Giallo is really an amalgam of influences, a noisy, gaudy collage of the shiniest colors and the prettiest shapes. Here are some of the early influences on the genre:
Opera: The language of opera (and especially Italian opera) is hyperbole; it's a style of theater that revels in extremes. Emotions run deep, actions are drastic, and everything is given a heightened sense of drama. A melodramatic acting style is required in many operas to convey the extreme emotions of the music and stories. Similarly, Grand Guignol theater, a style developed in France, fuses the melodramatic style of opera with lurid, violent, and dark themes.
Gothic Horror: Gothic literature and film (and later, expressionist film) lends giallo its sense of mood and atmosphere. The quiet sense of danger, dread, and paranoia that pervades Gothic style is an essential part of the giallo aesthetic. Physical tropes such as old dark houses, cobwebbed cellars, black cats, spooky cemeteries, and family curses have also found their way into many gialli.
By far, the biggest individual influence on the genre is Edgar Allen Poe, whose ideas have been adapted in many gialli. Poe's"The Black Cat" was directly adapted into Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key and Seven Deaths In the Cat's Eye features a caged gorilla as a suspect, just like in "Murders In the Rue Morgue." The color-coded sequence of murders in Blood & Black Lace have been linked to "Masque of the Red Death" and a character is sealed into a niche in the manner of "Cask of Amantillado" in The Psychic. Because gialli are essentially mysteries, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories are also an obvious influence.
Film Noir: This stylish genre of film flourished in the 1940's and 1950's and features its own unique sense of atmosphere. The plots usually feature a detective solving a complex crime mystery in a modern setting, where he encounters organized crime, corruption, and the city's underworld. Noir films tend to relate a cynical, jaded view of the world. The genre has its own set of physical tropes, including the "femme fatale," the hard-boiled detective, blackmail plots, intense interrogation scenes, and car chases. The visual style of a noir film owes a debt to German expressionism with its low-key lighting and angular, asymetrical compositions. Completing a cycle of influences, German reinterpretation of film noir conventions resulted in a short-lived sub-genre known as "Kriminalfilm" or "Krimis," which would have a large stylistic and thematic influence on giallo.
Pulp crime novels by such authors as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett influenced (and were, in turn, influenced by) film noir. Meanwhile, Italy had developed its own brand of crime fiction in the same vein, first published by the Mondadori Publishing House in 1929. These paperback detective stories, mostly Italian translations of American or Brittish detective stories, were characterized by lurid illustrations of women in jeopardy and yellow covers. The yellow covers give the genre its name: "giallo" is Italian for "yellow." Before long, these yellow covers, and eventually the term "giallo," became synonymous with crime thrillers. When crime stories were adapted into movies, the movies also took on the name "giallo."
Interesting fact: The 1980's and 90's murder mystery TV show Murder, She Wrote is very popular in Italy, where it is called La Donna In Giallo (which literally translates as The Woman In Yellow).
The TV show was cancelled ages ago, but a series of books based on the
show is still popular in Italy. Keeping with tradition, the books all
have yellow spines.
Alfred Hitchcock: The British film director first found success in America with his suspense films in the 1930's, but his greatest achievement – and an enormous influence on the giallo genre – occurred in 1960. Psycho's use of suspense, lurid mixture of sex and violence, intense murder scenes, independence from traditional story structure, and quietly insane killer have provided inspiration for generations of giallo filmmakers. Though Psycho is the archetypical "proto-giallo," other Hitchcock films have provided inspiration as well. Lucio Fulci's Perversion Story is a giallo reinterpretation of Vertigo and elements from North By Northwest, Spellbound, and Rear Window have all made their way into gialli.
By the early 1960's, these elements of melodrama, suspense, horror, and crime fiction were synthesized and re-interpreted on film through the unique prism of Italian culture - a culture with a history that goes back thousands of years. Rome was built with
military might, fed on the blood of conquered lands. From these early
days, bloodsport was public entertainment in coliseums throughout the
empire and Italian culture has always been fascinated with violent
entertainment. Another major cultural influence is Catholicism's
dominance on Italian society. The church's strict control on gender
roles and human sexuality have made the subject taboo and, therefore, an
object of fascination – a button to push; a line to cross. Italians have a healthy skepticism for authority and many gialli jab at the authority of the church and the government. Italian filmmakers may have appropriated the themes, style, and details of their films from crime and horror fiction, but the two most fundamental elements of
giallo come from deep within Italian culture: sex and violence.
The movie considered to be the first giallo is Mario Bava's The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963). Though it lacks the high body count and explicit sexuality that would develop later, all of the essential elements are present: stylish direction, a murder mystery storyline, a beautiful woman in jeopardy, and lots of suspense. Bava followed this up by going more extreme in Blood and Black Lace (1964). The high body count and gruesome, explicit murder scenes were rendered even more shocking in highly-saturated color. Of the many important innovations introduced in Blood and Black Lace was the standard "look" of the giallo killer – an all-black uniform that consists of a trench coat, gloves, a fedora hat, and a stocking mask, making the killer an anonymous human shadow. The look has been used in countless films throughout the years, with only occasional modifications.
Most of the early gialli are re-treads of Bava's films, substituting settings and motives to keep things fresh. They stayed mostly within the safe traditions of Gothic horror. Other directors, such as Antonio Margheriti, were more willing to push the envelope on nudity and sexuality in their films than Bava was.
The cultural and social revolution of the late 1960's also meant a change in the public's taste and a change in what filmmakers were allowed to depict. A new attitude toward sex in film and toward once-taboo subjects like drug use and explicit violence would allow giallo directors the freedom to innovate. Many gialli of this period feed on the public's fear of the counterculture, depicting hippies as lazy, dangerous, sex obsessed drug addicts. Also, a new generation of filmmakers would seek to create a less disposable entertainment with higher budgets and better production values.
Dario Argento's The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970) turned many giallo conventions on their heads and featured a diabolically well-written script, reinvigorating the genre. Before long, many directors were copying Argento's style and incorporating his modern ideas. Even Mario Bava took lessons from his former student and modernized his style. Bava's Shock (though not a giallo) borrows many ideas from Argento's work.
The Italian film industry was still relatively small, and colleagues would often try to one-up each other, driving up body counts, becoming more creative with murder scenes, and showing more explicit sexuality. These films were churned out quickly and cheaply, so things could escalate at a rapid pace.
Because these movies could be made cheaply and quickly, producers would often try to maximize profits by capitalizing on the tastes of different audiences. For example, Swedish audiences don't mind sexy scenes but get turned off by violence. American audiences like violent movies but balk at nudity and sexuality. So there are often several versions of the same movie, edited to suit a variety of tastes. The violent versions can feature brutal gore and the sexy versions sometimes incorporate scenes that are downright pornographic. When movies were converted to video in the late 1970's, producers had to select a single version of each movie, so they either selected one cut over another or edited several cuts together into one master film.
This also partly explains why most gialli have several alternate titles. They'll have an original Italian title (like La Bestia Uccide In Sangue Freddo), the direct translation of that title (The Beast Kills In Cold Blood), and possibly an alternate English title (Slaughter Hotel), but for marketing reasons, the sexy, less violent version might require a different title altogether (Asylum Erotica). On top of that, movies were sometimes re-packaged and re-titled for a video release.
After four successful gialli, Argento started another revolution with Susperia – a "supernatural giallo," which prominently features a paranormal story element. He had flirted with the paranormal in 1975's Deep Red, but in Susperia, dark magic plays a pivotal role in the story. Argento would go on to spin Susperia into his "Three Mothers" trilogy, which includes Inferno (1980) and Mother of Tears (2007), though neither can be considered true gialli.
The genre flourished in the early 1970's but, despite rapid growth and innovation, public interest in murder mysteries waned by the early 1980's. By that time, gialli had become more explicitly violent and bloody and before long, filmmakers simply eliminated the mystery element and complex plots in order to make more time for kill scenes. This resulted in a new offshoot genre of the the giallo: the slasher movie. A slasher movie (like the Friday the 13th and Halloween movies) is basically a string of elaborate murder and sex scenes. We know who the killer is throughout a slasher film and he comes with a simple back story. Due to changing tastes and the popularity of more explicit horror, fewer and fewer gialli were released. Since the mid-1990's, only a handful have been produced. Late-period gialli like Lucio Fulci's Murder Rock (1984) and Argento's Opera (1988) closely resemble slasher movies.
Because gialli were considered cheap and "disposable" entertainment, many have been unavailable or extremely difficult to find on home video formats, and many gialli have been lost over time, due to advancements
in technology. Over the past fifty years film was converted to video, video to DVD, and DVDs to
BluRay and digital formats, and each step of the way, lesser-known gialli were left behind. Most of the movies that survived are considered the most worthy of preservation or have earned strong cult followings. Many are available in their complete forms on YouTube, though often only with the original Italian dialogue.
In recent years, there have been several movies "inspired" by the giallo genre, giving hope to a mainstream resurgence in the genre. But while Amer (2010), Berbarian Sound Studios (2012) and The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears (2013) each imitate the flashy surface aspects of the genre (saturated colors, stylized lighting and camera work and disorienting sound design) they're all style and no substance. They ignore the most defining characteristics of the genre - none of these movies are murder mysteries and cannot rightfully be called gialli.