“Giallo” is the Italian word for the color yellow. However, it is also used to describe many crime and mystery thrillers.
Starting in the late 1920s, Mondadori, an Italian publisher, began publishing a series of crime-mystery pulp novels, all with trademark yellow covers.
Thus, these books—and later, the many films they inspired—came to be known as i gialli.
The History of the Giallo
Here’s a brief overview of how the term giallo has evolved over time to describe unique subgenres of literature, and later film:
In 1929, Mondadori began publishing Italian translations of mystery novels by British and American writers, including Agatha Christie, Edgar Allen Poe, and Edgar Wallace.
This series was known as Il Giallo Mondadori, and each book in the series was characterized by a yellow background on the cover.
These cheap paperbacks were so successful that other Italian publishers quickly took notice and began publishing their own versions, and the term giallo became synonymous with mystery novels in general.
In film, the meaning of giallo shifts slightly from mystery thrillers to refer to any kind of murder mystery or horror thriller.
In Italy, the giallo film subgenre began as close adaptations of the original giallo mystery novels, but more modern directors soon began experimenting with different techniques to create films that more closely resembled psychological thrillers or psychological horror.
Later, many giallo characteristics would be adapted by the American slasher genre.
5 Must-See Giallo Films for Beginners
If you’re new to giallo films, here are 5 movies that will help you get acquainted with this unique genre.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963)
Considered the first giallo film, Mario Bava’s 1963 The Girl Who Knew Too Much follows a young American woman visiting Rome.
Nora is obsessed with giallo paperback thrillers. One day she is mugged, and soon after passes out. She wakes to witness what appears to be a murder—or is it a dream?
In what would become a giallo trademark, Nora knows what she’s seen, but is pressured to believe she might be losing her mind, all while facing threats to her own life.
Blood and Black Lace (1964)
Bava’s next giallo sees a masked killer—complete with raincoat and hat—stalk and kill the beautiful employees of a small design house.
Adding to the whodunnit mystery, a murdered woman’s diary also threatens to expose the secrets of several people.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)
In Dario Argento’s directorial debut, an American witnesses an attempted murder during his extended stay in Italy, leading him to get wrapped up in his own investigation, which naturally puts him and his girlfriend in the killer’s path.
The first near-murder involves—you guessed it—a black-gloved assailant, donning a hat and raincoat. Argento puts several twists on what could have been a standard crime thriller, and introduces themes of psychosis, which also became typical of the genre.
The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970)
Minou is a wealthy housewife who craves attention from her husband, who’s always busy with work and rarely home. One day, a stranger attacks Minou, slashes open her clothes, and warns her that her husband is a killer.
The attacker begins to blackmail Minou with evidence of her husband’s guilt, coercing her into sleeping with him, which he secretly videotapes.
Minou goes to the police, but her blackmailer’s apartment is found completely emptied. Doubt rises as to Minou’s sanity, which sends her into a spiral of booze and pills before getting her revenge.
Deep Red (1975)
American Marcus Daly witnesses the brutal murder of a psychic medium in his apartment building, and feels compelled to help solve the case.
He teams up with reporter Gianna Brezzi, who is also interested in the case for her story.
When one of Marcus’s own friends is murdered, he and Gianna realize that they must find the killer’s identity fast before they too fall victim to the killer.
The following are some of the most common characteristics of the giallo subgenre:
A Mysterious Killer
While giallo films typically have an intense focus on elements of horror, there’s one area where they don’t stray from their literary mystery roots: the presence of a mystery killer, often psychopathic and donning black gloves.
The killer stalks and preys on the protagonist—often an outsider of some type, and frequently female—while leaving a thick trail of blood along the way.
An excessive use of violence and gore is another trademark of giallo films.
Brace yourself for a lot of blood, violence, and grotesque murders—although hardly realistic, these films are not for the faint of heart.
Naturally, the serial murderers portrayed in these films are usually psychotic, but oftentimes the sanity and mental stability of the protagonist is also put into question.
One common criticism of the giallo is that its female protagonists are often portrayed in a weak and fragile mental state.
However, when both the protagonist (whether female or male) and the killer are presented as unstable, this creates the exaggerated and unfocused narrative gialli are known for.
Strong Cinematic Technique
While the narratives and dialogue are often laughable, giallo films are generally credited for their artful cinematic techniques.
These include stylish camerawork, editing, production design, and musical arrangements.
As film critic and writer Anne Bilson explains, “The Giallo Sound is typically an intoxicating mix of groovy lounge music, nerve-jangling discord, and the sort of soothing lyricism that belies the fact that it’s actually accompanying, say, a slow motion decapitation.”
Sexual or Erotic Themes
Author and filmmaker Michael Mackenzie claims that gialli can be divided into the male-focused m. gialli, in which a male, outsider protagonist witnesses a murder and becomes the next target while attempting to solve the crime; and f. gialli, which feature a female protagonist in a more sexual and psychological story, which usually focuses on her sexuality, psyche, and mental state.
While many gialli have been criticized for their misogyny objectification of women, themes such as feminism, civil rights, and counterculture ideals—all part of the giallo’s peak in the 60’s and 70’s—were often expressed, albeit through brutal violence.
Is Suspiria a Giallo?
Dario Argento is considered a master of the giallo, but his 1977 movie Suspiria is actually a supernatural horror film.
Its 2018 remake, directed by Luca Guadagnino, falls under the same genre. While both films feature plenty of gore and violence (characteristic of the giallo), they deal with supernatural forces, rather than masked mystery killers.
The Influence of the Giallo
Gialli have had a lasting influence not only on Italian cinema, but on the horror and mystery genres in general.
Many of the American slasher films of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s were influenced by the giallo in both their elements of mystery and gore.