Permits for location shooting were mythical, actors being abused or brought close to death was commonplace, animals were frequently harmed in the making and sometimes even the directors disowned their own content, disgusted by what they'd done. I'm not saying any of these things are "good" but it sure does make for some intense and bizarre filmmaking completely outside of any taboo or limit normally imposed.
Looking back now and trying to make sense of it all can be difficult. For one, many of its key personnel were insanely prolific. For another, many of its key personnel were actually insane. A collector of these movies can spend a lifetime digging through them and still have to accept that there will be plenty they'll never see. A newcomer can find the whole thing daunting. This list is by no means a list of the best Italian genre films and, of course, there are lots I could've included but didn't.
I tried to keep repeat occurences of the same director as minimal as possible and only did it in cases where the films in question were notably different in content but I wanted to include films that I personally love that also offer as broad an overview as possible; from the high-end stylish murder mysteries of the early 70s "giallo" films to the trashier, gorier pictures of the early 80s exploitation cycle. What's particularly interesting with these is that several of these later era films were created as direct cash-ins on popular American genre films Dawn of the Dead, Escape From New York, Last House on the Left, etc but the end result was often far weirder, better and more interesting than the films they were ripping off.
This is part of why these films hold so much fascination. They were funded by companies out to make a quick buck from mindless grindhouse content that capitalised on existing trends, yet many of the directors at the helm were genuine auteurs. Most of the big names of Italian exploitation came of age alongside Leone and Fellini and were of a similar artistic calibre.
These guys were operating without rules but, Christ, they had talent. Alberto de Martino This firecracker blend of giallo and poliziotteschi Italian cop films sees veteran tough guy Stuart Whitman playing Tony Saitta, a cop so monumentally filthy he makes Dirty Harry look like Bubble Boy. He's particularly pissed off because someone's poisoned his sister and Saitta won't stop until he's questioned every lowlife in the city. Both cars get progressively destroyed in a series of long-take death-baiting stunts before rolling over and finally grinding to a smouldering halt.
Made amidst legal problems for both Deodato and writer Gianfranco Clerici, this is a raging, politically-charged fist in the face of the establishment. The plot involves Hess and his half-wit accomplice exploitation mainstay John Morghen being invited to a yuppie party primarily as the "entertainment".
Hess clocks on quickly, turns the tables and stalks the rich kids with a straight razor, beating, raping and maiming them in a 90 minute torrent of violence and verbal abuse that leads to a volte-face ending that few will see coming.
It's an imperfect film but its viciousness retains the power to shock, as does Deodato's sparse, no-nonsense direction. He keeps the camera moving and right in the faces of the cast for most of the film, sustaining an atmosphere of claustrophobia and hysteria.
Not an easy watch but a powerful film even some 25 years later. Umberto Lenzi Maybe knowing he was making the last 'proper' film in the flagging Italian cannibal cycle, Umberto Lenzi adopted a scorched earth policy with this one. He totally went for broke. There's almost no atrocity left behind.
The plot is nothing new as our usual American interlopers a motley crew of journalists and coked-up diamond smugglers wind up in the jungle, aggravate the natives and get killed and eaten for their troubles. The dubbing is dreadful. It's not particularly well made by comparison to most others on this list.
Everyone involved has pretty much disowned it and this is hardly a bunch of choirgirls and altar boys we're talking about. But man, this is harrowing stuff. From the regrettable footage of animal violence to the close-up graphic sexual mutilation male and female , there's clearly no point where anyone stepped in and told Uncle Umberto "nah, this is too much". With little preamble, Cannibal Ferox is 90 minutes of relentless attempts to alienate and upset any viewer's sense of good taste. Even the dialogue is crude, vicious, spiteful and aggressive.
Ferox isn't a great film but it's a cold, mean freak show that holds up even now for those seeking a true 'video nasty'. Francesco Barilli Genre stalwart Mimsy Farmer plays an industrial scientist whose grasp on reality loosens after a creepy friend talks to her about witchcraft.
On account of said loose grasp, the film itself is at times very cryptic too. It's not always easy to tell what's real and what isn't but the truly beautiful photography Mario Masini frames each shot like a classical painting and Farmer's edgy performance hold the attention even through the most impenetrable sequences. While repeat views are rewarded, anyone who's watched this even once will tell you it's worth staying until the end. The final reel is a true shocker as abstract, nightmarish and deliriously over-the-top as anything David Lynch has ever done.
If you're looking for something on the artier side of giallo, this is the one. Sergio Pastore A blind pianist overhears half a conversation about a murder plot and a bevy of models start dropping dead all over town. While the police ever-useless in giallo films are baffled because they can find no evidence to suggest the models died of anything beyond natural causes, our pianist hero suspects conspiracy and must solve the case before he becomes the next victim.
This may not be the best giallo but it's almost certainly the most quintessential. Literally all of the key components of the form are present here: If you were playing Giallo Bingo, you'd get a "Casa Completo"!
Most of all though, this is a solid, no-nonsense whodunnit script with an unusually satisfying reveal at the end. Bruno Mattei I've included a lot of films on this list that I think are brilliant, made by exceptional directors.
Hell Of The Living Dead does not fall under either category. The notorious Bruno Mattei possibly the Uwe Boll of his time made films that were enthusiastic but very low budget rip-offs of better films and this clocking in at just under two hours is his magnum opus. When a government project named "Operation Sweet Death" nothing sinister here! You will die and be eaten! First they will kill you!
It's shot in Europe but set in New Guinea. To convince you, Mattei includes about 20 minutes of nature stock footage but didn't do enough research to include animals actually indigenous to New Guinea. He also includes footage of starving natives eating maggots from their dead, which is in horrendously poor taste.
I mean, really, this is a graceless and only semi-legal mess of a picture yet there's a giddy joy to be had from the sense that anything goes.
It's very gory and the cheap and dirty aesthetic gives it a disturbing edge. The cast are good value too. Whatever else, the uncomfortable mix of farcical comedy, extreme violence, cheap titillation and depressing political incorrectness makes for a film that, while never "good", is compelling to the very last frame which, naturally, is out of focus.
Lucio Fulci Although a lot of auteur Fulci's latter-day films have a bad reptuation and, arguably, his heart wasn't in much of it , New Gladiators is an enjoyably gory stab at dystopian sci-fi that mirrors a lot of what's currently popular in young adult fiction. Here, we have a future-Rome where the Colosseum once more is home to gladiator fights; this time on Mad Max style motorbikes! The sets a mix of painted backdrops, miniature models and neon backdrops are flamboyant and the action flies thick and fast, as the great cast including badass Fred Williamson, legendary Italian whipping boy Al Cliver and spellbinding runway model Eleanora Brigliadori fight their way through a Hunger Games style arena full of mechanical traps.
The story's pretty strong, full of cool twists, and holds up now as a weirdly prophetic allegory about computer dependency. This isn't high art, I know, but it's good friendly violent fun nonetheless. Sergio Martino Having spent the 70s making artful, superior gialli, Sergio Martino, like most of his peers, hit the 80s making knock-offs of more popular American features. His leather-clad hero Parcifal Michael Sopkiw must journey into post-nuclear New York to rescue the last fertile woman on earth but, standing in his way are wait for it!
Throw in a drag race with missile launchers and honestly? Who is this not pleasing? This is dumb as they come but it tries so hard to entertain, you'd have to be missing a soul not to respond with love. Despite sharing leading man Vittorio Gassman, this is a very different picture but it shows the calibre of director happy to work within genre at the time.
Anima Persa is about a young painter named Tino Danilo Mattei , sent to live with his aunt and uncle in their fading mansion on the canals of Venice. Something's clearly not right in true gothic fashion, he soon discovers a madman living in the attic and, as Tino uncovers the tragic past of his family, we're sucked inescpably into their world of deep perversion and grief.
Catherine Deneuve plays the aunt and has scarcely been more mesmerising. The photography captures the neglected beauty of Venice in a way that's thematically perfect and while the final twist could've felt contrived in the hands of lesser gialli, here it's set up well enough to carry serious emotional weight.
A menacing yet moving film that really deserves to be up there with the greats. A real "see it to believe it" film, Contamination starts with a shipment of alien eggs transported from Mars to New York yup. When the boat reaches the harbour, it's empty. From the guts out. Often replayed in slow motion. A tough talking army colonel, an alcoholic astronaut and a wise-cracking cop try to save the world from these bad eggs but the odds are stacked against them as more and more keep appearing in the unlikeliest of places While Contamination takes it cues from schlocky 50s B-Movies and plays partially for laughs, it's surprisingly well made.
There are some slick action sequences, a lot of cool location shooting, an excellent musical score from Goblin and the body explosion FX are rad. It's the kind of film that could never be made now to this kind of standard and, whether you love or hate its ridiculousness, there's no question it was done with a lot of love for the genre.
It was made quickly and cheaply in a dark period for Eastman in part to help pay some gambling debts and they thought they'd maybe taken things too far.
If the guys behind movies like Porno Holocaust are saying that, you know you're in for something special! For the most part though, Anthropophagus takes its time. A group of tourists travelling to a remote Greek island find it more remote than they'd expected and soon come face to face with the reason The island feels genuinely eerie. The film has an ominous, humid mood that's broken literally by a summer storm, then suddenly a flood of seriously nasty gore.
Eastman's performance as the bug-eyed cannibal killer is unforgettable and Tisa Farrow - one of my favourite actresses of the era - makes a classic "final girl". As slashers go, this is one of the weirdest, spookiest and darkest. The infamously sickening ending which I won't spoil is tough to shake and, surprisingly, has never been imitated to the best of my knowledge.
Pasquale Festa Campanile Pasquale Festa Campanile may be the only director on this list with an Oscar on his mantle for co-writing Four Days Of Naples but years later, he would somehow go on to spew up Hitch Hike, one of the most nightmarish and psychologically gruelling grindhouse films of the era.
Franco Nero the original Django! Given that he's played by David Hess, you can probably guess that rape and violence are both on the agenda, but this is a far cry from the tawdry exploitation of The Last House On The Left whose success was, naturally, used heavily in the marketing here.
It's a bitter, existential road movie that mixes character study and gender politics with gritty visuals and psychedelic sleaze to dizzying and unpleasant effect. A harsh film but one of exceptional quality.
Pupi Avati Pupi Avati was one of the more restrained directors working in the genre at the time and it's puzzling, from watching films like this, why he was never more highly regarded by the mainstream.