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Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Italian Giallo

The “giallo” genre is an overwhelmingly diverse body of work whose elements can be found in national cinema histories of the world but it is largely used to refer to specific Italian productions of the 20th century. Ranging from slashers and horror flicks to erotic thrillers and mysteries, Italian giallo is a fascinating collection of cinematic output.

As for the title itself, “giallo” means yellow in Italian and is actually a reference to the paperback pulp novels that were omnipresent in the country and had yellow covers. Their core sensibilities were translated to the cinematic medium, resulting in brilliant films that have continued to serve as sources of inspiration for aspiring artists.

The giallo films have also inspired the national cinemas of other country, an effect that is mostly evident in the American horror projects and slasher films of that period. While the genre itself faded into obscurity by the beginning of the 21st century, the archetypes and cinematic tropes that it popularised can still be observed in modern films.

Here are some films for you to get started with the giallo genre.

Six best Italian Giallo films:

Blood and Black Lace (Mario Bava, 1964)

Mario Bava was one of the great pioneers of 20th-century cinema as well as a progenitor of the Giallo genre, known for his unique horror films that had an operatic quality about them. While it was a commercial failure at the time of its release, time has been favourable to Bava’s 1964 masterpiece.

The film revolves around the discovery of a diary which contains compromising secrets, sending a masked killer on a rampage in order to get it back. Disturbing but visually stunning at the same time, Bava paved the way for future filmmakers of the genre.

The Possessed (Luigi Bazzoni and Franco Rossellini, 1965)

Another Giallo essential, this 1965 crime thriller is a fantastic product of the Giallo sensibilities that were still taking shape in the country. A brilliant adaptation of Giovanni Comisso’s novel, The Possessed tells the story of a famous writer who goes to a small town in Italy for a vacation.

During his stay there, he tries to find out about what happened to his old romantic interest but things start getting weird when he discovers that she killed herself by swallowing poison as well as ripping her own throat apart. Due to its experiments with genre elements, The Possessed is a fantastic way to enter the world of Giallo cinema.

Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Lucio Fulci, 1971)

One of the most famous examples of Giallo, Lucio Fulci’s 1971 gem is a lesson in filmmaking and acts as the perfect example for showcasing mesmerising cinematography. That’s exactly why Lizard in a Woman’s Skin shows up on essential lists all the time.

The narrative is actually based in London and begins its investigations by exploring the hallucinogenic nightmares of the daughter of a famous politician, showing her visions of drugs and sex. She dreams of murdering her neighbour only to wake up and find that her neighbour has actually been murdered.

Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975)

Often called the ‘Master of Horror’ by fans, Dario Argento has produced a lot of films that are well-known all around the world. The most popular among them is definitely his 1977 creation Suspiria, an endlessly enigmatic masterpiece that has been cited by many other filmmakers.

However, the film which perfectly encapsulates Argento’s contributions to the Giallo genre is his 1975 Deep Red. The film follows the adventures of an English musician in Rome who tries to investigate brutal murders but enters the terrifying domain of insanity.

The House with Laughing Windows (Pupi Avati, 1976)

A relatively under-watched gem from the heyday of Giallo cinema, The House with Laughing Windows is an interesting addition to the legacy of the genre. Thankfully, other directors such as Eli Roth have actively advocated for more people to explore this particular project.

The House with Laughing Windows is about a young man who arrives in a small village to do some restoration work and falls in love with a school teacher who works there. Soon, he discovers some gnarly secrets about the madman whose original work he was tasked to restore.

Tenebre (Dario Argento, 1982)

Another entry by Argento in this list only goes to show just how influential his work was to the Giallo genre. Tenebre sets up an engaging scenario involving an American novelist in Rome who is suddenly targeted by a crazed killer after the latter draws inspiration from his novels.

Argento had begun experimenting with various techniques and cinematic elements which resulted in his departure from Giallo sensibilities in projects like Suspiria and Inferno. With Tenebre, Argento returned to Giallo once again and gave the genre some much-needed momentum in the ’80s.