Now that I’m on my third year of hosting this-here blogathon, I figured now would be as good a time as any to write up a proper introduction to the subgenre I love so much. I have invited many people to participate in this humble project the last couple of years, and one of the things I love hearing most is that people were introduce to Italian horror through this blogathon. I hear quite often that people were always apprehensive to try out Italian horror because they knew so little about it (aside from the fact that narrative structure was meaningless). Inevitably, whenever I hear from or read something by someone that encounters Italian horror for the first time, it’s almost always in the vein of, “Wow, that looked really great – it was illogical and frustrating at times – but it sure was nice to look at.” So, on the week before the blogathon, I thought I would throw up on the blog this little primer about the history of Italian horror, where one might want to start, what one should expect from an Italian horror film, and some of its major contributors. Remember, the blogathon begins next week on October 24, so if you’re still on the fence about contributing or what to write about, maybe this will help.
The supernatural horror film would give way to the zombie craze, and only Michele Soavi would make something akin to the really good, aforementioned supernatural horror films when he made The Church and The Sect (more on those later). Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi offered up their takes on the subgenre, too, with Manhatten Baby (1983) and Ghosthouse (1988) respectively. Both films – especially the Fulci considering it came just two years after he made his run of his four best films – fail to impress and come off as nothing more than tired copies.
And about that gore: Zombi 2 was really the first excessively gory Italian horror film. Yes, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was an Italian co-production, but it’s primarily seen as an American horror film (the brilliant 1974 zombie flick – arguably the best zombie movie ever made – The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue was another Italian co-production, this time with Spain) and so for the purposes of what I’m doing here, I will not refer to these two seminal zombie films as Italian. And certainly a lot of the gore is owed to some of the “gut munching” scenes of Romero’s film. However, the difference is in the hyper-real way the violence is filmed. Sure, films like Suspiria and Bay of Blood were violent, but nothing was as hyper-real as what Fulci produced in 1979. One need only look to the first “injury to eye” scene in Italian horror history (Lenzi made a bad giallo entitled Eyeball, but we never actually see the eyeballs removed from the victims) where Fulci keeps his camera on his victim as her head is slowly drawn in by a zombie towards a splinter of wood. Fulci keeps the tension at an almost unbearable pace before slamming her eye in the splinter – the camera never flinching, daring us to look.
Stemming off of Zombi 2’s success, the Italian horror industry made many lesser zombie films that were more sexually charged than Fulci’s. Trash like Jess Franco’s Oasis of the Zombies and Aristide Massaccesi’s The Erotic Nights of the Living Dead were just cheap ways to cash-in on Fulci’s success (Aside: I feel like I should mention the French-produced Zombie Lake; a one-set zombie film – that set is someone’s backyard pool area – where Nazi’s rise from the grave (painted green) apparently for the sole purpose of fondling women’s breasts. It’s one of the most boring movies I’ve ever seen; don’t be fooled by the title like my brother and I were). During this era, audiences were introduced to a dubious tandem in Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso. If you like bad movies, then you know all about Mattei and Fragasso. The latter, of course, if famous for his brilliantly awful Troll 2 and the former for his hand in delivering the absolute bottom of the barrel in Italian horror during the ‘80s and ‘90s; in 1980, these two collaborated on one of the very best so-bad-it’s good, batshit insane zombie movies Italy ever produced: Virus (aka Hell of the Living Dead aka Zombie Creeping Flesh). Virus is a mix between the zombie film and the cannibal film. I couldn’t tell you for one second what the hell is happening in the film, but that’s the fun. It’s about as wacky a zombie film you’ll ever see, and it’s one of the main reasons why I preferred the Italian zombie film over all others – because even the really bad ones are memorable. Another 1980 entry, Zombie Holocaust, which was written by the same writer as Zombi 2, was also a mix between the zombie film and the cannibal film (in this movie, the cannibals fight the zombies!) and even went so far as using the same sets as Fulci’s film as well as parts from the script.
One of the hidden (trashy) gems during the zombie boom was Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror (one of the more exciting moments for my brother and myself was getting a hold of the hard-to-find uncut VHS copy of the film at our local video store). This oddball grindhouse flick is one of the more interesting entries into the subgenre and should be seen by anyone claiming to be a fan of Italian horror. For such a low-rent project, the zombie make-up (at least the zombies filmed in the foreground) is pretty impressive. Bianchi’s zombies even take up weapons (my favorite being a scythe) and work together as a team to make their way into the mansion where the goofy characters-in-peril await their doom. It’s pretty impressive to see such proactive and cooperative zombies. Oh, and those goofy characters, well yes, this is the film with 30+ year old little person cast as a little boy. And yes, this is the infamous Italian horror film where said little boy, Michael, asks to be comforted by his mother by sucking at her teet. And yes, when Michael is turned into a zombie, the scene unfolds so that the mother willingly bares her breast to her little boy and he proceeds to tear it off. This is also the movie that couldn’t be bothered to spell check its text that pops up on the screen at the end of the film. So very, very awe-inspiring is Burial Ground; you’ll be asking yourself multiple times while you watch just what in the hell is going on. Again, much like Virus, this is why I love Italian horror.
One last grindhouse zombie flick that is of some importance (for its influence on the Robert Rodriguez portion of Grindhouse being one major thing) is Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City. Starring my man Hugo Stiglitz (it is because of his performance in this movie that I named my blog after him), Lenzi’s film is notable for introducing us to the “infected” type of zombie; the zombie that moves with a purpose (and dresses fashionably) as well as having no problems using knives, scythes, and even guns. Also known as City of the Walking Dead (as a way to make people think about Fulci’s much more popular, successful film City of the Living Dead), Nightmare City is nothing more than a lark; but a damn effective one. The film has a lot of the elements found in the worst of the ‘80s Italian horror films nothing more glaring than the gratuitous shot of spandex-clad women filming an aerobics show for television before the infected zombies break up the party and poke out eyeballs and stab breasts. If there’s one thing Lenzi always made sure to show, it was a woman’s breast being impaled with something. What makes the film even more enjoyable is knowing that Lenzi believed he was making some kind of socially important message movie that was anti-nuclear. Good ‘ol Lenzi. So in the span of just a few years, the zombie craze – thanks to Fulci – was in full force. However, Fulci was already thinking of ways to expand upon what he popularized, and his follow up film, City of the Living Dead, is more of a hybrid of the supernatural horror film and the zombie flick (it has teleporting zombies...I mean, c'mon!).
Heavy on atmosphere, the three films Fulci released during 1980-81 have gained a fervent cult following. Known as the “Gates of Hell” series, this unofficial, phantasmatic trilogy of films – City of the Living Dead, The Beyond, and The House by the Cemetery – played even faster and looser with narrative structure than previous Italian horror films and upped the ante in terms of violence, to boot. Zombi 2 was groundbreaking in its visceral gore, but the “Gates of Hell” trilogy was truly something to behold. Some of Fulci’s most violently perverse set pieces are on display in these films: eyes, brains, and throats being ripped out; spiders eating off some poor guy’s face; drills to the head (in a scene that is just as taut as the splinter-to-the-eye scene); innards being puked up (probably Fulci’s most famous gore moment); machetes through the mouth; fire pokers through the chest and neck; faces being burned with acid and quicklime; crucifixions, a nail through the back of the head causing an eye to pop out; etc. Even though the gore is quite effective and memorable, it’s the atmosphere and the aesthetics that make the films lasting. It’s not that these gore moments are disgusting (and they are; just look at the descriptions) because we’re seeing them; it’s how we see them…how they play out in front of us. Just like Fulci did in Zombi 2, he presents an unflinching camera that keeps on looking even though we’ve been trained as filmgoers to think, “It’ll be okay because this is where the camera cuts away.” But it doesn’t. And that’s interesting and unique and kind of messed up.
Arguably his most famous of his four big films is The Beyond. Made in 1981, The Beyond is some kind of outré masterpiece that will never be matched; a perfect blend of what makes Italian horror so singular. The other films in the series are good – even kind of great at times – too, but they’re not as important in the context of horror history, especially Italian horror. We don’t quite get what’s going on because everything we know about narrative is being so flippantly ignored during The Beyond. Doors in a hospital lead to non-adjacent buildings, storms from nowhere summon a horde of spiders to eat a man’s face off, pupil-less mediums appear in the middle of nowhere standing on an abandoned stretch of highway, acid randomly falls on a woman’s face in a morgue, etc. One of the more telling scenes is when a little girl is in the morgue and witnesses a bottle of acid fall onto her mother’s face (why her mother is on the ground is beyond me). As the gelatinous goo inches closer towards the girl, she turns around to see a zombie come out of the closet. She screams; we assume she’s dead. Nope. She pops up later in the movie. How did she get out of there? What happened to her mom’s body? Did anyone else not notice the zombies in the morgue? These types of logical questions don’t matter in most Italian horror and they certainly don’t matter to Fulci. The Beyond – even more so than Zombi 2 – is all about the experience. Forget context, worry about the texture of the image in front of you. Scenes have no symbolic meaning; they just exist. They’re not about anyting other than what is happening while you’re watching it. And that’s fucking weird for most of us. The opening of The Beyond is a beautifully photographed (in sepia tone) period piece – a short film almost – that has a little something to do with the story, but I can’t help but think that Fulci had a nice setting and thought it would look gorgeous to film it that way. And it does.
This idea of focusing on the image as it is happening and forgetting about context would carry over with the films that would follow. Even more disjointed than teleporting zombies and doors that lead to anywhere is the third entry in the “Gates of Hell” series, The House by the Cemetery (I’ve seen it three different times now and still don’t know what the hell is going on). Fulci never matched his run of films from 1979-1981. After The House by the Cemetery, he began focusing more on tired, formulaic ideas like those found in Manhattan Baby, Murder Rock, Aenigma, and The New York Ripper. Mario Bava’s son, Lamberto, stopped making gialli and turned to his old boss Dario Argento to help him write and produce two sort-of zombie films: Demoni and Demoni 2. Better known as Demons, these films were solely gore exercises with blaring heavy metal soundtracks that badly date the films today. However, there’s a lot of energy and gusto on display here, and genre actor Bobby Rhodes adds a lot of cheese to both films (especially the sequel when he plays Hank the Bodybuilder) that they warrant a view or two. The ending of Demons is so god-awful that it has to be seen to be believed, but it’s important in that it was a sign of where the mainstream Italian horror film was headed: uber-gore backed by awful metal music. Not to be forgotten, Pupi Avati made the sort-of zombie film Zeder in 1983, which was not seen by many but still a more-than-worthy entry from the man that gave us the brilliant The House with Laughing Windows.
The real star of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, though, was Michele Soavi. Fresh off his incredibly well-made Deliria, Soavi decided to try his hand at the supernatural horror film. Not so much a zombie film, 1989’s The Church is loosely tied-in to the Demoni films; however, it is only unofficially considered the third film of the series. Soavi – who showed a great eye for style and atmosphere with his first film – leaned heavily on bizarre deaths and the ethereal tone we’ve come to expect from the Italians in the ‘80s. Set up as in the same style as the Demoni films (people trapped in a building while some kind of otherworldly being kills them off), The Church is way more stylized (Soavi’s camera moves, baby!) and bearable than Bava’s films. For one, Soavi’s film brilliantly uses Keith Emerson to remake Philip Glass songs to create one of the most haunting scores in all of Italian horror; it’s way more effective than the shitty metal music found in a lot of Italian horror at the time. Secondly, the set pieces are just as displacing and awe-inspiring as something from The Beyond. It’s one of the most underappreciated Italian horror films and often doesn’t get discussed because it came out so near the end of the subgenres life.
After The Church, Soavi would make The Sect in 1991 – a little seen satanic/occult horror film that is only worth seeing for the aesthetics – and follow that up with his final horror film, 1994’s Cemetery Man. This wacky zombie/comedy hybrid was a big hit with audiences and critics, but unfortunately Soavi’s son became ill shortly after the film’s release and the auteur decided to retire from making movies to care for his ailing son. Cemetery Man’s influence can clearly be seen on recent comedies that use zombie motifs, most noticeably in Shaun of the Dead. Once again style takes precedence over everything else, and Cemetery Man – although it sits as my third favorite of Soavi’s films – is no exception with some of the most beautiful looking sequences of Soavi’s short but brilliant career.
The 1980s in Italian horror is interesting. When the zombie boom was over in 1981, the industry – as it usually did – was looking for the next bandwagon to jump on. Two popular things in America in the ‘80s that the Italians loved to put in their films: slasher tropes and heavy metal music. Argento was the first to really jump on this bandwagon. Abandoning his supernatural films (he wouldn’t finish his Three Mothers trilogy until 2007), Argento started to mix the elements of his gialli with the elements of the American slasher film. Films like Tenebre (which was more giallo than slasher) and Opera began to de-emphasize the “whodunit” aspect and focus more on the bloody, Grand Guignol gore pieces usually associated with the zombie flick. New filmmakers were making a name for themselves as well. Bava’s son Lamberto – who was a protégé for Argento – began making these hybrid giallo/slasher films. His Macabre and A Blade in the Dark are average at best and come off as nothing more than poorly executed Argento clones; it wasn’t until he went way out there with Delirium: Photo of Gioia (and his Demons movies which we previously discussed) that he began to distinguish himself. But even in these movies, he – like Argento – relied heavily on heavy metal soundtracks that often detracted from the possible eeriness of what was happening on screen.
One filmmaker who didn’t rely on heavy metal music or reverting to the same old tricks as Argento was Michele Soavi. Soavi worked as an Assistant Director for Argento and would eventually become Terry Gilliam’s AD after Gilliam saw his 1987 giallo/slasher hybrid Deliria (Stage Fright). Soavi’s style would trump anything Argento would make during the latter part of his career. Deliria is to me one of the prime examples of what makes the Italian horror subgenre so appealing (ethereal tone, great atmosphere, bizarre violence, and tense pacing), and it’s a perfect entry point for newbies as it contains enough of the American slasher for those that want to ease into Italian horror. Yes, it's bizarre in that the killer dons a giant owl head (think a college football mascot) while chain-sawing and axing his victims; however, while you're watching the film as a newbie to Italian horror, the film will seem familiar due to its reliance on tropes found in the American slasher film. It's a doozy of a horror film. Other masters within the subgenre would try their hand at these hybrids – most notably Lucio Fulci and his horribly misogynistic and relentlessly brutal The New York Ripper. As cynical as it gets, The New York Ripper was Fulci at his worst: lazy. Nothing in the film suggests that this is the same old master that gave such over-the-top, nonsensical wonders like The Beyond and The City of the Living Dead, and the film is more akin to trash like Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975) than something like Tenebre.
As the ‘80s came to a close, so too did the quality of these hybrid pictures. As he usually did, Umberto Lenzi wanted to get in on the latest craze, so he threw his hat into the ring with his back-to-back lazy efforts Hitcher in the Dark and Welcome to Spring Break – both terrible Italian renditions of the American slahser; Lenzi used his pseudonym (Humphrey Humbert) on the former and was un-credited on the latter. Finally, we can’t talk about bad without talking about Aristide Massaccesi (Joe D’Amato). His sequel to Anthropophagus entitled Absurd is really poor Italian version of Halloween II. It does have the kind of so-bad-it’s-good charm factor, though. These late ‘80s hybrid giallo/slasher films would be the last hurrah for the theatrical Italian horror film as the subgenre would struggle to get theatrical financing and distribution thanks to a lot of the distribution restrictions for television that were lifted allowing private networks the opportunity to broadcast what they wanted. Filmmakers shifted their attention towards television as the next big wave; it was easy money for them. The only problem was that it removed the teeth from everything that made Italian horror popular and entertaining.
The opportunity for private networks to begin broadcasting the programming they wanted was the reason for the domestic horror film’s decline in Italy. Until 1976, there was really only one broadcaster on television, and it was sanctioned by the government. When private network were allowed to get in the game, they naturally turned towards the subgenre that did pretty well financially. Directors like Lamberto Bava began to abandon his more sexually exploitative and violent gialli for safer, haunted-house like horror films a la his own Graveyard Disturbance. Because of these toothless horror films being made on television for mere peanuts, Argento – who has always been a big name in his country in spite of being known as a director who exclusively works in horror – was really the only horror filmmaker that could get some kind of financing to release the films he wanted to make and get them theatrical distribution in Italy.
In the ‘90s with the death of the theatrical Italian horror film (thanks to the countries reliance upon releasing more profitable American films), the interest in Italian horror and the quality of the ones that did get made waned considerably as its flagship director and old master Argento seemed content with phoning it in (only his 1993 Trauma showed a semblance of him returning to form). In addition, the subgenre takes a blow when Fulci dies (never able to follow up his massive successes from 1979-1981); Mattei and Fragasso are the only ones making genre movies (sequels, really, to more popular films) and they’re utter trash, especially their botched attempts to continue the Zombi franchise after Fulci's death; and Soavi retires briefly after his 1991 occult film The Sect to care for his ailing son and returns with little-to-no interest in making horror movies again. When some of the classics of Italian horror were released on VHS, they were given shitty titles like Seven Doors of Death (The Beyond) and Unsane (Tenebre). On top of the bad alternate titles, almost all of the visceral gore was removed from these films when released to video; So people's only experience with, say, a masterpiece like The Beyond was the shitty cut version. This didn't add any kind of enthusiasm or excitement about the Italian horror film at the time; one's only real hope of seeing unedited versions of these films was by getting your hands on one of those dodgy VHS tapes that was essentially a copy of a copy of a copy.
The only filmmakers left to carry the torch decided to abandon the subgenre altogether. Ruggero Deodato released the oddball horror film The Washing Machine in 1993 (definitely worth a look if you can corral a copy) and hasn’t made a film since, Lamberto Bava left to focus on his television films and bad family/fantasy movies, and Soavi – after Cemetery Man which is considered the last true Italian horror film and when the industry, and the interest in it, as a whole died – went on to focus on a variety of genres for television. Argento, obviously, has stayed in the subgenre, but he’s expressed frustration with the process of making Italian horror films (I blame him more than the process; he clearly has lost something since Opera and has been phoning it in for a while now). With the way horror films look now, it’s hard to imagine that any country making horror movies could re-capture the lurid, grimy, exploitative tone of the Italian horror film; horror is just too clean-looking now. CGI blood has ruined modern horror for me, zombies are boring now, today’s horror audience would have no use for something like the giallo, and I think that foreign horror film has kind of passed Italy by as it’s shifted towards Japan and Korea – two countries that do a very good job of mixing the visceral (Japan) with atmosphere (Korea).
It’s interesting that no one boom dominated Italian horror for more than 4-5 years (giallo ran for the longest, but it was interspersed between all the other booms and always with variations on it); the one thing the Italian horror industry knew how to do was to jump on whatever bandwagon would make them the most money. Italian horror had big runs in the giallo, supernatural horror film, cannibal, Nazi exploitation, zombie, and slasher subgenres, but none of them really stuck for long periods of time. Always wanting to capitalize on what was most popular in the States, the Italian horror film – apart from its own creation the giallo – never really had an original idea; however, their identity – the way these filmmakers went about making these films – was distinct. And thanks to DVD, there's a resurgence in the subgenre's popularity. Italian horror fans are an avid cult, and now that we're able to see these films unedited, the way they were meant to be seen (sometimes for the first time since their release), that enthusiasm for the subgenre is only growing. There always seems to be something to discover each and ever year I do this (last year it was the aforementioned The Perfume of the Lady in Black and the year before that it was The House with the Laughing Windows, now two of my favorite Italian horror films), something new to learn about, and that is the most exciting thing about this project. I hope you'll join in next Thursday.
Giallo: Usually sexually-charged thrillers; violent; misogynistic, baroque at times (Bava) but more interested in the “whodunit” elements of the plot; a more matter-of-fact approach to its narrative than later-era Italian horror; stories that tried to make sense and threw all kinds of red herrings at the viewer to try and confuse and then shock when they reveal the killer; Gialli have long titles that are often the most interesting thing about them; a mix between police procedural and exploitation film.