Our next stop in our trip around the horror world is Italy, a macabre mecca — home to some of the most prolific and beloved filmmakers in the genre.
Welcome back to Morbidly Beautiful and our ongoing series exploring horror films from around the world. The next stop on our journey is to Italy, which outside of America ,is probably the most prolific hub of horror in the whole world. In this entry in the series, we explore Italian horror and provide some lesser known suggestions from the most famous of Italy’s directors.
Finding its roots in the highly artistic giallo genre, Italian horror, especially that from the 70s and 80s is, in a word, bizarre. If you ever catch yourself completely puzzled in front of your TV screen while blood, guts and bright colors splash all over the screen while a funky soundtrack blasts over the screams, you’re probably watching an Italian horror movie. Let’s look at these 3 features individually.
Blood and Guts.
Back in 1984 in England, there was a moral panic over horror movies labeled as The Video Nasties. These were films banned and the creators prosecuted for films overly violent and gory, many of which were Italian horror films. In fact, 4 of the 5 films chosen in this entry were banned in 1984. Whether it’s the exploding bodies in Contamination, the throat slashing in A Bay of Blood or the dismembering in Absurd, Italian horror had a way of pushing the boundaries of what was allowed on film.
Horror movies typically utilize an orchestral score — some creepy violins, maybe a pipe organ, and that’s about it. Italian horror on the other hand took a different approach: Rock and Roll. Suspiria most famously used the experimental rock soundtrack by Goblin, while Demons used heavy metal bands like Accept and Motley Crue. Much like the over the top blood and gore, this choice was revolutionary in the horror world and very influential to future generations. Many films from the 1990s through 2000s relied heavily on a non-conventional score, using popular music to create horror with a unique look and feel.
Let’s be honest, most Italian horror movies are confusing as all hell. The Visitor is about inter-dimensional Satan taking over the body of a girl, and the only way to defeat the evil is with birds. Phenomena is about a girl who can control flies who tracks down a killer with help from a knife-wielding chimpanzee. And let’s not forget, Zombi has a scene where a zombie fights a shark.
Italian horror films don’t follow the rules when it comes to storytelling. Even a film like House by the Cemetery — which, based on its title, sounds like it would have a fairly simple, Poltergeist-like premise — is strangely enough about a living dead, mad scientist who uses people’s blood to replenish his life force so he can open a gate to hell. Honestly, I am pretty sure the house isn’t even by the cemetery.
Italian horror is unique, in more ways than one. Part of the reason has to be attributed to the prolific nature of the most famous directors who release films annually, some two in one year. Here are five deep cut suggestions from some of Italy’s most famous horror directors.
Hercules in the Haunted World (1961)
Director Mario Bava is probably best known for his 1960 classic Black Sunday, or perhaps the progenitor of the slasher film genre A Bay of Blood in 1961. But let me direct your attention to a lesser known horror flick of his, 1961’s Hercules in the Haunted World. This one plays more like a fantasy film than a straight up horror film. Its characters include Hercules, Perseus and Persephone. However, it also has all the cool horror stuff you’ve come to love about Italian horror.
Hercules, played by bodybuilder Reg Park, has to travel to the underworld to save the woman he loves. Unlike the other Hercules movies which leaned more towards comedy, sci-fi or even line-by-line adaptation, this film leans heavily into zombies, monsters and vampires. Yes, vampires! Specifically, the main villain Licos the vampire, played by the legendary Christopher Lee.
Although on the surface the film is very much a greek mythology story, it is filmed and presented like a horror movie. Bava’s work with shadows and macabre imagery really give this one the look and feel of an old horror movie. And when we get to the climax of the movie, zombies begin to rise from the earth and break free of their cobweb-covered crypts — making you almost forget they are coming after Hercules, son of Zeus.
Hercules in the Haunted World is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. (Please note, the quality of this film on Amazon is VHS quality at best. That said, there are often higher quality versions available on YouTube. Personally, I am into the nostalgia and the grainy version on Amazon. It reminds me of watching old horror movies on worn out VHS tapes as a kid.)
Lucio Fulci is the director of some of the most bizarre and gory horror films in history. His Gates of Hell trilogy (The Beyond, City of the Living Dead, House by the Cemetery) is considered by most as one of the best in horror history, not to mention his slasher classic The New York Ripper. Bur we’re going to take a look at a more obscure film from this legendary director: 1987’s Aenigma.
A very bizarre recurring plot device in Italian horror is a new girl arriving at a boarding school before weird stuff happens. Also, bugs. Suspiria is a ballet school with maggots, Phenomena is a Swedish boarding school with flies. And Aenigma is a Boston boarding school with snails. Yes, killer snails. In what is part a rip-off of Prom Night 2 and Phenomena, Aenigma follows Eva who just arrived at St Mary’s and is possessed by a comatose girl looking for revenge on the classmates who mocked her.
It’s a Fulci movie, so it’s not as simple as that. The girl also possesses statues in a museum, reflections in a mirror, posters of Tom Cruise and the aforementioned snails as she picks off her victims one by one.
A truly bizarre film that just doesn’t get the same love as the rest of Fulci’s films, Aenigma is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Cannibal Ferox (1981)
When it comes to 1970s cannibal exploitation films, the first film that comes to everyone’s mind is the often banned, Cannibal Holocaust. But in this writer’s opinion, the superior of the many cannibal films is none other than Umberto Lenzi’s often overlooked Cannibal Ferox. This film follows the familiar formula. A group of young Americans gets lost in the jungle, encounters a cannibal tribe and gets castrated and eaten. But Cannibal Ferox is so much more than that.
This film gives us the greatest ‘they had it coming to them’ character in all of horror: Mike Logan. See, Mike Logan is a New York City cocaine dealer who’s come to the jungle to get away from a mobster looking for him after Mike robbed him. He encounters the tribe and tortures them to find emeralds for him, beating, raping and killing some of the tribe members. To make matters worse, he constantly refers to the women in the film simply as “twat”. He’s a total scumbag character, which will have you cheering as the tribesmen castrate and torture him.
The violence in this one is less extreme than in Cannibal Holocaust. But it’s superior in the fact that it’s more of a horror film — with twists, turns and even a few good old fashioned jump scares.
Be forewarned before checking this one out, currently streaming on Shudder. It is very violent and has many scenes of real animals deaths.
Dario Argento is probably the most well known of the great Italian horror directors, and he is very prolific. So it was hard to find that one obscure film to shine a light on. Almost all horror fans know Suspiria. But after that it’s a mixed bag. In some circles, he is remembered for the bizarre Phenomena. Other fans speak of his giallo classic Deep Red. The film we will be covering here is the absolutely bizarre Inferno.
How bizarre? How about a Satanic apartment complex with an underwater apartment room filled with dead bodies. There are creepy killer cats, kaleidoscope colors and the introduction of the 2nd of three mothers. Inferno is a thematic sequel to Suspiria in a series in which Argento covers the three mothers, a sect of ancient witches that are harbingers of death.
The story, the narration, and the music in Inferno make this all very clear. But it still gets slightly confusing as the witch in this movie is Mother Tenebraum, which is not to be confused with Argento’s next movie Tenebrae (a film that has nothing to do with witches at all).
Insane and beautiful in all the ways you expect an Argento film, Inferno is currently streaming on Shudder.
Ok, so this is cheating a bit as Anthropophagus aka The Grim Reaper is probably the best known film by director Joe D’Amato (aka Aristide Massaccesi). But it’s being included for good reason. Of all the legendary Italian horror directors, none have a more extreme filmography than D’Amato, and none of his films are more extreme than Anthropophagus.
If you follow the lineage, it is somehow in the same film franchise as Dawn of the Dead. This film is known by many names, and one of them is Zombi 7, which is a sequel to a film also directed by D’Amato, Zombi 6 (released a year after Zombi 7). Confused yet? Well D’Amato also directed Zombie 5, aka Killing Birds, which was released 7 years AFTER Zombi 7. If you’re ever looking to get your brain scrambled a bit, try looking into the Zombi series of films, which starts with the classic Dawn of the Dead.
This one is not for the faint of heart. It includes some of the most shocking and jarring scenes in all of horror history. For instance, the movie cover art shows a man ripping out his own intestines and eating them. This is probably the third most graphic and violent scenes of the film. Even though it’s low budget and cheap 80’s gore, be forewarned.
Antropophagus is now streaming on Tubi under the title The Grim Reaper.
If you are hungry for more Italian horror, Shudder always has a ton of classics. But I also suggest a more modern film, The End? Which is a zombie/stuck in an elevator horror. Make sure to follow Morbidly Beautiful (and me) on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube or wherever you consume social media for the latest in the series as well. You can also check out this letterboxd list.
In the next entry of the series, we will be exploring horror from both Belgium and The Netherlands as well as taking a night in a hostel to look at the best classics from around the world.