gore abounds, along with the usual string of disconcerting set pieces (vicious dogs, murky childhood memories, overly stylized wardrobes and interiors). Creepy additional note: more often than not in an Argento film, when you see the murderer's hands, it is the director himself wearing the gloves.
For many film fans, Argento's name brings to mind one title before all others: Suspiria (1977). Remember what I said earlier, about how Italian horror films don't exactly favor logic? Folks coddled by Hollywood's shovel-over-the-head methods of getting plot points across will no doubt find watching Suspiria a frustrating experience. Co-written by Argento and Nicolodi, and based on the real-life experiences of Nicolodi's grandmother, Suspiria seemingly takes place entirely inside of a nightmare. From the moment American ballerina Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arrives in rain-pelted Germany to attend an exclusive dance academy, things are entirely off -- and they never succumb to anything resembling realism. Wide-eyed as a fairy-tale heroine, Suzy grapples with the kind of weirdness only black magic can bring, including the cavernous school itself -- a spectacular achievement in set design, with abundant primary colors echoed by the brilliant red blood spilled by the film's murder victims.
Suspiria's sinister-sounding whispers through the trees (and on the Goblin soundtrack) imply that supernatural elements are everywhere, and indeed those sounds make return appearances in two of Argento's later films: Inferno (1980) is a sort-of Suspiria sequel set in a possessed New York apartment building (think Rosemary's Baby put through a grotesque, surreal meat grinder); and Phenomena (1985), the underrated tale of a girl (Jennifer Connelly, pre-Labyrinth even) whose boarding school in "Swiss Transylvania" is plagued by a vicious maniac. After she sleepwalks her way into a friendship with a local scientist (Halloween's Donald Pleasence), the young student is able to use her ability to telepathically communicate with insects to help catch the killer. (Sound weird? Yeah. There's also a trained chimpanzee in this one.)
Okay, so Bava is the Godfather of Italian horror, and Argento the king. But the great, gleefully exploitative Lucio Fulci is absolutely not to be overlooked. His controversial films were originally met with near universal loathing by critics and censors; unlike Bava and Argento, who tended to employ a certain amount of artful technique, Fulci's bull-by-the-horns approach weighed heavily on how much gore could be compacted into 90 minutes. And absolutely nobody did it better, nor in so many subgenres. Lizard in a Women's Skin (1971) and Don't Torture a Duckling (1972) are a fine pair of gialli embellished with some impressive shocks (especially Lizard's parade of eerily realistic disemboweled dogs). Fulci also traded in downbeat urban violence - as witnessed in The New York Ripper (1982), a truly bizarre work that somehow managed to infuse Donald Duck-style quacking with particular menace -- as well as futuristic gladiators, spaghetti westerns, gangsters and comedies.
But Fulci's legacy is best represented by a trio of movies that stand head and (rotting) shoulders above all the others: Gates of Hell (a.k.a. City of the Living Dead, 1980), The Beyond (a.k.a. Seven Doors of Death, 1981) and Zombi 2 (1979; so named because it was billed as an unofficial sequel to George A. Romero's 1978 Dawn of the Dead, which was co-written and produced by Argento and released in Italy as Zombi. Adding further confusion, Zombi 2 is also known as Zombie). All three films revolve around rambling packs of hungry zombies, brought to life via ancient curses, voodoo, witchcraft and other means. Naturally, the subject matter paves the way for some awesomely gruesome goings-on. Zombi 2's poster tag line declared, "We are going to eat you," coupled with the visage of a worm-riddled corpse, and featured filmdom's most notorious eyeball mutilation since Un Chien Andalou.
So you've viewed the essential filmographies of the genre's three most prominent directors. Congratulations! But you haven't really experienced the apex of Italian horror until you've seen a good, grisly cannibal flick -- preferably filmed on location in the remote Amazon, with the kind of unforgiving camerawork that best captures the mirthful consumption of human flesh. Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust (1979) has probably gotten the most press, especially after The Blair Witch Project appropriated its concept ("real" documentarians go missing; their fate is only discovered once their film is found and viewed.) Cannibal Holocaust also took heat for depicting actual animal killings (presumably, the many repulsive human deaths are all simulated). Overall, the film makes for nauseating viewing -- if you don't have a cast-iron stomach, you might want to steer clear or check out its less gory predecessor, Ruggero's Jungle Holocaust.
For the truly adventurous, other cannibal standouts include Umberto Lenzi's sadistic drug-dealers-in-the-jungle Cannibal Ferox (1981, a.k.a. Make them Die Slowly); Joe D'Amato's (too many aliases to list -- I'm not kidding) soft-core Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977, a.k.a. Trap Them and Kill Them) and Antonio Margheriti (a.k.a. Anthony M. Dawson)'s Cannibal Apocalypse (a very popular moniker; 1980), which posits cannibalism as a virus spread by a pair of former Vietnam POWs (one of whom is played by John Morghen, who also appears in Ferox and is memorably brain-drilled in Gates of Hell).
A welcoming committee in Demons
Like all film genres, Italian horror also harbors a number of diamonds in the rough that tend to be overshadowed by better-known selections. Lamberto "Son of Mario" Bava's Demons (1985) has the name of co-writer/producer Dario Argento to help it stand out -- and a standout it is. The story involves unsuspecting movie fans who begin morphing into frenzied monsters, just as the exact same thing happens in the film they're all watching. Mayhem ensues. Some of my other favorite sleepers: Renato Polselli (a.k.a. Ralph Brown)'s trashy The Reincarnation of Isabel (1972), Piero Regnoli's campy The Playgirls and the Vampire (1962), and Giuliano Carnimeo's winner of the Most Bizarre Giallo Title award, What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood Doing on Jennifer's Body? (1971; the name was changed to the less wacky The Case of the Bloody Iris). As more films are released on DVD, more of these nuggets of weirdness are finding new audiences. At this rate, Italian horror is perfectly poised to take over the world -- not unlike, say, a rambling pack of hungry zombies.
Cheryl Eddy is a film reviewer and calendar editor for the San Francisco Bay Guardian.