From atmospheres as thick as tarmac, to effortless blending of the serene and the outright disturbing, the 1970s and 80s Italian horror scene brought us a high level of unusual and genuinely thoughtful movies…
1970s & 80s Italian horror: brutal and forward-thinking
From the violent and intriguing ‘Giallos’ of the 70s, and the overdriven violence of the 80s, Italian filmmakers are responsible for some of the most brutal and forward-thinking flicks of the horror/thriller movie landscape. They represent some of the best horror movies of the age.
Whilst today it is perhaps easy to overlook some of these titles in favour of their American counterparts, or even modern horror like The Conjuring (2013) and its universe, it is worth knowing that even some of the most notorious 1970s Italian horror films of the period deliver more than just shock value for the sake of it.
Be warned: these are absolutely not suitable for the whippersnappers.
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A Bay of Blood (1971) – Mario Bava
Set in a rural bay flanked by a vast forest, Bava’s film for the most part forgoes the typical haunted manor aesthetic in favour of something much more scenic.
Giallo movies: crime and mystery
A Bay of Blood (1971) is, at its core, a ‘Giallo’ movie. ‘Giallo’, (literally Italian for ‘yellow’), is vernacular for crime and mystery dramas. The term was coined from the abundance of such books – usually clad in a yellow cover – available in Italy at the time.
Cinematically, however, the cruelty was ramped up to a level never before seen by audiences; carving it into something considered distinctly Italian.
If The Beyond (1981) is a horror movie assault, then Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is a massacre.
Right from the start we are treated to some beautiful cinematography, highlighting a still, dark ambience; one disturbed only by the presence of an old lady in a wheelchair making her way through her stately home. It doesn’t take long for the ‘anything goes’ approach, a trademark of ‘Giallo’ film, to kick in.
The crimes start to compound in a way that keeps you firmly attentive. The film manages to give you everything, and then snatches it away again before a word of dialogue is even uttered.
A slow-burn Slasher movie
However, don’t assume this is a fast-paced movie. Despite its gripping intro, it is undoubtedly a slow-burn compared to established Slashers – with a lot of the violence occurring towards the tail end of the film.
Still, it is a clear historical step towards the Slasher phenomenon, having an emphasis on body count, and boasting some extremely memorable kills, all whilst still maintaining the complexities of both the killer and their crimes.
This is a trait often favoured by the more detective-centric side of Giallo. It’s a great stepping stone for fans of Jason from Friday the 13th (1980) and Freddie from Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) who want to dip their toes into the world of Italian crime-horror.
The Beyond (1981) – Lucio Fulci
On the surface we appear to have a tried and true ‘woman inherits a haunted hotel, finds creepy relic, chaos ensues’ flick, but the facade of relative normalcy is quickly broken within the first few minutes of actually watching it.
Gory details: Fulci almost ended up in jail!
One thing you should know about Lucio Fulci is that he is, above all other directors in this field, known for his propensity towards extreme gore.
Fulci actually came under serious legal fire after the release of A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), where he was forced to prove in court that the effects in certain scenes were just that: effects. He was only saved from a potential 2 year jail sentence at the last minute by effect designer Carlo Rambaldi demonstrating said effects to a jury.
His trademark explicitness is at full throttle here with plenty of pus-spewing, eye-gouging goodness on offer… but it’s not all just blood and guts.
Tension: a sense of neverending dread
Cut with equal measures of ominous and oppressive tension, the closest thing you’ll get to a semblance of relief, The Beyond (1981) manages to conjure a relentless sense of dread throughout.
One of the ballsiest endings you’ll likely ever come across
More-so, something about the film simply feels just… off. Terrible things just happen to people. Sequences don’t quite make sense. It feels somewhat like you’re being led down a dilapidated hallway. As you go by each room, you are forced to look in and observe an extreme act of cruelty.
An experimental horror movie?
With that in mind, The Beyond (1981) could certainly be considered an experimental horror, and it should really be approached as such.
It is, I would argue, an attempt to capture dream logic; that strange jumble of places and faces you enter whilst asleep. It makes no sense in real terms – it jumps from place to place, being random and chaotic. That is the very nature of The Beyond (1981): an attempt to capture a pure nightmare on film, never quite knowing what madness is coming next.
Fulci’s masterpiece is a total assault of violence and dread, all whisked up and presented in a floaty, dreamlike structure. It’s gritty, illogical, and yet totally lucid; also being home to one of the ballsiest endings you’ll likely ever come across. Indeed, it’s one of the most visceral experiments ever attempted with the genre, and it will linger with you long after the credits roll.
Inferno (1980) – Dario Argento
If Lucio Fulci’s cinematic style can be summed up as gritty and riddled with maggots, then Dario Argento is the antithesis of that.
Why is a film light on plot even on this list?
Whilst relatively strong in the mystery department, the film is perhaps somewhat light on its core plot creativity. You may be wondering, then, what makes Inferno (1980) stand out, when horror films lacking in the story department are a dime-a-dozen.
It’s pristine. It’s stylish. It’s oozing with aesthetics. Inferno (1980) is without question one of the finest looking horrors ever committed to tape, toppled only perhaps by Suspiria (1977) – another Argento classic.
Dario Argento’s films are a sight to behold, and Inferno (1980) looks amazing. Every shot expounds care and precision – from the use of rich, colourful lighting to the grandiose and highly contrasting sets. It’s like watching a Wes Anderson film on steroids, but with witches and disembodied murderers cutting their way through the night.
A beautifully realised and ambitious soundtrack
This is not your typical dimly lit, grungy horror film in a dilapidated old house, working as it does against all the established parameters and wisdom of the genre.
To add to this, the score written by Keith Emerson explodes with complex and energetically sinister melodies, as well as flurries of beautiful piano lines which drift into detuned chaos as a young lady investigates a dark basement. A driving organ rings out as a secret space between two floors is discovered. In a landscape where horror films, especially today, tend only to make use of drones and stabs, it is refreshing to watch something with a soundtrack so ambitious.
It’s like watching a Wes Anderson film on steroids
Style over substance
All of these components boil down to deliver an experience quite unique to the genre, and it dances between suspense and pure vibrance beautifully. You might find yourself paying more attention to the sets and cinematography over the characters at times, but overall Inferno (1980) is, at its core, a highly competent supernatural thriller movie.
It is delightfully sinister when it needs to be, with plenty of shocking and heart-racing moments – certainly enough to give it a broad appeal outside of the arthouse crowd. Inferno (1980) is by far the most refined and fresh-looking film on this list, certainly a must see for those who value real aesthetic creativity as well as a solid supernatural Giallo theme.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980) – Ruggero Deodato
Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is far and away the most controversial, and yet genuinely compelling, film on this list. Its contents are brutal and unflinching, but the story keeps your attention firmly held. It is also the only film discussed here that I would recommend people seek out the cut version of.
Ruggero Deodato’s infamous work is truly not a film for those with weak stomachs.
Live animal slayings: highly controversial
Things were different back in 1980 regarding what you could get away with in cinema; the uncensored cut of this film notoriously featuring footage of live animal slayings. Whilst presented in the context of survival and native cultural situations for the most part, it goes without saying that it’s a bridge too far for most.
The cut version in all other aspects is intact, so don’t worry, it’ll still push all of your anxiety buttons.
Just another sleazy, grimy sick flick from the 80s?
Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is truly so much more than just another gratuitous ‘sick flick’ alongside its contemporaries. It is in fact as potent narratively as it is visually – if not more so – with an exceptionally introspective nature.
We start with a helicopter shot of the expansive Amazon; the main musical theme plays, one which wouldn’t sound out of place in a wholesome sitcom about the joys of rural life – almost serene.
Plunged into the ‘green inferno’
Four filmmakers have gone missing in the rainforest. Plucked from New York, Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman), a Professor of Anthropology is tasked with plunging into the ‘green inferno’ to rescue them – having to navigate a thick web of traps, animals and hostile natives along the way.
As he presses deeper into indigenous territory, the true nature of the natives and their motives begins to unravel, leading to some very unexpected discoveries. The themes are visceral and extreme, and the camera does not shy away from any of it. If The Beyond (1981) is a horror movie assault, then Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is a massacre.
It is well constructed, acted and presented. If you can stand the gore and obscene degeneracy, you will find one of the most interesting and captivating stories ever told in horror cinema, and one that will likely keep you thinking about it long after viewing.
Style and substance: a rare combination in horror
It is all too rare to find a film that merges extreme imagery in such a way that it doesn’t totally eclipse the story, but here both aspects are so strong and integral that one simply could not exist without the other in any meaningful way.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is not for everyone, not by a long shot.
If you can engage with it, however, you will find a film that, at its core, asks hard questions about its own medium before fading to black and leaving you with nothing but your own reflection.
Artwork: Richard Williams
Special thanks and images sourced by: Ben Kelly
Image source: IMDb. Images used in line with UK government guidance on Fair Dealing for works of criticism, review or quotation. No copyright infringement is intended.
Writer and Grindhouse enthusiast. Practical effects make the world go round.