The names of many noteworthy Italians fill the annals of history, men who changed civilization, the arts and sciences. People like Columbus, da Vinci, Galileo and Fellini. But it’s the other Italians that we're most interested in today, directors like Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, who incorporated distinctive themes, techniques and gallons of gore redder than Nonna’s tomato sauce in their classic horror pictures.
Every day this month we're bringing you a different Top 13 list from the world of horror. You can find them all here.
Black Sunday (1960)
In his first major gig, Italian director Mario Bava delivered one of the most significant Italian horror films of all time. The ethereally sexy Barbara Steele stars as a centuries-old witch who returns from her gruesome death (seen in the film’s still-shocking prologue) to slaughter the descendents of her killers. Shooting in atmospheric black-and-white, Bava fills Black Sunday with an eerie, dream-like ambiance. This innovative filmmaker influenced future directors on both sides of the Atlantic and enjoyed a long career in the fright field.
Castle of Blood (1964)
After Black Sunday, fans crowned British-born actress Steele the Queen of Horror, quite a feat in a male-dominated genre where the likes of Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and Christopher Lee ruled. In this spooky effort, co-directed by Antonio Margheriti (who replaced future Spaghetti Westerns helmer Sergio Carbucci on the film), a writer accepts a bet to spend the night in a haunted house, where the ghosts of past lovers pine for his blood. Castle’s cruel surprise ending still packs a jolt.
Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971)
After goosing the supernatural genre, Bava next helped birth the modern slasher film with this gory slayathon. In Twitch of the Death Nerve (gotta love that title!), Bava orchestrates 13 grisly deaths for 13 greedy heirs, all fighting and murdering over a valuable piece of real estate. Two highlights: a guy draws a machete in the face and a lovemaking duo gets impaled on a spear, kills duplicated respectively a decade later in the first two Friday the 13th movies. Absent: Bava’s wicked sense of humor.
Deep Red (1975)
An acolyte of Bava, Dario Argento forged his own career of movie mayhem, beginning with a run of gory giallo flicks (Italy’s trademark violent murder mystery subgenre) like this visceral winner. After a music teacher (David Hemmings of Gladiator) witnesses the horrifying death of a psychic woman, he teams with an eccentric reporter (Argento’s then-girlfriend/muse Daria Nicolodi) to investigate. More nasty slayings ensue—including a descending elevator decapitation that will make you take the stairs next time—all leading to a climax of bizarre revelations.
The House of the Laughing Windows (1975)
The Italian gialli reached even greater artistic heights with this rarely seen gem, co-written and directed by Pupi Avati. An art restorer (Lino Capolicchio) journeys to a far-off village to fix a morbid fresco created by a mysterious painter obsessed with mortality. Researching the dead man and his dark canon, the restorer’s probe takes him to the decrepit doorstep of the titular abode. Eli Roth loved the photography of this mood-drenched movie so much that he asked his DP to watch it before lensing Hostel.
Following his run of giallo films, Argento garnered greater international acclaim and success with Suspiria, a full-throttle sensory assault that served as the first chapter in his Three Mothers trilogy (oddly drawn from the scribblings of English essayist/drug addict Thomas Penson De Quincey). American actress Jessica Harper plays a ballet student who picks the wrong academy to study at. The school harbors a nest of evil witches, including Dark Shadows' Joan Bennett. Backed by Goblin’s throbbing musical score, Argento orchestrates an unparalleled symphony of terror and garish violence with Suspiria. Sequel Inferno (1980) worth a look; laughable The Mother of Tears (2007) not so much!
Journeyman director Lucio Fulci mingled in various genres (Westerns, political dramas, sex comedies) before he stumbled upon his true calling as a connoisseur of Italian gore, cemented with the worldwide popularity of this quickie Dawn of the Dead cash-in. Fulci, however, drew more inspiration from Jacques (I Walked with a Zombie) Tourneur than George Romero and set his living dead opus in the Caribbean. There a mad scientist experiments with reanimating corpses and voodoo, culminating in a plague of ravenous zombies. Fulci never met a disembowelment he didn’t like, and scenes of ocular violence (watch out for that door splinter!) became his raison d’être.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
This notorious chunk-blower continues to raise the ire of vegetarians and animal rights activists, who decried the film’s actual scenes of animal butchery. On the other hand, gorehounds reveled in watching sleazy “civilized” interlopers earning their comeuppance at the hands (and teeth) of a flesh-eating jungle tribe. The camera of Cannibal director Ruggero Deodato never pulls away from the atrocities onscreen, and neither do we, the willing voyeurs of Deodato’s admittedly potent techniques. This controversial film stimulated a rash of copycat films, including Eli Roth’s gorefest The Green Inferno.
The Beyond (1981)
No less than Quentin Tarantino embraced this, Fulci’s masterpiece. Seventeen years after a truncated and retitled version of The Beyond hit US shores, Tarantino helped rerelease this horror epic in its original form, winning Fulci new fans and deeper critical respect. The plot—about a New Orleans hotel that harbors a gateway to hell—is just an excuse for bravura set pieces of unrelenting bloodshed and outlandish terror. Zombies never looked as repellent or scary than when Fulci put them through their stiff-legged paces.
Following in his daddy Mario’s footsteps, Lamberto Bava helmed this heavy metal horror hit (with a bitchin’ soundtrack), produced and co-written by Dario Argento. A group of Berlin moviegoers settle in to see the latest sleazy fright fest, when before they can even finish their popcorn, the celluloid monsters they are watching break through the screen to possess and mutilate the trapped audience! It’s like Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo, but with a lot more pus, blood and bile.
The Church (1989)
Argento also produced this Demons-inspired chiller directed by another of his protégés, former actor Michele Soavi. In the Middle Ages, a grand Gothic cathedral had been built over the ground where the Templars once massacred a coven of devil worshippers. Centuries later, an ancient evil awakens to besiege and possess some poor saps locked within the church. Like most choice Eurohorrors, logic and narrative play second fiddle to atmosphere and supernatural spectacle in The Church, while Soavi integrated old period woodcuts and even paintings by modern fantasy artist Boris Vallejo for the designs of his hellspawn.
Cemetery Man (1995)
Soavi attracted wider accolades for this existential zombie film, even garnering the endorsement of Martin Scorsese! Madonna’s Gay Best Friend Rupert Everett stars as Francesco Dellamorte, a night watchman at the local graveyard where the dead habitually return to life a week after burial. Dellamorte’s tasked with putting the ghouls down, aided by a hulking mute assistant. His personal life grows more complicated when he falls for a trio of fetching beauties (all played by Anna Falchi). Laced with black comedy and philosophical musings, Cemetery Man further announced the arrival of a major terror talent in Soavi, but, strangely, the talented filmmaker abandoned the genre to toil in Italian TV.
After its heyday throughout the late ’70s to early ’90s, the Italian horror business collapsed. You have to dig a little deeper these days to find treasures like Denti, a nightmarish black comedy/drama about a man whose life falls apart because of his obsession with his misshapen teeth. Writer/director Gabriele (I’m Not Scared) Salvatores will have you laughing and squirming as Denti’s hapless hero embarks on an almost surreal journey from dentist to dentist to fix his chompers. The American Dental Association would not approve.