Written by Stefan Matthews

In this series, we’ll look at the rise of a strange, violent and bloody genre of Italian cinema; giallo. Starting from its humble roots in old mystery novels, we’ll first explore 20th century Italian cinema as a whole, from the epics of the 1910s to the fascist inspired white telephone films and the vehemently anti-fascist neo-realists. We’ll look back on the films and art that inspired giallo, from bloody German krimi films to American hard-boiled detective novels, before highlighting the rise of the genre and the tropes that it brought forth, many of which are ever present in popular horror cinema today. Mystery murderers, paranoid protagonists, graphic violence and eroticism out the wazoo – any of that sound familiar? 

Finally, we’ll look beyond giallo at its legacy, a genre that burst forth to influence some of the most controversial and beloved slasher, splatter and exploitation films including Friday the 13th and Hostel. Remember the scene where we follow Buffalo Bill’s POV as he stalks Clarice in Silence of the Lambs? Well, Sergio Martino was doing that back in 1971 (in The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail).

Giallo is a wonderful snapshot of cinema history, a genre that had shot to worldwide popularity in the 60s and 70’s before just as quickly dying its death. Perhaps such a short, explosive life is a fitting legacy for a genre covered in blood.

But before we get into the fun, bloody and paranoid details of the genre, it’s important to contextualise giallo in the greater landscape of Italian cinema. For by the time the 60s came around, Italy had already seen two decades of fascism, the loss of the second world war and the fall of the monarchy. The 20th century was a hell of a time for Italy, and the evolution of the country’s cinema shows it.

Italian film can be traced back all the way back to the Lumière brothers, who screened some of their earliest works in Italy. But it wasn’t until the late 1900’s and 1910’s that Italian cinema really began to take shape, with the earliest film companies and production houses often producing short adaptations of classic literature, stage plays or historical figures such as Otello and Beatrice Cenci (based on the Roman noblewoman of the same name. Research her, she’s fascinating.) In the years to come, these production houses would broaden their horizons, producing cinematic epics such as Cabiria and even dabbling in the avant-garde. Italian futurism, though not a great success, would nevertheless pave the way for German expressionism; birthing icons such as Fritz Lang and classics such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu.

However, it wasn’t until the 1930s that Italian cinema would really hit its stride. The problem was that this stride would just so happen to be fascist.

Benito Mussolini with Adolf Hitler. Facist world leaders.

In October of 1922, a politician by the name of Benito Mussolini led a coup d’état, and with the help of King Victor Emmanuel III, became Prime Minister of Italy. Mussolini would reign supreme over Italy for 22 years, his fascist ideology bringing with it decades of nationalism, racism and conservatism that would have a lasting impact on Italy and Europe for years to come. This impact was, of course, felt throughout the Italian arts. Cinema was no exception. 

During his reign, Mussolini and his band of fascists would censor Italian cinema, bringing forth a wave of easy breezy comedies known as telefoni bianchis, or white telephones. The name comes from the titular telephones that were often shown in these films, symbols of the separation between the poor and the rich, of bourgeois classism and wealth. 

The white telephones reflected the values held by the fascist party. Respect for class hierarchy and authority, refusal to show taboo subjects such as adultery or divorce, ideals that paired perfectly with those of the fascist government. They were, as with all fascist culture, more a form of propaganda than of art. Though it should be said that these films and filmmakers were not necessarily inherently fascist, rather they were forced to be so by the government that ruled Italy.

However, as with Hitler, Mussolini and fascism would be defeated, and with that fall came the rise of the realists. Italian cinema was about to be launched back into the real world. 

Gritty, unflinching and jammed full of suffering, the neo-realists of the late 40’s and early 50’s pushed back as hard as they could against the cutesy, conservative ideals of the white telephones. These realist films showed Italy not in its glory, but in its true nature – a stark contrast to the censor-lead films that came before. Neo-realism portrayed what real life had actually looked like for many Italians. The heroes (if such a word could even be applied) of these films suffered and they were working class, most certainly not the happy-go-luck bourgeois of the white telephone era. 

Ossessione 1943 neo-realist Italian movie. Black and white image of a man and woman stood in kitchen.

Neo-realists explored viciously political and social themes with an unflinching truth. All those ideals put forth by the fascist government were torn down and exposed, the cosy comedy of the upper-classes replaced with brutal realism. It was as if two decades of furious anti-fascism was suddenly bursting forth into cinema, dragging with it a legacy of human suffering showcased in black-and-white on the big screen. During a showing of the 1943 film Ossissione, Benito Mussolini’s son Vittorio (a film critic, would you believe), reportedly shouted “This is not Italy!” at the screen. One could argue that the film was more “Italy” than the white telephones ever were.

If you’ve ever sat through a Ken Loach film, you’ll most likely have experienced that same feeling of despair, hope, suffering and bittersweet mundanity of life that permeated this age of Italian cinema. Neo-realism was the first cinematic pushback against fascism and would lay the groundwork for giallo’s anti-establishmentarianism decades later.

It should be noted that while the neo-realist films were hugely influential, they did not make up the vast majority of post war cinema in Italy. The people of Italy still wanted escapism, especially after the atrocities of WWII. They would get it in the form of the commedia all’italiana’s (translated, it means “Comedy in the Italian way). But don’t mistake these films for the white telephones; the new wave of commedia all’italiana’s were all satire and farce. 

Divorce Italian Style 1961 un'film Italiana commedia

These comedies heavily mocked the values upheld by the white telephone films of the 30’s and 40’s, focusing on taboo social issues such as sexuality, divorce and the Catholic Church. A direct opposite to the traditional values held by fascist cinema. If Benito Mussolini had still been around, he’d have been appalled at the nerve of these films and you’d imagine his son would screech that they were “not Italy!”, as much as he did about the neo-realist pictures. With each commedia, Italian cinema pushed further and further against the outdated values of old, fascist Italy until the 60’s arrived. And with the 60’s, came giallo.

Before we delve into the genre, it is important to quickly look at giallo in the wider scope of all that came before, for the influence of Italian cinema cannot be understated. The genres that came before all impacted giallo, some in obvious ways and others in more abstract terms.

The gritty, anti-fascist ideals of neo-realism are echoed through giallo. While at its peak giallo was a genre focused more on style than substance, the depictions of human suffering were ever present. But it was the spirit of neo-realism – anti-fascist, anti-gender roles, anti-traditionalist and anti-establishment – that permeated through giallo as it continued to push the boundaries of “acceptable” cinema.

Or take a look at the taboo subjects of giallo, which clearly stemmed from the biting satire of the commedia all’italiana’s. The sexual freedom of the commedia’s was continued and compounded upon by giallo cinema, the taboo subjects of divorce and religion now replaced with taboo subjects of murder and nudity.

Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1975 Salo inspired by 120 Days of Sodom by Marquis De Sade.

Giallo was never an exception, it was a part of something greater within Italian cinema history, with every new genre pushing back harder against fascism. Neo-realism, commedia all’italiana, giallo, the “shockumentary” mondo films and the Italian cannibal films; all these genres extended the limits of what was tolerable in Italian cinema again and again. Is it any surprise that by the 1970s, Pier Paolo Pasolini was telling a ruthless story about powerful, corrupt, sadistic, fascist officials abusing, torturing and murdering the lower classes in Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom? Or that by the 80’s, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust was causing such terror in the UK that Mary Whitehouse felt obliged to label it with the “Video Nasty” badge of honour?

In my opinion, almost all of post-war, 20th century Italian cinema was born from the contrast of brutal fascist life, and conservative fascist cinema. Giallo was just another of those wonderful genres fit to burst with anti-establishmentarianism. A genre born of fire and brimstone, a desire to push the boundaries of art and cinema – a world of knife wielding murderers and innocent victims in lacy nightgowns. 

In the next post, we’ll look at the cinema and art that inspired giallo, as well as the early films that would go on to define the genre.

Watch List

“Neo-realism” films:

  • Ossessione (Luchino Visconti, 1943)
  • Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945)
  • Germany, Year Zero (Roberto Rossellini, 1948)
  • Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948)
  • Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica, 1952)
  • La Strada (Federico Fellini, 1954)

“Commedia all’italiana” films:

  • Un Giorno in Pretura (Steno, 1954)
  • Big Deal on Madonna Street (Mario Monicelli, 1958)
  • La Grande Guerra (Mario Monicelli, 1959)
  • Divorce, Italian Style (Pietro Germi, 1961)
  • Il Sorpasso (Dino Risi, 1962)

Other films mentioned in the blog:

  • Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, 1980)
  • Hostel (Eli Roth, 2005)
  • Silence of the Lambs (Johnathan Demme, 1991)
  • The Case of the Scorpion’s Tale (Sergio Martino, 1971)
  • Otello (Mario Caserini, 1906)
  • Beatrice Cenci (Mario Caserini, 1909)
  • Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914) 
  • Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)
  • Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (F. W. Murnau, 1922)
  • Ossissione (Luchino Visconti, 1943)
  • Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975)
  • Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980)

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