15 Essential Films For An Introduction to Italian Giallo Movies

While Giallo means yellow, the giallo movies are colored in blood red. As known to every cinephile around the world, giallo is a 20th century Italian genre of literature and cinema which is so close to crime and mystery. However, the stylistic feature of such Italian works of giallo are so different and distinguished that nowadays giallo is remembered not by the yellow-covered paperback crime book of Aghata Christie, Edgar Wallace and Raymond Chandler published in Italy, but by an array of movies directed by filmmakers like Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Sergio Martino, Pupi Avati and many more.

Giallo movies are remembered by their beautiful female leads such as Edwige Fench, Barbara Bach, Daria Nicolodi, Barbara Bouchet, Suzy Kendall, Ida Galli and Anita Strindberg. Movies with annoying shocking music, disguised and masked murderers, sharp knives and sex maniacs in the shadows. Giallo movies came into existence in the 1960s, bloomed in the 1970s and declined in the 1980s. Yet its influence can be seen in today’s cinema; while Wes Craven, John Carpenter and Eli Roth kept it alive in the US, Dario Argento and Pupi Avati continued making giallo movies till today (Avati’s new movie with Sharon Stone as the lead character will be released in the near future).

Giallo movies with all their pitfalls (sometime nonsensical plot lines and often stupid characters and predictable end twists) is still alive; recent movies by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani (Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears) and Peter Strickland (Berberian Sound Studio) shows how healthy and updated giallo cinema is and what a wonderful premises it creates for young filmmakers who make visually stunning films.

The 15 giallo movies listed here are by no means the best giallo movies of all time; they are movies that give you a holistic knowledge about giallo movies, its strengths and weaknesses. We chose almost all the movies from 1970s; since this is the decade that giallo reined the world. So, read this list as the introduction to giallo movies and enjoy it.


1. Blood and Black Lace (1964)

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

Plot: Isabella (Francesca Ungaro), one of the many beautiful models employed at a fashion house is violently killed by an assailant wearing a featureless white mask. Police starts investigating the murder, when Isabella’s diary is found, everyone in the gallery become nervous, they all have forbidding secrets.

What is so important about the movie: Blood and Black Lace (Italian: Sei donne per l’assassino; also known as Six Women for the Murderer) is simply the best giallo movie ever. Made in 1964 by Mario Bava, the movie was so influential that you can trace its impact on filmmakers like Dario Argento, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Wes Craven. Bava’s excessive use of color (which gives you the feeling of looking at paintings), contrast between light and shadow, beautiful and semi-naked girls as victims, ominous music and different plot twists helped to make Blood and Black Lace the touchstone of giallo movies.

Mario Bava made the movie after Black Sunday (1960) and Black Sabbath (1963) in the most fruitful period of his filmmaking career, the time when not only his movies were visually breathtaking, their plotlines were well thought and developed. Blood and Black Lace is famous for its stalk-and-kill sequences which are abundant with violence and blood and of course sex (for its time), many filmmakers repeated his style in near future in slasher movies like “Friday The 13th” series.


2. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Plot: Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is an American writer living in Rome with his model girlfriend Giulia (Suzy Kendall). He is suffering from writer’s block, and wants to go back to the U.S., but he witnesses an attempted murder. The Murder is a serial killer hunting young girls and Sam is determined to find out who the killer is.

What is so important about the movie: As the plot line shows, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italian: L’uccello dalle piume di cristallo) tells a simple and familiar story of a giallo movie. Made in 1970 and directed by Dario Argento, as his directorial debut, the film is without a doubt one of the best giallo movies ever made. Argento wrote the script with Fredric Brown’s novel The Screaming Mimi in mind. Not only the movie was a commercial success, it was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe award for best motion picture in 1971.

Though it is Argento’s first movie (he was a well-known screenwriter and co-wrote the story of Once Upon a Time in The West with Bernardo Bertolucci and Sergio Leone); he manged to thrill audience and critics with his debut. His elegant use of camerawork, light and shadows, colors and editing combining complicated and unpredictable plot line made The Bird with the Crystal Plumage one of the best examples of giallo and a reference for filmmakers to come. It was deservedly placed 272nd in Empire magazine’s “500 Greatest Movies of All Time” list.


3. Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970)

Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970)

Plot: A bored housewife Minou (Dagmar Lassander) is beguiled by a stranger who lures her into his chamber, makes love to her, takes nude photos of her and then starts blackmailing her.

What is so important about the movie: Le foto proibite di una signora per bene made in 1970 by Luciano Ercoli is not one of the best examples of giallo movies. However, the film has been cited as “defining Ercoli’s style”, featuring the recurring theme of “the nightmare of being threatened by one’s own sexual partner” and thus it is one of the early examples of “Sexually Charged Giallo” movies.

DVD Talk reviewer Glenn Erickson rated the film three-and-a-half stars out of five, writing that it “looks and sounds great, with attractive settings and cinematography. But its unconvincing sexual blackmail story isn’t engaging, and we keep watching mainly to find out if there are going to be any surprise”. Erikson is right, the blackmail plot does not make sense, but it is not important because you are dealing with a movie in which its female characters have time to change their clothes in each scene, no matter how frantic their situations are!


4. A Bay of Blood (1971)

Plot: Countess Federica (Isa Miranda) is attacked and strangled to death by her husband, Filippo Donati (Giovanni Nuvoletti) and then he is murdered himself. It is believed to be a suicide, the heirs show up as well as a group of young people on vacation and the killer is ready to kill all of them!

What is so important about the movie: Twitch of the Death Nerve (Italian: Ecologia del delitto, mostly known as Blood Bath, A Bay of Blood and Reazione a catena), is a 1971 Italian horror film directed by Mario Bava, it is one of his most violent, bloody and unfortunately nonsensical film. The film is full of killings and it is suitable only for hardcore giallo fans and historians who want to know about the roots of American slasher movies in the 1980s; movies like “Friday the 13th”, “Nightmare at Elm Streets”, the subsequent “Scream” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer”. The film sets model for future slasher movies: lots of nudity and topless girls plus machetes and blood flood.

In 2005, Total Film named Twitch of the Death Nerve one of the 50 greatest horror films of all time; but don’t take it seriously, just watch the movie for its profound nudity and blood.


5. A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)

Plot: Carol Hammond (Florinda Bolkan) is the daughter of a wealthy lawyer and politician. She dreams of killing her neighbor Julia and when Julia’s corpse is found, Carol becomes nervous, is she the killer?

What is so important about the movie: A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Italian: Una lucertola con la pelle di donna; released as Schizoid in the US) made in 1971 by Lucio Fulci is notorious for its sex scenes and orgies, maybe the most memorable one is the lesbian scene between Bolkan and Strindberg, two of the hottest actresses of the time. The movie is important as a giallo for its great use of a theme in giallo movies: driving a woman to madness.

Bolkan did her job greatly as Mrs. Hammond and there is another thing worth mentioning about the movie: fashion. Clothes and accessories were an essential part of giallo movies and in A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, it is rich with a la mode women. The movie is also important for its emphasis on psycho therapy and power of dreams, yes, the director knows two or three things about Freud!


6. The Case of The Scorpion’s Tail (1971)

The Case of The Scorpion's Tail (1971)

Plot: A widow inherits a small fortune after her husband’s death in a jet crash. She wants to run away with her lover, but she is murdered and the money is stolen. An insurance investigator gets involved in this mystery and tries to find the murderer who does not leave behind any traces.

What is so important about the movie: The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (Italian: La coda dello scorpione) made in 1971 by Sergio Martino, is a giallo movie in which a great sum of money plays a vital role. There are many giallo movies with a suitcase of money goes from one hand to another, only to make the pile of corpses higher. However, Martino’s film is memorable because it is beautifully directed and the suspense amplifies as the movie goes on. The movie is a timeless classic for its well developed mystery scenario by legendary Ernesto Gastaldi, unforgettable music by Ennio Morricone and Anita Strinberg in the leading role.


7. Short Night of the Glass Dolls (1971)

Plot: The corpse of reporter Gregory Moore (Jean Sorel) is found in a Prague plaza and brought to the local morgue. Gregory is however alive but no one notices it. He tries to remember how he is murdered and he has very limited time.

What is so important about the movie: Everything! Not only Short Night of the Glass Dolls is one of the best and most innovative giallo movies of 1970s, it is one of the best directorial debut giallo movies. Made by Aldo Lado in 1971, it features Ingmar Bergman’s muse, Ingrid Thulin as the mischievous female and Barbara Bach as the beautiful innocent girl. There is almost no gore in the movie and if the movie was made two decade earlier or later it would instantly be branded as a mystery classic with satanic undertones.

The movie is told from the memories of a dead man who is not dead and his memories are going to lead us to the forbidding truth. The Short Night of the Glass Dolls is Rosemary’s Baby without the devil’s child and its ending scene (the innocent girl being molested by nude Satanists) is a direct homage to Polanski’s masterpiece.

One will never forget Short Night of the Glass Dolls, because it deals with one of the most horrifying fears of man: to be considered dead while you are still alive and awake. The brutal ending shows Aldo is not a filmmaker who betrays his audience by cheap happy endings.