Written by: Daniel Margolis
From the 1960s through the very 1990s, horrorhounds looked to Italy for fare that was either new and innovative, or that pushed the limits beyond anything Hollywood would touch. During this period, dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of horror films were produced across a whole spectrum of horror’s varied subgenres. Some directors, most especially Mario Bava and Dario Argento, became known for their innovative work and style; others, much more prolific, were noted for the sleaze factor of their films; some directors, despite creating a variety of offerings across genres became known for their work in a particular niche of horror; while others simply made a single movie and left the scene.
Given the wide variety of subgenres that Italian horror covered, and sometimes even created, a “best Italian horror movies” list that chronicled simply the highest quality movies would leave a lot out: films by Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Lucio Fulci, with perhaps a couple other directors, would crowd out everything else, and even their work wouldn’t be given its due. Any Top 12 list, then, has to be weighted to include something from at least most of the areas Italian film rose (or sank) to. With that said, below, in order of appearance, are the best Italian horror movies, i.e. most important and most representative, films to come out of Italy during its horror boom. Some are art, some are trash; some are nihilistic, and some are, beneath the surface, messages of hope.
1. Black Sabbath (1963)
The director of Black Sabbath is Mario Bava, the father of Italian horror cinema (and literally the father of director Lamberto Bava). Known for giallo (see the next entry) and gothic and period horror, this film, an anthology of three stories, has early elements of both, as well as supernatural elements that would be important in some of the director’s later films.
Black Sabbath was hugely influential in Italian cinema, as well as culture in general. The band Black Sabbath took their name after seeing the movie, while Quentin Tarrantino and others have cited this as a major influence on their work. Beyond that, the film featured Boris Karloff, providing a link between some of the earliest American horror films and the Italian horror wave that was soon to follow.
2. Blood and Black Lace (1964, a.k.a. Six Women for the Murderer)
Mavio Bava directed this, and, if it is not the first giallo, it is probably the best, and certainly the most influential, as it set the tone for most gialli (the plural of “giallo”) to follow. This subgenre, rooted in horror, drew heavily from the mystery genre. Typically, each giallo had a murderer, who wore black gloves and whose identity wasn’t revealed until the very end, a series of mysterious murders, and a main character who had to work out why people around him were being butchered.
Black Lace, which centers around murders in the fashion industry and a stolen diary, is a very nice looking film, and not solely because of the good looks of many of the characters. Bava was highly competent, and he paid attention to every detail of the film’s look, a trait that would be picked up later on by Dario Argento. Numerous filmmakers claim to have been influenced by this film and it can be argued that the American slasher genre would not have appeared without it (see Bay of Blood below).
3. Bay of Blood (1971, a.k.a. Twitch of the Death Nerve, Carnage)
Ah, the slasher film. What could be more American? Nothing, but just like hamburgers and hot dogs, whose roots lie in Europe, the slasher film can trace its lineage there as well, specifically from Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood. Bava, known for his atmospheric gothic horror, also directed this, which took place in then-present-day Italy, and involves a family blood feud over the inheritance of a house by the titular bay.
In many ways, this is a giallo, but many of the elements of that genre are toyed with, and the movie is transitional in that its killings became bloodier, including on in which a character gets whacked in the face with a machete (sound familiar?). Notably, the well-known killing-of-two-lovers-with-one-spear in Friday the 13th Part 2 is lifted directly from this movie.
4. Deep Red (1975, a.k.a. Deep Red: The Hatchet Murders)
In any list of Italian horror films – or, indeed, any list of Italian films at all – there has to be something from Dario Argento, one of the most truly innovative and stylish filmmakers in the genre (though the quality of his work went into serious decline starting in the 1990s). Innovative gore effects; incredible, acrobatic camera work; and the soundtrack perfectly matched to the film were all hallmarks of Argento’s work. Pretty much anything he made in the 70s or 80s could be on this list.
Deep Red is significant in that it acts as a sort of bridge between two periods in Argento’s work. His prior (significant) films were all high quality and stylish, but relatively standard giallos. His work directly after this film were incredibly surreal films with wild color schemes and, very often, supernatural elements. Deep Red, though, has all the trappings of the giallo (mystery, black-gloved murder, etc.), but it incorporates a rock soundtrack (by frequent Argento collaborators Goblin), trippy sequences (especially a scene in which the killer, wearing the black gloves, caresses fetishized objects, all to organ-infused rock music. Like other scenes in this and later films, it really shouldn’t work, except that Argento somehow pulls it off.
5. Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
This isn’t considered a horror film generally, but it certainly should be. Pier Paolo Pasolini, the famed arthouse director, took a notorious work by de Sade, but set it in the town of Salo, in fascist Italy. The plot isn’t particularly thick: a group of fascists capture young men and women, and force them to perform horrific acts of sex and violence upon each other.
Widely discussed and often reviled, Salo is the hardest film on this list to sit through (with the exception of Cannibal Holocaust). While many of the other films far exceed this in gore, the sheer perversity, the knowledge that things like this very well did happen in fascist Italy, and the unflinchingly dark atmosphere of the film make viewing it a struggle. Yet it should be watched: this is Pasolini’s statement warning of the horrors that real humans can produce when given unfettered power. It was also the last film of Pasolini, who was murdered shortly after.
6. Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977, a.k.a. Trap Them and Kill Them)
Before combining cannibals with zombies, someone decided that they should be combined with sex – not the sexual violence that pervaded the whole subgenre, but good, old-fashioned softcore film sex. That person was Joe D’Amato, whose wide-ranging career brought him fame for horror and exploitation, as well as porn-horror, such as Erotic Nights of the Living Dead).
D’Amato, who had made previously a number of films in the Black Emanuelle sexploitation series, brought Laura Gemser back into that role to take a trip into the cannibal-filled jungle, where she, as could be expected, has a lot of sex and runs from cannibals.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
The cannibal film subgenre emerged in Italy in 1972 with Umberto Lenzi’s Man From Deep River, and focused on graphic gore, sexual violence, and offered featured (unfortunately) real-life cruelty toward animals. To say the least, these films were sleazy, and were criticized for racism. Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, which bears all of these marks, and is perhaps the most notorious of them (the film’s violence was reportedly so realistic that Deodato is said to have been threatened with imprisoned until he could show that all of the actors were still alive), and it is the most well made.
Holocaust follows a group who go into the Amazon jungle to find filmmakers who disappeared shooting a mondo-style documentary. They find that the filmmakers have been killed, but return with their films, which they develop and screen. Given that the rest of the movie is primarily composed of the footage and that its sickening realism comes mainly from its documentary style, Holocaust is arguably the first found footage movie ever made, nearly two decades before 1999’s Blair Witch Project.
8. Zombie Holocaust (1980, a.k.a. Dr. Butcher, M.D.)
We’ve covered Italy’s cannibal movies and Italy’s zombie movies, so it’s only fitting that this movie makes the list. The producers obviously thought that combining the subgenres would produce something brilliant, or at least some profits, so they created this film, which allegedly caused riots on 42nd Street, then known for its porn theaters and grindhouses. The movie follows an anthropologist and his team who go to the jungle in order to solve a string of murders in New York.
What you’ll actually see when you watch this movie depends on the version you find. The original film was bought by Aquarius, the legendary 42nd Street film distributors, who added an alternate opening scene (from the unreleased and unfinished film Tales to Rip Your Heart Out), substituted in an entirely different musical score, and gave the film its “Butcher” title. (The company also dressed up a bus, creating the “Butchermobile,” which was driven around NYC for advertising purposes). You can compare versions, though, as Severin is about to release both versions on DVD and Blu-ray later in the month.
9. The Beyond (1981, a.k.a. Seven Doors of Death)
Zombie films have been around since nearly the dawn of film, but they took on new life in Italian horror, which contributed much to the subgenre. After Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was released in Italy as “Zombi”, director Lucio Fulci created what was to be a knockoff, Zombi II (released as Zombie in the U.S. and Zombie Flesh Eaters in the UK). That film gained popularity for zombies, and for Fulci himself, who went on to become a staple in the Italian horror industry. While that film was notable (including for a graphic splinter-pushed-into-the-eye sequence) and it spawned a wave of zombie movies across Europe, it didn’t reach the heights of the director’s subsequent zombie offerings, which included The Beyond.
This film concerns a woman who inherits a hotel. Unfortunately for her, said hotel contains a door to the land of the dead. Despite warnings from the locals, the woman opens the hotel, and the door itself gets opened. This film is gory but also surreal, and the its final moments are some of the eeriest in the zombie subgenre.
10. Demons (1985)
As noted above, Mario was not the only member of the Bava family to direct horror. While Lambero, his son, did not produce the films in the same quantity, or of the same quality, as his father, he made a few that stood out, including Demons, which was ubiquitous in the horror sections of 1980s video stores.
While the plot made little sense, it was an atmospheric and scary film (despite some silly dubbing). A theater full of people who had been given free passes watch a documentary about demons, and become demons themselves after some sort of contagion, spread when a patron of the theater pricks herself trying on a mask in the lobby. The movie sports a fun 1980s soundtrack, and, given its popularity, numerous films billed themselves as sequels (including Cemetery Man, which is completely unrelated except that its director was an actor in Demons).
11. Phenomena (1985, a.ka. Creepers)
This movie is far from Argento’s best, but it deserves a spot on the list for being both (relatively) popular in the United States, thus introducing many kids of the 80s to foreign horror, as well as for just how incredibly weird this movie’s plot is. Italy’s horror industry produced a plethora of, shall we say, eccentricities in film, and Phenomena is emblematic of that.
The plot is insane. It features a young girl (Jennifer Connolly, in her second film appearance), the daughter of a celebrity who enrolls in a private boarding school. Her classmates pick on her, mostly because she is not very shy in letting people know about her power to read the minds of and control insects. She befriends a man (Donald Pleasance) who has a pet monkey… You can see how strange the film is. There’s more to it than that, but to reveal anymore would result in spoilers.
12. Cemetery Man (1994, a.k.a. Dellamorte Dellamore)
By 1994, the Italian film horror explosion had pretty much petered itself out. Dario Argeno’s career was in decline, Lucio Fulci’s best work was behind him, and others had moved on to different genres. Even Michele Soavi, who directed this horror/comedy was about to move on making television films. While movies fall within the genre continue to be made off and on, this was essentially the horror movement in Italy’s swan song – at least for now.
The film centers on Francesco Dellamorte, who works at a town cemetery with his mentally handicapped assistant. As one who’s seen a few Italian horrors might expect, the dead begin to rise, and, as anyone who is acquainted with Italian politics might expect, the local government is not much help. Dellamorte, who falls in love with the unhelpful mayor’s daughter, first when she’s alive and still when she’s a zombie), has to deal with the zombie troubles himself.
The film seems to look back at the past couple of decades’ worth of Italian horror films, notes their more ridiculous excesses – and laughs.
Obviously, there are a huge number of movies that could have been included. For example, nothing here is listed from Umberto Lenzi’s work. The choices were hard, and as we mentioned above, this list is far from complete. What did we miss?