March 24, 2014

My Gateway to Italian Horror

This first appeared during 2013's Italian Horror Week at

When it comes to horror movies, I have a lot to learn. I was late to the game and missed the glory days of the 1970s and 1980s. So, I guess it goes without saying that I spend a lot of time playing catch up. During that catching up I have found a love for Italian horror. There is something about them that is very alluring. There is a very distinct look and feel to them, they truly stand out from a crowd. When you find one, it is very hard to mistake it for anything else, if anything, you will find films from other countries that emulate that distinctiveness, whether on purpose or not (for a recent example, check out Rob Zombie's Lords of Salem).

As much as I love and knowing I have a lot more to see, I thought it would be interesting to look back at the movies that helped spark the interest in Italian flavored horror, specifically of the 70s and 80s.

In the mid to late 90s I found myself working at a video rental store. Being a budding movie fan and genre lover (initially science fiction, but shortly thereafter of horror as well), I was in the right place. I remember watching all sorts of films. I was constantly watching them, sadly I did not absorb all that memory. So many titles have just been lost to the recesses of my mind. Still, there were a couple of movies that stuck with me. I did not immediately love them, but there was something that made me revisit them.

These two notable movies were Dario Argento's Suspiria and Lucio Fulci's Zombie. I know they are not exactly obscure entries, but they were new to me and showed me something different. To that point I would say my horror favorites were more a lot the lines of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th. Comparatively speaking, Suspiria and Zombie were an entirely different ball game.

Suspiria is the first one I can remember seeing. It was an old VHS tape and as much as I would like to say it was love at first sight, it wasn't. Still, there was something magnetic about this. It was different from all the American horror I had ever seen. My initial problem was that I was still in a very plot driven mindset. Suspiria is not a movie you will easily accept if you want plot. Yes, it has one, but this is about much more than plot.

Suspiria is a movie that is about style and atmosphere as much as, if not more so, Han pure plot. I am sure all of you, my hardcore horror brethren, are well aware of the story told in Suspiria. You know all about Jessica Harper's Susy as she enters a prestigious dance academy, befriends Sara (Stefania Casini), and comes face to face with a deadly coven of witches. Frankly, that doesn't sound like much. This is where the genius of Dario Argento comes in.

While I did not love it right away, I did come back to it. Intrigued by how it played out, but the stylistic decisions. The opening kill sequence is a thing of beauty, brutal, bloody, and stylish. This death goes a long way to setting the tone for the rest of the film. The use of color and shadow is amazing, the choices of angles, the tracking shots, everything about this adds up to one of the creepiest films to ever hit the screen.

Each time I watch it, different details become apparent. There is a lot to see, a lot to experience, a lot to be creeped out by in this.

And let's not forget the music. Goblin offers up a score that is pure genius and set me down a path of Goblin love. You can ask pretty much anyone that I know about my affection for Goblin, and while they may not know the band, they know of my affinity for them. The music brings an additional character to the screen, just adding to the creepy mood.

Argento has created a lasting masterpiece. It is a hallucinogenic drug of a film, aided by not only Argento's style but by the Technicolor printing process. It was one of the last films to be printed using the three strip process and it shows. The colors just about leap of the screen.

It is a movie that I can turn on to this day and thoroughly be entertained by.

As for that second film to help push me headlong into Italian horror is Lucio Fulci's Zombie (or Zombi 2, if you prefer). Another title I was introduced to during my VHS days and much like my Suspiria experience, another movie that stuck in my head but did not love at first sight. To be sure, Argento and Fulci are two very different directors, but they are both great examples of what Italian horror is.

This one took me a bit longer to warm up to, but ultimately led me to discover one of my favorite directors. Zombie is a movie that I was not sure I really liked when I first saw it, but like other films of its vintage, I kept coming back to it. With each successive viewing he more I found myself liking it. Then it led me to other, better, films like The City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, but those are for another time,

Zombie, as we all know, was made in part as a reaction to George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, which was released as Zombi on Italy. Zombie really has nothing to do with the Romero movie outside of the inclusion of zombies, but that doesn't matter.

This tale follows Ann (Tisa Farrow) who heads off to a remote island to find her missing father with the help of a journalist (Ian McCulloch). They end up surrounded by the living dead who want nothing else but to eat them.

It is standard zombie survival fare, it what makes it work is Fulci's penchant for the surreal and ability to execute some incredibly gorific sequences and visually lead us through to the climax.

Seriously, while Fulci may not be as flashy as Argento, he still knows how to stage a scene, build up to his gore set pieces, and bring the stench of death and decay right into your living room. You are not going to watch it for quality acting or dialogue, although there is definitely something to be said about them in a positive way. You will watch for the way Fulci can play you like a harp from hell.

There is a delicious slow burn quality to Zombie. Fulci fills Zombie with dread, decay, and death. The movie feels like it is rotting from the inside out. I remember watching as the dead climbed from their graves, the death just oozing from their maggot filled eye sockets. This is a singularly awesome zombie movie that deserves its classic status.

There you have it, a look at the films responsible for my love of Italian horror. I recognize I have a lot more movies to see, a lot more directors to discover, and just a lot more to enjoy. Without these two movies, I may never have made the discovery. They may not be the most obscure of films, but they hold a special place in my heart and are responsible for the direction my film interests have developed.

I think I am going to go and watch one of them now...

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