My Descent Into Horror, Part 3: Terror from Italy

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| July 23, 2022

Branching out into new areas of your passion can be a wild experience. That was me in my sophomore year of high school. After becoming acquainted with the Alien movies, I searched for other alternatives. One day, I came across a list from a television miniseries called The 100 Scariest Movie Moments. Fun fact: the Chestburster scene from Alien came in at #2. Some of the films on that list intrigued me, especially those from Italy. In my mind, I made a note to try some of those movies.

The first Italian horror flick I ever saw was Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, or, in its native country, Zombi 2. It presented itself as a sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, called Zombi in Italy. The story focuses on a woman (Tisa Farrow) who investigates her father’s disappearance on a Caribbean island. What she doesn’t know, though, is that the island is in the middle of an undead epidemic.

I first found an online commentary about Zombie and decided to watch it not long after. The film immediately stunned me due to the extreme levels of graphic violence. One infamous scene involving a splinter manages to shock even to this day. Heck, I even had a barf bag nearby if things got bad. Still, my reaction to Zombie prompted me to search for other Italian horror movies.

Zombie head emerging from the ground in the film Zombie
This is me when I wake up in the morning. (Variety Film)

Next, I checked out Suspiria, directed by Dario Argento. Its plot follows an American ballet student named Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), who travels to Germany to attend a prestigious dance academy. She soon discovers that the school is something far more sinister.

If I could best describe Suspiria in three words, it would be “fairytale gone awry.” Virtually every shot has some of the best visuals ever committed to film. They make you feel like you are in another world, trying to figure out how to escape the madness surrounding you. Even the grisly death scenes have a distinct style to them.

Overall, Suspiria is one of those movies you must see to believe.

Looking up at a colorful stained glass skylight with geometric patterns
Plus, after seeing Suspiria, you’ll never look at skylights the same way again. (Seda Spettacoli)

After a few months, I discovered a whole subgenre of Italian terror: giallo films (pronounced “jee-all-oh”). You may be wondering, “what does giallo mean?” As a word, it means “yellow” in Italian. As a genre, it refers to Italian murder mysteries. The term came about with the release of paperback novels with yellow covers back in the 1930s. They did not cost a lot, and anyone could purchase one. In the 60s and 70s, giallo films began to achieve global prominence. Without them, we probably would not have the slasher movies we have today.

One of the first gialli I saw was Tenebrae (meaning “shadows” or “darkness” in Italian). Also directed by Dario Argento, this shocker follows an American author (Anthony Franciosa) who gets stalked by a serial killer in Rome. This killer has been inspired to kill because of the writer’s books. 

What follows is one of the most brazen murder mysteries ever made. Thanks to Argento’s writing and direction, Tenebrae has become a quintessential giallo flick. The death sequences are unforgettable, especially this one scene that got censored for years worldwide. More importantly, it made me interested in murder mysteries.

Person's surprised face looking through a hole in a white sheet with text reading "Tenebrae, a Dario Argento Film"
(Sigma Cinematografica)

Then again, not everything can be a certified classic. When I was about nine, I came across the “masterpiece” that is Troll 2. Mom and I had finished watching the first Troll, a pretty standard 80s fantasy epic. What came after was baffling.

The acting in Troll 2 looked like it came right out of a high school play. We looked at each other with “WTF are we watching?” faces. Mom then shut off the movie about ten minutes later.

Years after watching, I began to discover Troll 2’s cult following. It turns out that some people hold a deep appreciation for this beautiful trainwreck. The documentary Best Worst Movie explains it better than I could, and it’s definitely a must-watch for cult film lovers. 

Man with glasses looking upward, mouth agape with surprise, text reading "Oh my God!"
How ironic that this scene from the movie captures many first-time viewers of Troll 2. (Filmirage)

Come to think of it, even the worst of Italian horror cinema has some charm to it. There is no “so bad it’s bad,” only “so bad it’s good.” One of my favorites is a film called Burial Ground, or Le notti di terrore (The Nights of Terror). It’s about a mansion that gets infested by a zombie horde. The visual effects are cheesy, and the acting is even cheesier. But what steals the show is a scene near the end involving something a son should never do to his mother. If I were to describe it, I would most likely get banned from the internet, so you’ll have to check it out yourself!

I have barely scratched the surface of Italian horror cinema. Other movies out there are just as good, if not better. Years after my introduction, I had the urge to create some of my horror stories. More on that is coming up in part 4.

In the meantime, have you ever seen a horror movie from Italy? Comment below to share the Italian scream-fests that you’ve loved and loathed.

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