If you’ve never heard of the subgenre of giallo films, I’m going to give you a little crash course right now. Basically, they’re Italian horror movies primarily from the 1960s and ‘70s that surround a murder-mystery type scenario. The main character is often an outsider, like a tourist or someone who’s new in town. The killers often wear black gloves. There’s usually a sexploitation aspect. And a lot of them are scored by Ennio Morricone. The best part? Most of these films can be found on Amazon Prime. That just about covers it; you are ready for your first giallo experience. And if you came here already knowing about gialli (the plural of giallo in Italian), I think you’ll still enjoy some of my more obscure picks.
Now that you know what they are, I want to share with you some of my favorite gialli. Some of them are quite classic, so this list is definitely beginner friendly. Come with me on a journey through some of Italy’s most famous horror movies.
Blood and Black Lace (Mario Bava, 1964)
Blood and Black Lace is a great starting point for a new giallo fan, and also a great classic to revisit for old fans. It’s probably the most iconic giallo on this list, by the master himself, Mario Bava. Mario Bava didn’t invent the genre with this film—he invented it with The Girl Who Knew Too Much in 1963—but his second foray into the genre is in my opinion the better entry. We’ll be talking about Bava again shortly, though. Blood and Black Lace tells the tale of a serial killer who’s picking off the models of Countess Christina Como’s (Eva Bartok) fashion house one by one. The killer is killing off anyone who’s thought to be in possession of the first victim Isabelle’s (Francesca Ungaro) diary. It’s clear the killer wants that diary, but why?
This film works so well because it’s the perfect blend of captivating story and captivating visuals. Set in a fashion house, the costumes and scenery are just as gorgeous as you’d expect in one of the fashion capitals of the world. Perhaps the most iconic use of black gloves in any giallo. The killer also dons a black fedora-type hat and white stockings as a face mask, which begs the question: was he the visual inspiration for Rorschach? I digress. You spend the entire film on the edge of your seat, trying to figure out just what’s in that diary, why it’s worth killing over, and the answer to that question does not disappoint.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Dario Argento, 1970)
In Dario Argento’s most visually stunning giallo (no, Suspiria is not a giallo, due to the supernatural elements), we follow the story of an American writer, Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante), living in Rome who witnesses the attempted murder of an art gallery owner, connects it to a string of murders through some amateur sleuthing, and is asked by police to aid in the investigation. Soon Sam and his girlfriend are the killer’s next targets. His first giallo, this movie really put the genre on the map.
Argento is famous for his particular brand of well-shot horror movies with gorgeous set pieces, from Deep Red to Tenebrae (both also gialli, well worth the watch), and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage is no exception. It is the epitome of the stylization the genre calls its signature. Studded with an ominous yet thrilling score by the king of all film scores himself, Ennio Morricone, this film is nothing if not memorable. It was my first giallo from distributor, Arrow, who have a gorgeous selection of giallo movies, and it has always been my personal favorite. The initial murder alone is a stand-out piece of cinema.
A Bay of Blood (Mario Bava, 1971)
Another solid selection from Mr. Bava. The ultimate inheritance whodunnit (Knives Out whomst?), this film was the inspiration for all modern slasher flicks. A wealthy countess is hung to death and the killer leaves behind a suicide note, but he’s killed shortly thereafter. When Countess Federica Donati (Isa Miranda) dies, several characters come to claim her estate, but are met with a gruesome fate. Her family and friends are killed off one by one by each other, seeking to have the inheritance all to themselves.
This film is basically a giant bloodbath. One person is the murderer in one scene then the victim in the next, and so on and so on and so on. There is a total of 13 kills and 5 killers in A Bay of Blood. That alone makes this worth watching, but on top of that, each death is unique and extra gory. Most interestingly, there’s a couple that are speared through the abdomen while making love. Shot by Bava himself, this film is unsurprisingly both gorgeous and creepy. Each shot of the watching eye in the beginning of the film gets eerier and eerier.
Torso (Sergio Martino, 1973)
In this tense giallo, we follow four college girlfriends as they escape their college town where a serial killer is on the loose. They whisk away to a small villa in the countryside, only to be followed there by the killer. The only clue the police have is a red and black scarf used to strangle the victims. We open on someone photographing several nude people making love and posing with porcelain dolls, when one of them pokes its eyes out. Later, during the murder sequences, the killer pokes out the victims’ eyes in the same fashion, with a flash to him poking out the doll’s eyes. Not a very subtle metaphor to the killer seeing women as dolls as opposed to human beings, but nevertheless important.
In a scene toward the beginning, a bunch of coeds are having a chill party in what appears to be a warehouse, just sitting around smoking and dancing to hippie music. The upskirt (or I guess up-jean shorts) shot of one of the dancers is, though kind of creepy, a really unique angle and it really sends home the sexploitation aspect of this giallo. There’s prostitutes and a lesbian sex scene between two of the main girls. If you want a sexy giallo, you’re looking at it. Not to mention, the score, composed by Guido and Maurizio De Angelis, is spectacularly creepy and exciting. And there’s one particular death involving a man’s head and a car’s bumper that’s just…to die for.
Death Walks on High Heels (Luciano Ercoli, 1971)
Blue colored contacts are the name of the game in this erotic giallo. It follows the story of Nicole Rochard, a Parisian stripper whose father heisted some diamonds then mysteriously died. Someone is stalking and threatening Nicole for the diamonds. Out of nowhere, a rich stranger named Dr. Matthews takes Nicole away to his home in London, where she is inevitably killed, and is found having hardly decomposed. After his second murder, the killer left one single blue colored contact in Dr. Matthews’ wife Vanessa’s hair, and with that the police are off on their hunt for the killer.
Death Walks on High Heels takes its name quite literally as the killer wears a pair of thigh-high high heeled boots. The film is sultry and alluring, while also being shockingly gruesome. Vanessa’s death in particular is rather nasty, but I won’t spoil the fun. Not only is it visually appealing and fun for gore fans like me, but the plot is complex compared to other gialli. Most gialli have a twist ending, but nobody could have predicted exactly what happened in this one. And, as a cherry on top, the final shot is so memorable, well, you’ll see.
All the Colors of the Dark (Sergio Martino, 1972)
They say save the best for last, right? Opening with one of the most bizarre scenes in any giallo, this film is career-defining for Edwige Fenech, queen of giallo. Jane (Edwige Fenech) keeps having these increasingly strange, Lynchian, prophetic dreams in which she and her friends are being murdered. But, the line between what’s real and what’s a dream gets blurred. Jane keeps seeing the murderer from her dreams everywhere she goes, and the sex cult seems so real. She must figure out what the dreams all mean before it’s too late; either she will be driven mad by them or they will come true.
Shots of bare black rooms with white furniture, a driving sequence straight out of Twin Peaks: the Return, and a canine sacrifice that teeters on being vomit-inducing define this film. It’s equal parts gorgeous and mind-bending. Possibly the most visually stunning of all, this giallo uses camerawork and editing to denote what is a dream and what isn’t, appearing as if the film was shot through a shattered mirror and moments that loop as if the disk was skipping. As you can probably tell by now, the way to my heart is through great cinematography.
Honorable Mention: Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975)—At this point in his career, Argento has really mastered the art of suspense, and it’s evident in this film. With a score by Goblin (who also scored Suspiria), who took the gig after Pink Floyd turned it down, it’s a fun and exciting giallo as any. The story just doesn’t stand out to me as much as my main picks.
Honorable Mention: Don’t Torture a Duckling (Lucio Fulci, 1972)—Nobody does gore quite like Fulci. It’s an interesting enough story to keep you watching until the iconic last scene. There’s one death that’s set to some awesome music but that doesn’t continue throughout. Overall, kind of boring and at the end of the day, it’s just not Fulci’s best (which obviously is Zombi 2—not a giallo). Oh, and there’s an insane amount of Dutch tilts.
Honorable Mention: Short Night of Glass Dolls (Aldo Lado, 1971)—This one is a little odd in concept. A man has been found dead, but he’s still conscious and cannot move or breathe nor does he have a pulse. The entire film is a flashback of the man’s final days, trying to solve his own murder. It’s basically a Twilight Zone version of a giallo. It has an absolutely bonkers ending that you don’t see coming at all. But, like Don’t Torture a Duckling, it drags in the middle. The worst part is that the deaths aren’t really memorable.
And, if you want a (narrative) film about the sound recording in giallo films, there’s the recent Berberian Sound Studio, which is surprisingly good.
I feel like this list covers all the bases of what a giallo is at its core. We’ve got cinematography, we’ve got gore, we’ve got plot twists, we’ve got gratuitous nudity and sex, we’ve got black gloves and masked murderers. You’re now ready to call yourself a bonafide giallo fan. Let me know in the comments some of your favorite giallo films!