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What is giallo, really?

And do modern movies like Last Night in Soho and Malignant qualify?

Photo montage of two women looking terrified and a masked person holding a glinting knife Photo Montage: James Bareham/Polygon

Although Edgar Wright’s new thriller Last Night in Soho is set partly in modern times and partly in the “swingin’ London” of 1966, the movie’s style combines the colorful flash of 1960s Euro-horror with the creepy chill of 1970s art-films. Last Night in Soho has specifically been compared to the work of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, two Italian filmmakers who helped codify the look, tone, and themes of giallo, the cult horror genre in which killers creep through the night in upscale locations, mostly targeting glamorous women. These films have been hugely influential across the decades. James Wan’s joyously bizarre horror-mystery Malignant — with its own story about a shadowy, knife-wielding maniac — was one of the most recent movies to bear a strong giallo stamp.

Or was it? The definition of giallo — or even “giallo-inspired” — has been controversial among cinephiles over the years. So it’s probably a good idea to break down the term’s history and meaning, to consider what fans and critics mean when they throw the word around… and whether they do so too liberally.

The strictest giallo devotees treat the term the way oenophiles treat “champagne” — as a highly specific term that only truly applies to products from a specific region of Europe. To some cult cinema fans, giallo is, by definition, Italian. From the 1960s to the 1980s (and most prominently in the 1970s) a handful of Italian filmmakers turned out horror and suspense films that nodded to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, but which were on the whole more lurid, ratcheting up the levels of gore and nudity. “Giallo” literally means “yellow,” in reference to the yellow covers common to the sensationalistic Italian pulp novels these movies clearly resemble.

But giallo was never an organized movement, per se. Unlike the internationally acclaimed Italian filmmakers Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni, directors like Argento, Bava, Lucio Fulci, and Sergio Martino came up through the commercial side of Italian cinema, which had a long history of imitating popular Hollywood genres like Westerns, cop movies, and sword-and-sandal epics, but making them cheaper and bloodier.

Bava, in fact, first came to prominence as a horror director, scoring a hit with 1960’s gothic shocker Black Sunday and the gruesome 1963 anthology film Black Sabbath. He then helped pioneer the giallo genre with 1963’s overtly Hitchcockian The Girl Who Knew Too Much and 1964’s Blood and Black Lace. The latter established some of giallo’s visual motifs, including masked killers, scantily clad female victims, ritzy locations, and eye-popping splashes of color.

A woman in a dimly lit room, surrounded by vivid pink flowers, looks distrustfully at a bright red mannequin with long black hair and a black dress
Blood and Black Lace
Photo: Compass Film

Argento turned this style into a sensation with his popular 1970 debut feature The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, a thriller about an American tourist who investigates a murder he witnessed — and is later accused of committing — at a Roman art gallery. With its clean, colorful look, its richly orchestrated score and its twisty mystery, Argento’s film played like a slicker, classier version of a trashy B-picture. Its success at the global box office inspired the ever-opportunistic Italian producers to start commissioning imitators. The early 1970s saw a flood of exciting films with quirky titles: A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, The Short Night of the Glass Dolls, Strip Nude for Your Killer, Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, and easily a hundred more.

Some of the directors who made these movies in bulk occasionally used the genre in clever and boundary-pushing ways, captivating audiences while also making them feel increasingly uncomfortable. Martino’s 1973 film Torso, for example, features a lot of scenes early on of attractive young men and women groping each other in a spectacular country villa. But as these kids start getting killed, Martino interrogates the murderer’s deep misogyny and warped sexual desires. Similarly, Fulci’s ultra-violent 1982 cop movie The New York Ripper is a nightmarish vision of a rotten world, lousy with decay and depravity. The film is so extreme that it has been outright banned or censored in some places. Many critics consider it vile, but few who’ve seen it would call it forgettable.

The filmmaker who took giallo in the most fascinating directions in the 1970s and 1980s was Argento, who practically perfected the form with 1975’s Deep Red before shifting to semi-surreal supernatural thrillers like Suspiria and Inferno. He carried the lessons he learned from making those two pictures — namely that the plots didn’t always have to make sense — into 1982’s Tenebrae and 1985’s Phenomena, which are both visually dazzling, almost abstract murder-mysteries, delivering pure jolts of cinematic sensation.

A dead woman lying with her head on a shattered floor, neon-red blood around her mouth, her head thrown back in a final scream, in 1977’s Suspiria
Suspiria 1977
Photo: Synapse Films

To some extent, many of these films — even The New York Ripper — are uniquely Italian. Although most of the best-known giallo movies of the 1970s imported American or British stars — and although they were dubbed into English when they played in Britain or the States — a lot of them had a political edge. Sometimes subtly and sometimes openly, they indicted a culture of collusion, where well-connected aristocrats and criminal networks conspired to bury the average citizen and to get away with murder… quite literally, in both cases.

But these movies also relied a lot on formulas. Beyond the recurrence of secret societies and costumed, knife-wielding murderers, there was a well-established visual grammar to classic giallo, with bright colors playing against inky black shadows, while the camera often took the killer’s POV.

In other words, giallo had plenty of replicable elements, ready to be swiped by non-Italian genre filmmakers looking to use their effects on an audience. It’s easy to trace a short line between 1970s giallo and the first wave of American slasher movies, led by Halloween and Friday the 13th. Those early slashers — Halloween especially — drew inspiration not just from the basic giallo plots but also from the way they looked and moved, with their subtly dynamic camerawork and eerily polished surfaces.

When slashers fell out of favor, the erotic-thriller boom of the early 1990s carried on the giallo tradition of eroticism mixed with splatter. Influenced greatly by the films of Brian De Palma — whose movies Sisters, Blow Out, Body Double, and especially Dressed to Kill drew heavily on the Hitchcockian side of giallo — movies like Basic Instinct and Sliver emphasized the genre’s voyeuristic elements, while also bringing back some of the luxurious locations the American slashers ditched.

All of that said, it is possible to degrade the meaning of giallo by connecting it back to every movie about a serial killer. The reasons Last Night in Soho and Malignant have earned giallo comparisons have more to do with their visual style than their plots. Both those films are just as influenced by European filmmakers like Roman Polanski and Nicolas Roeg, whose work was sometimes in a similar vein to giallo, but who otherwise had nothing much to do with the genre.

One of the best ways to “get” giallo is to watch some of the homages and remixes that have been released in recent years, like Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s 2009 avant-garde film Amer, or their 2013 follow-up The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, both of which more or less eschew storytelling altogether and just riff on giallo themes and imagery. Or there’s Peter Strickland’s brilliant 2012 psychodrama Berberian Sound Studio, which has Toby Jones playing a 1970s sound engineer working on Italian thrillers and slowly going mad as he spends his days creating the effect of blades ripping into skin.

A woman vividly lit in green and orange in Berberian Sound Studio, standing in a recording booth with a silver mic and padded walls, looking terrified
Berberian Sound Studio
Photo: IFC Midnight

The only problem with these movies is that they’re a bit too elevated. The classic giallo pictures looked fancy, but most were made cheaply and quickly, as the Italian studios turned them out on an assembly line. Part of the fun of being a giallo fan is sifting through all the schlock, looking for the films that are uniquely strange and inspired. The more recent wave of giallo-influenced movies come pre-sorted for fans, taking the aesthetically impressive parts of the genre, and leaving out the exploitative dreck.

That’s potentially a good thing for modern movie fans, who don’t have to wade through hours of tedious, repetitive slasher movies to get to a ridiculous but memorable movie like Malignant. But as Argento and Fulci knew, sometimes there’s just as much appeal to that lurid, self-indulgent dreck. That’s what turns audiences on… and what makes them feel enjoyably unsettled about a genre that feeds them all the dark and nasty fantasies they could possibly want.