What are Giallo films? This Italian term might be familiar yet mysterious to horror fans, or it might be completely unfamiliar to you. Whichever the case may be, you will leave here with a thorough grasp of the in’s and out’s of the Giallo genre. This is one film genre that can be a little tricky to pin down as there is some disagreement over the exact specifications of what constitutes a Giallo film, so we’ll cover the matter from all angles. We’ll get started with a definition, then take a look at the roots of the genre, examine what the hallmarks of a Giallo film are, and finally, we’ll wrap things up with some recommendations for Giallo movies to check out.
Defining the Giallo genre
The Giallo genre is one of dozens of genres and sub-genres that should be on your radar as a filmmaker or cinephile. If you are unclear on any other genres, you can count on our ultimate guide to movie genres to fill in any gaps.
What are Giallo films?
A Giallo film is a stylish and violent crime thriller hailing from Italy. The gore, creepy visuals, and similarities to slashers often associated with the Giallo genre lend strong connective tissue to the horror genre. Also, the crime and murder-mystery plot elements found across the genre keep Gialli grounded in the whodunits of the thriller genre. When horror supersedes the mystery elements, Gialli are often called Italian slashers, rather than Italian crime-thrillers.
There is some disagreement over the classification of individual films as Giallo and the exact specifications are not set in stone. A Giallo film is determined as much by a feeling or vibe as much as it is by the concrete elements of a film. Italian horror films from the height of the genre often get erroneously lumped in with Gialli despite not meeting the other criteria.
The Giallo film genre was born in the 1960s and had its heyday in the 1970s. Though the prevalence of the genre has significantly declined since the '70s, it exists today, often through homages, throwbacks, and revivals.
Characteristics of a Giallo film:
- Stylish and violent crime thrillers
- Intrinsically linked to Italy
- Born in the '60s and thrived in the '70s
Giallo horror films
The origins of Giallo
As previously mentioned, the Giallo film genre took birth in the 1960s. However, the origins of the genre, including its namesake, come from much earlier. The word “giallo” means “yellow” in Italian, but the genre doesn’t take its name from the color alone but rather an association the color holds in Italy.
A long-running series of pulp crime-mystery novels known as Il Giallo Mondadori, named such for their bright yellow covers and the name of the publisher behind them, directly led to the birth of the Giallo film genre.
The first in this pulp book series was published in 1929, and offshoots of the series are still being published to this day. Much inspiration was pulled from the noir genre and many of the best American film noirs moving forward.
There is some debate over what the first true Giallo film was, though most agree that it was Mario Bava’s 1963 film The Girl Who Knew Too Much. Many of the pulp novels that led to the film genre were translations and adaptations of English-language books.
So, the first Giallo film pulling direct inspiration from one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films, The Man Who Knew Too Much, is perfectly fitting.
Italian giallo films
What makes a Giallo film?
Since the exact requirements of this genre can be a bit tricky to pin down, how can we tell if a film is a Giallo or not? It’s helpful to look for a similar mood and tone amongst Giallo films. But the genre is one with many clear trademarks.
A film doesn’t need to hit all of these specifics to qualify, but including a number of these elements contributes to the overall feel of a Giallo film. Let’s stick with a single Giallo film, Dario Argento’s Deep Red (aka Profondo Rosso), as a point of reference as we breakdown common trademarks. There will be some spoilers in the videos included below, so skip the videos if you want to experience Deep Red with the mystery intact.
Best giallo films
Murder mystery plots & graphic violence
Like many of the best thrillers, Gialli revolve around whodunit plots. Additionally, the protagonists are often everyday people endeavoring amateur detective work rather than trained investigative professionals.
One distinction that sets Gialli apart and lands them a little closer to the stylings of horror films is the brutality and intricacy of the murders.
This brutal and creative death scene from Deep Red is quintessential Giallo. Gialli often revel in the blood and gore of murderous machinations.
Italian giallo films
Beautiful female victims
The victims in Gialli are more often than not beautiful women. The genre typically features a focus on beauty and sexuality alongside the murder and mayhem. This is a little less explicit in our marquee example, Deep Red, but prevalent in other films throughout the genre.
This focus on female victims is one of a handful of traits the Giallo genre shares with the slasher genre. This is the biggest reason why Gialli are sometimes categorized as Italian slashers.
Greatest giallo films
Black-gloved killers & POV murders
Gialli often hit one or both of these trademarks. First, the murders are typically shown from the point-of-view of the killer. Second, all we see of the killers are black glove-clad hands clutching whatever their implement of death may be. Both trademarks are stylistic staples of the genre and tactics for keeping the killer’s identity a mystery without missing out on any of the gory fun.
Top giallo films
To avoid too much repetition, we’ll save most of the film titles for our recommendations coming in the next section. But rest assured that unorthodox, evocative, and sometimes outright bizarre titles were the norm for Giallo movies.
Gialli were also notorious for being released under several different titles.
Kill Baby… Kill!, Don’t Walk in the Park, Operation Fear, Curse of the Living Dead, The Cycle of Dread, Curse House, Death From the Afterlife, and The Dead Eyes of Dr. Dracula were all alternate titles for the SAME film.
And, in case you were wondering, the film has nothing to do with Dracula or the living dead. Gialli titles frequently had little-to-nothing to do with the actual content of the film.
Best giallo films
An emphasis on style & music
This is the most nebulous of our Giallo trademarks but also one of the most important. A Giallo film is often a you know it when you see it kind of thing because of this emphasis on stylish visuals with bright colors and cool music.
This could range from intricately orchestrated original scores to amped up prog rock played by artists like Ennio Morricone and Goblin respectively.
The music in Italian thrillers and horror films of this era often sounded unlike the thrillers and horror films from anywhere else. It might seem a bit out of place when jumping into your first Giallo film, but these soundtracks and stylistic flourishes are a big part of why '70s Gialli have such a dedicated fan base to this day. Giallo fans are likely to rank Goblin’s soundtracks amongst the best original scores of all time and the best horror soundtracks ever.
Here we see the stylized visuals, cool music, and even the ubiquitous black gloves on full display in Deep Red.
And finally, there is one important ingredient that must NOT be present in order for a film to qualify as a Giallo.
Giallo horror films
There can be NO supernatural element
There are some Gialli and borderline-Gialli that flirt with the boundaries of this rule. However, for the most part, this is a firm restriction when classifying films in the Giallo genre. A Giallo film might appear to have supernatural forces at play, but it is always revealed that a human villain is behind all of the murder and mayhem.
This rule is one of the reasons why many Italian horror films of the '60s and '70s are not true Giallo movies despite sometimes being categorized as such. Dario Argento’s own Suspiria is one such Italian horror film that is often mislabeled as a Giallo film despite decidedly not fitting into the mold.
Giallo films list
Giallo film examples
Outside of the Deep Red example we showcased in the previous section, there are plenty of other great examples worth checking out. Let’s take a quick look at some of the best Giallo films.
If you want to go all the way back to the roots of the genre, there’s no better place to start than with the genre progenitor: The Girl Who Knew Too Much.
The man widely credited with establishing the genre, Mario Bava, also directed a number of other Gialli films. Blood and Black Lace and A Bay of Blood are two more Mario Bava standouts in the genre.
Dario Argento, director of the aforementioned Deep Red, is often considered responsible for rocketing the genre to major prominence in the '70s. Not all of his films fit the Giallo mold, but many of them did.
The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, The Cat o’ Nine Tails, and Four Flies on Grey Velvet were three Argento Giallo movies that collectively make up what is known as the Animal Trilogy.
For the absolute wildest titles the Giallo genre has to offer, look no further than Death Laid an Egg, The House With Laughing Windows, Strip Nude for Your Killer, and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key.
Though the Giallo genre mostly faded away after the end of the 1970s, there are a handful of modern filmmakers working to keep the Giallo spirit alive. For one, the folks at Astron 6 with The Editor.
Other modern Giallo films like The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears bring back both the Giallo stylings and the genre’s penchant for wild, evocative titles. Though they may be in limited supply in the modern age, Giallo films still find life from time to time in the hands of filmmakers who love and respect the genre classics of the '60s and '70s.
The Best Horror Movie Soundtracks
That was our breakdown and introduction to the world of Giallo films. As we covered, Giallo films often place an emphasis on the soundtrack. The Giallo genre and the broader horror genre have contributed many incredible soundtracks over the years. Check out our rundown of the horror movie soundtracks ever composed or compiled, coming up next.