An American writer is walking the streets of Rome one night when he passes an art gallery with enormous glass doors. Peering inside, he is shocked to see a woman struggling with a black-clad figure holding a knife. The writer rushes to help, but when he passes through the first door of the gallery, it closes and locks behind him, while the second glass door before him will not open at all. Trapped in the space between the glass panels, he can only watch in helpless horror as the black-gloved killer plunges the knife into the woman’s body.
This opening scene is taken from an early example of the giallo film genre, Dario Argento’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970), which was loosely based on Frederic Brown’s 1950 pulp novel The Screaming Mimi. Giallo as a film style began roughly around 1963; though aspects of the stories and themes emerged from pulp novels, filmmakers were quick to add their own ingredients to the mix.
The Origins of the Giallo
Giallo is the Italian word for yellow, which was the predominant color on the covers of the pulp crime novels published by Mondadori, starting in 1929. Following their success, other publishing houses began getting into the act, starting their own lines of cheap mystery novels with yellow covers. These were so popular during the 1930s that the word ‘giallo’ became synonymous with crime and mystery fiction.
The First Giallo Films
It soon became apparent that the medium of film could be used to add interesting elements to the straightforward crime stories from the novels. Taking several pages from Alfred Hitchcock’s playbook and spicing things up with elements of eroticism, horror, and madness, legendary director Mario Bava made what is generally considered the first giallo film, 1963’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much. The plot revolves around a murder witness who is tormented by an important detail that she can’t quite remember. The following year, Bava followed with the now-classic giallo, Blood and Black Lace (known in Italy as Sei Donne Per L’Assassino, or Six Women for an Assassin), which featured a masked and gloved killer stalking the catty and underdressed models at an upscale fashion house. By this point, the particular tropes of the giallo were becoming de rigueur, and the early 1970s saw a flood of films that displayed variations on the theme.
Conventions of the Giallo Film
Films designated as giallo are usually murder mysteries, but they have many features that distinguish them from straightforward crime stories or police procedurals (which are known in Italy by a different name, Poliziotteschi). First of all, the murders that occur in gialli are often grotesque and horrific, and are filmed in artful, operatic, or even disturbingly erotic ways, with much spilling of blood. The killer in the 1972 film What Have You Done to Solange?, for example, dispatches his usually nude victims by plunging knives into their vaginas.
In addition, the structure of the films is often baroque, and sometimes contains dreamlike imagery. The killer almost always wears black leather gloves and usually a black trenchcoat or raincoat. The weapon of choice is nearly always a shiny and suitably phallic knife. A giallo’s plot often deals with an unlucky person who witnesses a crime and then spends the remainder of the film struggling to remember some aspect of the scene that they have forgotten or cannot make sense of. The psychological motivations of the killer nearly always have to do with madness or revenge triggered by childhood traumas, lending gialli a hint of Freudianism and gothic horror in juxtaposition to the more modern slasher-type violence that is usually featured. Finally, the films generally have a Grand Guignol feel, and tend to have bombastic or unusual film scores containing free jazz or prog-rock, for example.
Examples of the Giallo Genre
Genre pioneer Mario Bava, in addition to his first two gialli, made two other films in this line, 1970’s Five Dolls for an August Moon and the 1971 classic Twitch of the Death Nerve (better known in the United States as A Bay of Blood). Dario Argento has returned to giallo perhaps more than any other director, turning out films like The Cat O’Nine Tails (1971), Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), Deep Red (aka Profondo Rosso, 1975), Tenebrae (1982), Opera (1987), and Giallo (2010).
Lucio Fulci, a cult figure in America for his grisly zombie films, made movies in nearly every imaginable genre, and giallo was no exception; his psychedelic Lizard in a Woman’s Skin was released in 1971, and was followed by 1972’s Don’t Torture a Duckling, the understated mystery The Psychic (aka Murder to the Tune of Seven Black Notes, 1977), and 1982’s The New York Ripper. Other directors who tried their hand include Umberto Lenzi (Knife of Ice, 1972; Eyeball, 1974), Michele Soavi (Deliria, 1987), and Pupi Avati (The House With Laughing Windows, 1976).
The American Giallo
Just as Italian filmmakers were inspired by British crime novels, film noir, and Alfred Hitchcock, American and British filmmakers duly returned the favor, becoming influenced by giallo films in their turn. While some directors helmed their own, more American takes on the Italian giallo, most notably Brian de Palma (whose best-known gialli were Dressed to Kill from 1980 and Body Double from 1984), more horror-inclined filmmakers like John Carpenter (Halloween, 1978) and Sean Cunningham (Friday the 13th, 1980) tweaked a few of the giallo conventions and ended up pioneering the slasher film, which would go on to massive success during the VHS boom of the 1980s. As a side note, John Carpenter was also responsible for writing an overtly giallo-esque film, The Eyes of Laura Mars, which was directed by Irvin Kershner and was released in 1978.
Other examples of non-Italian giallo-inspired movies made during the genre’s golden years include Don’t Look Now from 1973; Alice, Sweet Alice from 1976; and Cruising from 1980.
The Giallo Renaissance
Though giallo films’ time in the spotlight was undoubtedly the 1970s, and the genre had all but flickered out by the time the 1980s came to a close, a new generation of filmmakers who grew up with the stylish thrillers have made some of their own modern homages in recent years, many of which deliberately play up the lurid, technicolor look of the originals, and may also feature elements of affectionate parody. The best of these 21st-century gialli include 2009’s Amer; 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio; 2014’s The Editor; 2016’s The Neon Demon; 2018’s In Fabric; and 2019’s Knife + Heart.