The Gruesome Brilliance of 1980s Italian Horror

Tom Jolliffe goes back to the 80’s to look at a crazy, gore-filled period in Italian horror cinema…

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There’s a great legacy in Italian Horror. Most famously, the giallo films which rose to prominence through the 60’s and 70’s (led first by Mario Bava, and taken to new heights via Dario Argento), put Italian horror right among the forefront for the genre. The most significant predilection throughout these films was a hidden or masked killer, the staple of the giallo genre. There were occasionally dips into mystical forces, dark arts or witchcraft (see Suspiria for example) but whilst Argento certainly pushed up the levels of violence with an occasional sadistic relish, he didn’t necessarily get disgusting and gruesome.

When American special effects maestros like Tom Savini, Rick Baker, Bob Keen et al were creating blood, guts, entrails and horrifying creatures and make-up, it quickly became popular in theatres, and then furthermore in the age of video nasties. Audiences loved to see drilled skulls, exploding heads and whatever else these horror directors could conjure in their mind. Pretty soon there was even more fascination to dark arts, creatures and the undead, which made their way into Italian horror too.

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Indeed, George Romero blazed a zombie trail beginning with Night of the Living Dead, that was further popularised by the gore heavy theatrics in Dawn of the Dead. Into the 80’s and American and Italian horror were leading the way in this, but for me, there’s just something about the Italian horror films. Maybe it’s the fact they look cheaper, are a little rougher, and it makes them creepier, but additionally, there wasn’t as often a tongue in cheek angle to the gruesomeness, that could take the edge off some sequences.

Cannibal Holocaust, shot on a complete shoestring, and not a particularly great film, still ended up being infamous and iconic. It’s a horrible film, and there are grotesque moments. It would be a key cornerstone in the found footage genre too. The moments of horror ranged from looking evidently cheap and haphazard (which often brings with it a kind of charm when you love practical effects work), to looking disturbingly real.

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Still, what I’ve often enjoyed about many classic Italian horror films of this era, so well stuffed with creative death sequences, is a kind of cowboy, seat of the pants approach to making them. Quite often (bar someone like Argento, atop the horror tower) they were short on a fraction of many American equivalents, and in turn that can bring about a feverishly creative approach in cheaply conjuring gore laden visuals, as inventively as possible. More often than not, the likes of Lucio Fulci, Ruggero Deodato, Michele Soavi, Lamberto Bava and Bruno Mattei would pull it off. Logic would often fly out the window. Plot holes abound, but they set out to unnerve, scare and disgust with impish verve.

Fulci in particular had a great run in the decade with some spectacular visuals. The supernatural tinges in The Beyond and City of the Living Dead for example, certainly allowed a more expansive scope for its horror moments (having been more of a straight up grindhouse specialist, and giallo director in the 70’s). There’s a certain relish I get myself writing horror in choosing how to off a character. Whether it comes to fruition or not, you never know, but certainly back in the 80’s there seemed few boundaries stopping a horror film-maker from elaborately despatching their characters. In City of the Living Dead for example, among many great death sequences (in a film that is effectively atmospheric, even if it’s often nonsensical) we have a woman being telepathically forced to throw up her internal organs, and we have someone getting drilled through the head (both great effects too).

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Where they differ from something like Saw for example, and the spate of overly nasty, wince inducing goreno films from the early part of this century, is that there’s a certain roguish, playful charm to these Italian horrors. Maybe it’s the lighter colour palettes, the fact that rubber heads look like rubber still, or the fact in some aspects they go beyond logic, where the effect becomes enjoyably macabre. If you think of Peter Jackson’s Braindead for example, it’s very purposely comical, one of the bloodiest films ever, but it’s enjoyable goofy and the grotesque moments often bring dark laughs. I guess it’s partly, as far as the Italian Horrors, that there’s a certain charm this era had, that gore infested films don’t have so much in the Saw era (I still enjoy that particular franchise more than the films that followed in its wake and over cranked the nastiness at the expense of imagination).

There was certainly an upsurge in elaborate and enjoyable concepts among the 80’s Italian horrors too. Michele Soavi, stepping out as one of Argento’s protégés had a great run beginning in the 80’s, notably with The Church and Stage Fright. The early 90’s saw him continue in that vein, and he did some of the last really strong, gore filled and enjoyable Italian horror films of that era (including his most notable work, Cemetery Man). Argento likewise helped oversee a breakout film for Lamberto Bava (son of Mario), with Demons.

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Lamberto had made a few films already, including some classic Italian made films for the American market, and a good giallo with A Blade in the Dark, but Demons became immensely popular (spawning sequels too). In comparison to some of the other films, it had a beefier budget and the presence of Argento on the project would undoubtedly have helped that (visually too, it’s dazzling). The concept saw an audience watching a film and becoming trapped in the theatre with ravenous demons. It’s a kinetic, relentless and effects heavy slice of fun with magnificent makeup and prosthetics work.

Argento himself additionally had time to make a few last memorable works. Opera (his loose adaptation of Phantom of the Opera) has some atypically bloody touches (and a fascination with eyes and sharp objects, not for the first time) and was enjoyable. One of a number of very gothic films in that period, which again, offered something slightly different from the previous decade. Harking back to bygone European horror, but with added (gallons) of blood and entrails. Phenomena however, was one of his last really strong horror films, that had some head scratching (and loosely explained) plot elements, but no shortage of delightfully foul moments.

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Ultimately, this era as a whole, with film-makers trying to outdo each other, and horror film-makers notably trying to outdo their American counterparts, produced so many iconic and memorable Italian horror films. Aside from the aforementioned there are films like Touch of Death, Nightmare City, Phantom of Death and Hell of the Living Dead. Not surprisingly, many of these have since had great Blu-ray restorations through cult distribution labels (most notably Arrow) and likewise are streaming in HD too. Coming up to the season of horror of course, it’s a great time to discover (or rediscover) some of these enjoyable (and grim) films in glorious high definition. What is your favourite 80’s Italian Horror? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth.

Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), War of The Worlds: The Attack and the star studded action films, Renegades (Lee Majors, Billy Murray) and Crackdown. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/