What Is a Giallo?

If you're new to giallo films, you may wonder what it is exactly that defines the genre. That's actually a source of great debate among film enthusiasts and we love to argue over weather or not a movie is a "real" giallo or if it falls into some other category or sub-category.

To Italian audiences, it's quite simple: "giallo" is synonymous with "thriller." Any movie with action and suspense, from The Third Man to The Silence of the Lambs to Night of the Living Dead is called "giallo."

But to American audiences and film buffs, the criteria are more complex, making giallo a narrowly-defined sub-genre.  Sometimes giallo films are incorrectly referred to as "Italian horror" or "spaghetti horror," but this definition is far too broad, as it would also include zombie movies, ghost stories, and slasher flicks that lack important giallo elements. Definitions change, depending on who you ask, but since it's my blog, we'll use my definition: A giallo is a stylish European murder mystery.

Let's take that apart and explore the elements one by one.

Stylish: Giallo takes its stylistic cues from the over-the-top, melodramatic worlds of opera, gothic horror, and Grand Guignol theater, where everything is exaggerated and intensified. Blood is bloodier, scares are scarier, and sex is sexier. Gialli are usually (not always) set in modern times (meaning the 1960's, 70's, and 80's), featuring the trendiest fashion, design, and art (much of which can seem hilariously dated to our 21st century eyes). These movies are often populated with fashion models, photographers, writers, designers, and other glamorous people with affluent, jet-setting lifestyles. The action unfolds in expensive nightclubs, large homes, and prestigious academies. The characters often have very modern ideas and are free with sexuality, gender roles, drugs, and money. This has its limits, though, and those who stray too far from accepted societal norms don't make it to the closing credits.

Giallo is a very arteur-driven genre and a director's individual artistic sensibility makes the films visually distinctive and unique. Mario Bava's painterly compositions and vivid colors comprise his trademark "look." Classic Dario Argento productions feature stark lighting and intense music. Lucio Fulci is known for shocking uses of blood and a more visceral, gritty aesthetic. Throughout the canon you'll find stylized camera tricks like zooms, whips, dutch angles, and lots of pre-digital, low-budget effects, all to give a sense of drama and heightened reality.

European: Italy is the epicenter of giallo film making, but quite a few good ones came out of Spain and many were French and English co-productions, so I'm keeping my definition loose. The only American films I can think of that would otherwise fit the giallo definition are Dressed To Kill and the first Scream film. Wes Craven's meta-horror movie insistently refers to itself as a slasher movie but it is, in all other respects, a giallo. Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho predates the giallo genre but is a famous stylistic and thematic touchstone for Italian filmmakers like Mario Bava. They say all bands were influenced by the Beatles and likewise, it might be said that every giallo was inspired in some way by Psycho.

Murder: Easy enough. if nobody is killed, it's not a giallo. Throughout the history of giallos, film makers have sought to push the extremes and body counts have grown higher and death scenes have become more elaborate and creative. Because Psycho had three murders, Bava set out to double it in Blood and Black Lace. And then quadruple in Bay of Blood (a.k.a. Twitch of the Death Nerve). Often, the creativity of the murder scenes is the focal point of the movie, taking precedence over a coherent plot. Many of Argento's best murder scenes are Rube Goldbergian in their complexity. And that's a big part of the appeal of the genre – how crazy can it get?

Mystery: This is, perhaps, the most important element of giallo. A giallo film introduces a pool of suspects, clues are left behind, and the main character must discover the identity and motives of the killer (or killers) over the course of the film. This is what separates a giallo from a slasher flick. In a slasher flick, we know the identity of the killer throughout the film – he's a deranged psycho, often with no motivation. In a giallo, the killer may be a deranged psycho with or without a motivation, but his identity is kept a mystery until the end of the movie.

Requiring a "mystery" element eliminates many films that are traditionally referred to as "giallo." The Killer Must Kill Again is a stylish European murder story, but the killer's identity is known throughout, so it's not a giallo. The Cold Eyes of Fear, The Killers Are Our Guests, and Hitcher In the Dark are sometimes called gialli, but there's no mystery involved – they're just twisty hostage thrillers. All the Colors of the Dark is an excellent movie full of blood, suspense, sexy scenes, and a cast of giallo all-stars, but it's missing a mystery element.  Kill Baby...Kill, Black Sunday, and The House With the Laughing Windows are a great Gothic horror stories, but not gialli. Ironically, Dario Argento's 2010 movie Giallo is not a giallo.

There are lots of ways to enjoy gialli. If you like mysteries, this is your bag.  Gialli often had low budgets and fast shooting schedules and the productions are frequently sloppy, so if you're a fan of "so-bad-it's-good" cinema, you'll love a giallo.  If you like Euro-productions with a "trash aesthetic," you're in the right place. Also, there's usually plenty of blood, so if you're looking for thrills from a horror movie perspective, there are lots of gialli to enjoy. Personally, I like to be surprised by movies – to get the feeling that anything could happen and that I'm along for a wild, engaging ride. And gialli provide enough crazy, unpredictable moments, twists, and turns to keep me coming back.