Defining the ‘giallo’

By Oliver Carter on April 18th, 2015

To celebrate Arrow Films’ recent Blu-Ray/DVD release of Blood and Black Lace (Mario Bava, 1964), which presents a newly struck 2k restoration of the seminal giallo from the original camera negative, Oliver Carter offers a brief, but by no means exhaustive, definition of the giallo film. This extract is taken from his monograph Making European Cult Cinema: Fan Enterprise in an Alternative Economy, forthcoming from Amsterdam University Press (N.B: this post contains links to trailers of films that some readers may find upsetting).

The giallo film was based on pulp crime novels that were popular in Italy during the Second World War.  They were often Italian translations of English books, authored by Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, published by a Milan-based company, Mondadori.  These novels had distinctive yellow front covers, hence the Italian term giallo which translates into English as ‘yellow’.  Their popularity would influence a number of Italian filmmakers and scriptwriters.  Though there is a certain amount of conjecture as to what is the first giallo, many such as Adrian Luther Smith (2000), consider it to be Mario Bava’s La ragazza che sapeva troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much, 1963): “Although there had been a number of Italian murder mysteries, The Girl Who Knew Too Much is generally regarded as the first thriller which typifies the term giallo as it uses plot elements from the popular crime novels with yellow covers and combines these with touches of horror” (45).  Inspired by the Agatha Christie novel The ABC MurdersLa ragazza che sapeva troppo tells of a young woman who travels to Italy to visit her sick Aunt.  While there, she witnesses a murder that is committed by a serial killer, eventually uncovering that this killer is murdering his victims in alphabetical order.  The Italian police do not believe her, as the body of the murdered woman cannot be found.  This film introduced a number of conventions that have been employed in the narratives of many gialli (plural of giallo) that followed its release: a foreigner who becomes a witness to a murder; the amateur sleuth; serial murder; incompetent Italian police and a complex narrative structure.  For many fans it is these generic elements that come to mind when attempting to define the giallo.

The giallo has a different meaning to Italian film audiences.  Gary Needham (2003) suggests that the Italian understanding of genre is different to the British and American interpretation of genre. Italians use the word ‘filone’, which can refer to both a genre and a cycle of films.  For example, in Italy, the label of giallo is a literary term applied to the genre of thriller novels.  To label this particular kind of cinema, an Italian would use the term Thrilling All’Italiana or Sexy Thrilling (Bruschini and Piselli, 2010).  Outside of Italy, from my experience as a giallo fan, many view the giallo as a distinct sub-genre belonging to the category of horror film.  The problems in defining the giallo are further highlighted by Mikel J Koven (2006), who differentiates between the giallo, poliziotto and giallo fantastico: “While the classical giallo features a serial killer clad in black gloves, hat, and overcoat being hunted by an amateur detective, the poliziotto puts the police investigation front and center in the investigation. Other gialli tend to focus on more private and interior settings, creating more of a suspense giallo. Still others, embracing the strong connection between the giallo and the horror film, offer a more supernatural narrative, the giallo fantastico” (15). I argue that this further complicates how the giallo is understood. I find this interpretation rather problematic, as many of the films labelled as gialli by non-Italians fall outside of the ‘typical’ conventions.  For example, though murder is a key ingredient of all gialli, serial murder is not common to all gialli.  There are a number of films labelled as gialli that focus on embezzlement, such as Il dolce corpo di Deborah  (The Sweet Body of Deborah, Romolo Guerrieri, 1968), Il posto ideale per uccidere (Dirty Pictures, Umberto Lenzi, 1971) and Paranoia (Umberto Lenzi, 1970), and others that are concerned with a woman’s descent into madness, Le orme (Fooprints, Luigi Bazzoni, 1975) and Il profumo della signora in nero (The Perfume of the Lady in Black, Francesco Barilli, 1974).  Therefore, attempting to apply the concept of genre to the giallo is somewhat problematic, sharing similarities with debates surrounding film noir (Silver, 1999).  With this in mind, when I refer to the giallo, I understand it as a cycle or a movement of film that has an identifiable style as opposed to a cohesive film genre that is defined, in part, by a particular set of narrative and character elements.

The giallo and serial murder

The serial killer is a common entity in American and British culture.  Mikel J Koven (2005) notes that whilst serial killing and serial murder does exist in Italy it is so uncommon that there is no actual equivalent Italian word for the term; it is considered very much an American phenomena.  Koven points to the term “il mostro” (the monster) as the one commonly used by Italians, such as in the infamous Il mostro di Firenze (The Monster of Florence) murders, when referring to serial murder (7).  The lack of an Italian word for ‘serial killer’ is surprising considering the large number of gialli that focus on serial murder.  The film of particular importance here is Mario Bava’s Sei done per l’assassino (Blood and Black Lace, 1964), arguably the most influential film in the giallo canon.  Luther Smith (2000) believes that Sei done per l’assassino “encapsulates the very essence of what most people define as giallo cinema” (11-12).

The film focuses on a series of murders committed by a masked killer who is trying to recover a diary containing scandalous information.  The killer is dressed head-to-toe in black; black overcoat, black leather gloves and black Trilby hat.  The faceless gauze mask hides the identity of the killer, a distinctive generic iconography that has become ever present in the American stalk and slash sub-genre, such as the mask worn by Michael Myers in the Halloween film series.  The film contains a number of notable murder set pieces where victims are stalked and ultimately murdered in lurid ways.  For example, one female victim is tortured and then has her face scalded on a hot stove while another has a spiked glove thrust into her face.  Though the scenes are not shown in the graphic detail, they set a ‘standard’ for a number of gialli that would be released after this film.  Many future gialli would have particularly graphic murder sequences, where attractive women, often in varying states of undress, would be stalked and eventually murdered in horrific ways.  This had led to many gialli, particularly the work of Dario Argento, being labelled as a misogynistic due to the graphic representations of female murder in his films (Hope, 2005).

As highlighted by Leon Hunt (2005), many murder sequences found in gialli are highly sexualised, demonstrating “hostility to the female body” (348).  Crotch stabbings feature in a number of gialli, such as L’assassino ha riservato nove poltrone (The Killer Reserved Nine Seats, Giuseppe Benati, 1974) and Giallo a Venezia (Thrilling in Venice, Mario Landi, 1979), and murder weapons are commonly fetishised; the camera paying attention to the phallic quality of knives (Guins, 1996).  In an oft-cited quote, Argento has said that he prefers to see women murdered on screen than men: “I like women, especially beautiful ones…if they have a good face and figure, I would much prefer to watch them being murdered than an ugly girl or man” (in Clover, 1992: 42).  In a macabre spin on the director cameo, popularised by Hitchcock, Argento is known for wearing the black gloves and assuming the role of the serial killer during many of the murder sequences in his films (Mendik, 2000).

Though gialli were low budgeted ‘B’ movies they have a particular visual style that conflicts with their “low budget” origins (Bondanella, 2003:419).  Bava would draw on his skills as a cinematographer to employ unusual lighting techniques and use primary colour filters in his films in order to “forge unforgettable images of visual poetry and narrative potency” (Jones, 1997: 58).  One of the murder sequences in Sei donne per l’assassino is shot using a variety of colour filters, adding an artistic, fantastical element to the brutal murder.  Argento is also renowned for his unique visual style that will often place viewers in the killer’s gaze or position audiences in the shoes of the investigator.  Raiford Guins (1996) has suggested that Argento will often punish the viewer, as well as aesthetically please them, with his use of creative camera angles and setups (148).  Like Bava, Argento also is known for his use of primary colours in his films, particularly the colour red.  Even some of the lesser-known and lower budgeted gialli will have similar creative touches in their use of camera angles and colour.  Many gialli, but especially those directed by Argento, explicitly reference psychoanalytic ideas in their narratives.  In Profondo Rosso (Deep Red, Dario Argento, 1975), for example, Freud’s primal scene is used to explain the motivations of the film’s serial murderer.  This might explain, in part, why the majority of academic enquiry into the giallo has focused on psychoanalytical readings of the work of giallo auteurs, such as Argento and Lucio Fulci (Mendik, 1996, 1998, 2001; Gallant, 2001).


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