Table of Con­tents | PDF


Strange Vices: Transgression and the
Production of Difference in the Giallo

Seb Roberts

Abstract | The gial­lo, an Ital­ian genre of hor­ror film that peaked in the 1970s, is infa­mous for ped­dling shock and slaugh­ter. Under the graph­ic sex and vio­lence, how­ev­er, the gial­lo express­es pop­u­lar anx­i­ety sur­round­ing the trans­gres­sion of social and sex­u­al norms in mod­ern Italy. Super­fi­cial­ly, the gial­lo seems to sug­gest that social and cul­tur­al tur­moil nec­es­sar­i­ly pro­duces death. Yet the gial­lo fore­grounds the obvi­ous excite­ment and attrac­tion of trans­gres­sion, allow­ing that trans­gres­sion could in fact be gen­er­a­tive of pos­i­tive, invig­o­rat­ing difference.

Résumé | Le gial­lo, un genre de film d’horreur ital­ien qui a con­nu son heure de gloire dans les années 70, a la répu­ta­tion de mélanger choc et mas­sacre. Sous l’aspect pornographique et vio­lent, toute­fois, le gial­loexrime l’anxiété pop­u­laire qui entoure la trans­gres­sion des normes sociales et sex­uelles dans l’Italie mod­erne. En sur­face, le gial­losem­ble sug­gér­er que l’agitation sociale et cul­turelle con­duit néces­saire­ment à la mort. Cepen­dant en met­tant en avant l’excitation et l’attrait évi­dents de la trans­gres­sion, le gial­loper­met à cette trans­gres­sion d’être por­teuse de dif­férences pos­i­tives et tonifi­antes. Mots-clé: gial­lo, trans­gres­sion, mon­der­nité, vio­lence con­tre les femmes, ciné­ma d’horreur

The gial­lo was a par­tic­u­lar­ly fleshy style of hor­ror film from Italy that began in the ear­ly 1960s and flour­ished dur­ing the 1970s: a blood-soaked spec­ta­cle iden­ti­fied with cheap thrills and fre­quent­ly low pro­duc­tion val­ues. Despite this, the gial­lo was shrewd­ly per­cep­tive in its pro­jec­tions of social anx­i­eties dur­ing the most vio­lent decade of Italy’s post­war his­to­ry. In trans­gres­sion, the gial­lo saw thrilling pos­si­bil­i­ty and dan­ger­ous dis­or­der, and in hege­mo­ny, sta­bil­i­ty and suf­fo­ca­tion. These films large­ly regard­ed the upheaval of moder­ni­ty with ambiva­lence while nev­er­the­less gen­er­at­ing much of its diegetic ten­sions from the insta­bil­i­ty of social norms—particularly those sur­round­ing gen­der. Traf­fick­ing in sleaze, shock, and slaugh­ter, the gial­lo appeared to argue that the volatil­i­ty of mod­ern life nec­es­sar­i­ly pro­duces death. How­ev­er, this impres­sion is but a first glance. A more inci­sive exam­i­na­tion of how the gial­lo presents trans­gres­sion as a pro­duc­tion of dif­fer­ence reveals a dif­fer­ent under­stand­ing of social tur­moil: as a gen­er­a­tive force to be embraced.

Fig. 1

The gial­lo is not sim­ply a hor­ror film that hap­pens to have been made in Italy. It is a cin­e­mat­ic filone, expressed through a con­stel­la­tion of tropes, includ­ing (but by no means lim­it­ed to): a black-gloved killer, pur­sued by an ama­teur detec­tive; women undressed and in dis­tress; a back­drop of jet-set­ting bour­geois mobil­i­ty; skro­nky free jazz or pul­sat­ing prog rock; and ubiq­ui­tous bot­tles of J&B whisky.1,2 Yet the most recognizable—arguably, the definitive—feature of the gial­lo is the exces­sive­ly sav­age and sen­sa­tion­al mur­der scene, a scene whose bloody sadism is often matched only by its bizarre inven­tive­ness. The gial­lo mur­der scene is an irrup­tion of spec­ta­cle that for­goes clas­si­cal notions of nar­ra­tive neces­si­ty, char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, and even visu­al coheren­cy (Totaro 163), giv­ing film­mak­ers a chance to exper­i­ment and indulge their wildest cre­ative urges. Includ­ing ser­rat­ed shad­ows, off-kil­ter fram­ing, slow motion, first-per­son per­spec­tive, extreme zooms, impres­sion­is­tic edit­ing, cacoph­o­nous music, and ghoul­ish sound effects, a broad vari­ety of avail­able tech­niques are employed to height­en the shock and awe of a gial­lo mur­der. In these scenes, when the film­mak­ers aban­don nat­u­ral­ism in pur­suit of vis­cer­al charge, the gial­lo approach­es a kind of affec­tive ecsta­sy. These moments of fren­zied sen­sa­tion not only con­nect the gial­lo to cinema’s pre-gram­mat­i­cal roots as a pop­u­lar attrac­tion (Gun­ning 738; Wagstaff 48), but they also con­sti­tute, accord­ing to Pier Pao­lo Pasoli­ni, “the dom­i­nant artis­tic nature of cin­e­ma, its expres­sive vio­lence, its oneir­ic phys­i­cal qual­i­ty” (172).

Such appar­ent priv­i­leg­ing of spec­ta­cle over coher­ent nar­ra­tive and char­ac­ter­i­za­tion has earned the gial­lo a degree of crit­i­cal dis­dain. Antho­ny Mann claims the out­bursts of extreme sex and vio­lence “reveal the director’s fear that the audi­ences get bored” (qtd. in Wagstaff 245), com­par­ing the errat­ic rhythms of the films to the “elec­tro­car­dio­gram for a clin­ic case” (qtd. in Wagstaff 245). This mis­trust of the spectator’s focus may have been true in cer­tain cas­es: direc­tor Umber­to Lenzi once lament­ed that pro­sa­ic expo­si­tion “dis­tracts the audience’s atten­tion” (68), sug­gest­ing that “the spec­ta­tor prefers spec­tac­u­lar events to turgid screen­play” (68). How­ev­er, there is also a his­tor­i­cal and eco­nom­ic basis in Italy for films that eschew clas­si­cal for­mal­ism in favour of fit­ful spec­ta­cle. Christo­pher Wagstaff notes that, “[s]ince the Sec­ond World War, the Ital­ian exhi­bi­tion sec­tor had grown accus­tomed to hav­ing too many cin­e­mas and too many films in cir­cu­la­tion at any one time” (249), caus­ing “a rel­a­tive­ly low lev­el of exploita­tion of a rel­a­tive­ly large num­ber of films” (249). This meant short­er ini­tial the­atri­cal runs, and thus a film’s earn­ings depend­ed large­ly upon where—that is, to what market—it was exhib­it­ed. To ensure that they could “repay their large pro­duc­tion costs before inter­est pay­ments [ate] away into rev­enue” (Wagstaff 247), films with big­ger bud­gets and finan­cial back­ing would typ­i­cal­ly be screened in first-run the­atres, known as pri­ma visione: urban cin­e­ma palaces that drew from a broad­er pool of poten­tial spec­ta­tors and could there­fore com­mand sig­nif­i­cant­ly larg­er tick­et prices.3 Less pres­ti­gious pic­tures with small­er pro­duc­tion, mar­ket­ing, and dis­tri­b­u­tion bud­gets were often rel­e­gat­ed to terza visione, third-run the­atres with depressed tick­et prices com­mon­ly found in periph­er­al and rur­al areas.4

At every tier of the exhi­bi­tion sec­tor, the sur­feit of screens and high turnover in pro­grammes required a steady stream of film prod­uct to keep cus­tomers com­ing back. There­fore, Wagstaff argues, “the whole struc­ture [of the Ital­ian film indus­try] depend­ed on rep­e­ti­tion. The audi­ence had to return to the same cin­e­ma the next day. It had to be offered some­thing dif­fer­ent but pro­vid­ing the same grat­i­fi­ca­tions. In oth­er words, a rep­e­ti­tion with vari­a­tion” (254). For this rea­son, post­war Ital­ian cin­e­ma has been char­ac­ter­ized by for­mu­la­ic cycles, called filone, where­in a sin­gle box-office smash could unleash a tor­rent of imi­ta­tions. Tar­get­ing pri­ma visione and terza visione audi­ences alike and churned out at an indus­tri­al pace, the filone typ­i­fied what­ev­er trend promised the eas­i­est mon­ey at that moment, whether it was far­ci­cal come­dies, sword-and-san­dal epics, spaghet­ti west­erns, or ersatz James Bond capers (Frayling 70-71).

The “rep­e­ti­tion with vari­a­tion” of filone required that film­mak­ers rely upon not only homol­o­gous themes, nar­ra­tives, and char­ac­ters, but spe­cif­ic tech­niques and devices that would reli­ably grat­i­fy the audi­ence. Wagstaff claims that the three most sought-after audi­ence respons­es, in the form of “phys­i­o­log­i­cal reac­tions” (253), were “laugh­ter, thrill, titillation…provoked not by whole films, but by items or moments in films. Ital­ian for­mu­la cin­e­ma sim­ply jug­gled with plot items to pro­duce the required recipe that would stim­u­late the appro­pri­ate num­ber and kind of these ‘phys­i­o­log­i­cal’ respons­es’” (253). Hence the “elec­tro­car­dio­gram” rhythm of Ital­ian pop­u­lar cin­e­ma: the film as a uni­tary work was less impor­tant in grat­i­fy­ing the audi­ence (there­by cre­at­ing repeat cus­tomers) than inter­mit­tent erup­tions of excess, shock, sur­prise, and spectacle.

Thus, the spe­cif­ic attrac­tion of the gial­lo lies pre­cise­ly in its hyper-styl­ized and grotesque depic­tions of sex and death. To bemoan the gial­lo’s lack of flu­id pac­ing, scrupu­lous plot­ting, nat­u­ral­is­tic act­ing, and so on, is to miss the point. Con­sid­er Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of Ser­gio Martino’s Tor­so, a.k.a. I cor­pi pre­sen­tano trac­ce di vio­len­za car­nale (1973):

This well-dubbed, light­weight hor­ror opus sup­plies us with every­thing that it thinks we need: pret­ty girls in var­i­ous states of dress and undress, a steel gui­tar on the sound­track to estab­lish men­ace, lec­tures on Ital­ian sculp­ture, taste­ful­ly ellip­ti­cal dis­mem­ber­ments and muti­la­tions of body parts…a gra­tu­itous les­bian sequence, and enough red her­rings to keep a Ger­man restau­rant in busi­ness for a week. (qtd. in Koven 32)

Rosen­baum astute­ly sur­mis­es that sex and vio­lence are not excess­es to dis­tract from the film’s tech­ni­cal or intel­lec­tu­al shortcomings—they are exact­ly what the film thinks we need. Accord­ing to con­ven­tion­al crit­i­cal cri­te­ria, Mikel J. Koven reminds us, “the assump­tion is that visu­al style (lus­cious pho­tog­ra­phy, kinky sex, close-ups, etc.) is a device that cov­ers up the holes in the nar­ra­tive” (31, orig­i­nal empha­sis), when in fact “nar­ra­tive func­tions as mere­ly the frame­work on which hang the spec­ta­cle sequences of vio­lence, sex, and graph­ic gore” (38).

Fig. 2

As with oth­er filone, the gial­lo scaf­folds its shocks with a famil­iar stock of char­ac­ter types, antag­o­nisms, and themes. How­ev­er, there is an ide­o­log­i­cal con­ser­vatism under­gird­ing the char­ac­ter types com­mon to the gial­lo who set the plot—and so the suc­ces­sion of death—in motion: the debased coun­ter­cul­tur­al youth; the innate­ly sus­pi­cious Oth­er; the psy­chot­ic sex­u­al mal­adap­tive; and the hys­teric and/or mon­strous female, among oth­ers. That is, in the gial­lo, those char­ac­ters who embody and per­form non-tra­di­tion­al moral and social prac­tices not only threat­en hege­mo­ny, but their very pres­ence also ini­ti­ates a chain of trans­gres­sion that inex­orably leads to death. Cer­tain gial­li could be read as counter-hege­mon­ic because the killer is revealed to be a fig­ure of tra­di­tion­al author­i­ty (e.g. a priest, a doc­tor, or a wealthy busi­ness­man), symp­to­matic of a fun­da­men­tal sick­ness or cor­rup­tion at the core of the social order. Yet there are far more exam­ples of films that depict blood­thirsty hip­pies, sex­u­al devian­cy, drug-induced psy­chosis, and the ero­sion of tra­di­tion­al moral­i­ty as tragedy. The char­ac­ters play with and trans­gress social norms by exper­i­ment­ing with trav­el, drugs, and sex, and each trans­gres­sion, no mat­ter how minor at first, releas­es a sequence of esca­lat­ing effects that inevitably ends in mur­der. The les­son is that death is the final price of trans­gres­sion, and the gial­lo killer is this price embod­ied. Only the death of the killer them­selves at the film’s cli­max promis­es to restore hege­mon­ic order.

The threat to social order posed by vio­lence was not an abstract con­cern for many Ital­ians in the 1970s: it was dai­ly life. The era between 1969 and 1983, known as the anni di piom­bo or “years of lead,” wit­nessed over 14,000 acts of domes­tic ter­ror­ism, “result­ing in 374 deaths and more than 1,170 injuries” (Glynn 3). While left-wing mil­i­tants were respon­si­ble for numer­ous tar­get­ed assaults, kid­nap­pings, and mur­ders, the dead­liest attacks were com­mit­ted by the right, who adopt­ed the prac­tice of “indis­crim­i­nate bomb­ings of pub­lic spaces tac­ti­cal­ly designed to cause max­i­mum injury and pan­ic” (Glynn 3). The log­ic behind the bomb­ings was the strate­gia del­la ten­sione, or “strat­e­gy of ten­sion.” “The term,” Alan O’Leary explains, “refers to the clan­des­tine attempt to bring about an author­i­tar­i­an Italy by foment­ing a law­less­ness which could then be blamed on com­mu­nism and the weak demo­c­ra­t­ic state, in turn jus­ti­fy­ing a mil­i­tary coup” (85). Accord­ing­ly, the right was assist­ed covert­ly by the Ital­ian secret ser­vice and armed forces (Glynn 3; O’Leary 85).

Beyond the blood­shed and intrigue of the anni di piom­bo, the 1970s were gen­er­al­ly tumul­tuous for Italy. The coun­try was rapid­ly tran­si­tion­ing from an indus­tri­al to a ser­vice-ori­ent­ed econ­o­my, thanks in part to sur­pass­ing Ger­many as Europe’s top recip­i­ent of immi­grants. These devel­op­ments accel­er­at­ed the unprece­dent­ed growth of Italy’s urban cen­tres and their sub­urbs. As Italy’s eth­nic and reli­gious make­up was chang­ing, so too were its rela­tion­al struc­tures and their under­gird­ing val­ue sys­tems. The self-suf­fi­cient fam­i­ly bound by kin­ship and Catholi­cism retreat­ed, dis­placed by the enlight­ened Carte­sian sub­ject qua indi­vid­ual con­sumer. Parochial­ism gave way to divid­u­at­ed plu­ral­ism, and once-con­crete hier­ar­chies became flu­id. In this sense, Italy’s social and polit­i­cal tur­moil was cause for a cer­tain opti­mism: as Anna Cen­to Bull and Adal­gisa Gior­gio assert, “pre­vi­ous­ly mar­gin­al­ized social groups raised their voic­es and demand­ed bet­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tion, in the face of a soci­ety with pol­i­tics which were fun­da­men­tal­ly author­i­tar­i­an and hier­ar­chi­cal” (qtd. in Glynn 5). Para­dox­i­cal­ly, the inse­cu­ri­ty and chaos of life in the Ital­ian city could be “cel­e­brat­ed as evi­dence of inter­est­ing times, of the city’s vital­i­ty” (O’Leary 246).

This ambigu­ous limen, between cos­mopoli­tanism and chaos, is the space where many gial­li set their sto­ries. The films exploit and ampli­fy the excite­ment and anx­i­ety pro­duced by the col­li­sion of dif­fer­ence. The most con­spic­u­ous flint for this fric­tion is trav­el: some films change their geo­graph­ic set­ting over the course of the movie (Death Walks on High Heels, 1971; The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, 1971); oth­ers fol­low Ital­ians abroad (The Man with Icy Eyes, 1971; Short Night of the Glass Dolls, 1971); still oth­ers fol­low for­eign trav­ellers in Italy (The Girl Who Knew Too Much, 1963; The Bird with the Crys­tal Plumage, 1970). Yet oth­er­ness in the gial­lo is not lim­it­ed to nation­al­i­ty. Even when a film is set in Italy with Ital­ian char­ac­ters, rela­tion­al cat­e­gories remain neb­u­lous and in flux, as often exclu­so­ry as overlapping.

Such gra­da­tions of oth­er­ness are grip­ping­ly depict­ed in Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Tor­ture a Duck­ling (1972). Set in the fic­tion­al south­ern Ital­ian ham­let of Accen­dura, the film is an exem­plar of what Xavier Mendik calls the “Mez­zo­giorno gial­lo” (391), a sub­set of gial­li pre­oc­cu­pied with the eco­nom­ic and social dis­par­i­ties between the increas­ing­ly wealthy, indus­tri­al­ized, and urban(e) Ital­ian North and the poor, rur­al South (known as the Mez­zo­giorno). The Mez­zo­giorno gial­lo, Mendik says, plays upon post-uni­fi­ca­tion dis­cours­es where­in the South is degrad­ed as the nation­al back­wa­ter, “an ‘untamed’ landscape…where the envi­ron­ment and its inhab­i­tants come to sig­ni­fy a mon­strous mode of expres­sion that must remain sub­merged with­in the civ­i­lized North­ern con­scious­ness” (400).5 The vio­lence in Don’t Tor­ture a Duck­ling is the prod­uct of the clash between incom­pat­i­ble modes of exis­tence, cod­ed as the indus­tri­al North ver­sus the rur­al South. Ful­ci him­self affirms this per­spec­tive when he describes the film’s open­ing shot as a pris­tine con­crete high­way “split[ing] the coun­try­side like a gap­ing wound” (Ful­ci 59).

Con­se­quent to the diver­gent region­al for­tunes of Italy’s post­war eco­nom­ic mir­a­cle was a com­ple­men­tar­i­ly unequal dis­tri­b­u­tion of mod­ern­iza­tion. Accord­ing­ly, the char­ac­ters of Don’t Tor­ture a Duck­ling embody not only dif­fer­ent socioe­co­nom­ic stra­ta but dif­fer­ent epochs. Most deeply root­ed in the archa­ic and arcane is La Macia­ra (played by Florin­da Balkan), a reclu­sive Roma woman who per­forms black mag­ic. Wary of her claims to occult pow­ers, the towns­peo­ple pre­fer to avoid La Macia­ra, regard­ing her with a mix of con­tempt and fear. The local con­stab­u­lary is only mar­gin­al­ly less super­sti­tious, in con­trast to the hard-nosed real­ism of the region­al police com­mis­sion­er (Vir­gilio Gaz­zo­lo), avatar of the mod­ern Ital­ian state. Observ­ing and analysing the goings-on are the local priest Don Alber­to (Marc Porel) and Roman jour­nal­ist Andrea Martel­li (Tomas Mil­ian). Youth­ful and prag­mat­ic, Don Alber­to lever­ages pop­u­lar inter­ests (such as soc­cer) to appeal to his parish; nonethe­less, he laments the cor­rup­tion of tra­di­tion­al Chris­t­ian moral­i­ty by con­tem­po­rary cul­ture: “Peo­ple aren’t wor­ried much about their immor­tal souls. They watch TV, go to the movies. They read the papers with all those scan­dalous pho­tographs.” Mean­while, neo­teric muck­rak­er Martel­li nei­ther defends nor con­demns the mod­ern world, approach­ing it instead with a dis­tinct­ly sec­u­lar skep­ti­cism. He also has a rogu­ish dis­re­gard for rules, enter­ing people’s homes through unlocked win­dows and with­hold­ing evi­dence from the police. The most thor­ough­ly modern—and there­fore transgressive—figure is Patrizia (Bar­bara Bouchet). Young, fash­ion­able, and urbane, Patrizia lives in a chic high-mod­ernist man­sion, dri­ves sports cars, and exper­i­ments with drugs. She is also sex­u­al­ly aggres­sive and a relent­less flirt, and as such pos­es a direct threat to patri­ar­chal order and, in Don Alberto’s mind, to the inno­cence of Accendura’s boys. The drama­tis per­son­ae of Don’t Tor­ture a Duck­ling thus delin­eate a spec­trum where­upon the oth­er­ness of one char­ac­ter to anoth­er is an artic­u­la­tion of their dif­fer­en­tial modernity.

Fig. 3

Gial­li are not usu­al­ly so sys­tem­at­ic in their rep­re­sen­ta­tion of dif­fer­ence. Giu­liano Carmineo’s The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972) pri­mar­i­ly takes place in a sin­gle apart­ment tow­er block. Its occu­pants are a mot­ley bunch drawn from all walks of life: a beau­ti­ful young mod­el; a tall, dark, and hand­some archi­tect; an aged Jew­ish pro­fes­sor and his les­bian daugh­ter; a prat­tling old crone with a cog­ni­tive­ly impaired son; and a Black strip­per. Such het­eroge­nous neigh­bours sug­gest again that the mod­ern Ital­ian city is excit­ing, vital, and diverse, but that diver­si­ty also con­sti­tutes a threat. As the neigh­bours are bumped off one-by-one, sus­pi­cion falls upon every­one equally—after all, they are each dif­fer­ent, ergo inscrutable and untrust­wor­thy in their own way.

There is even dif­fer­ence with­in dif­fer­ence; that is, not all dif­fer­ences are equal. As rep­re­sent­ed in the gial­lo, some oth­er­ness is more or less threat­en­ing than oth­er oth­er­ness. Tourists and for­eign­ers are grudg­ing­ly tol­er­at­ed: “They’re com­ing and going all the time,” grum­bles jour­nal­ist Andrea Bild (Fran­co Nero) in The Fifth Cord (1971), “from all over the world. It’s like a hotel.” Neu­ro­di­ver­gent char­ac­ters (such as Giuseppe in Don’t Tor­ture a Duck­ling) are com­mon­ly used as red her­rings, pre­sent­ed as phys­i­cal­ly threat­en­ing but ulti­mate­ly inca­pable of inflict­ing harm. Les­bians are tac­it­ly approved of, the bet­ter to exploit what Lau­ra Mul­vey calls their “to-be-looked-at-ness” (19); after all, “it is a pro­found­ly held tenet of film dis­trib­u­tors that the spec­ta­tor of a hor­ror movie will almost invari­ably be male” (Jenks 154). Gay men appear fre­quent­ly in gial­li, but typ­i­cal­ly in “camp and effem­i­nate roles for com­ic relief” (Koven 71). Trans­gen­dered char­ac­ters fare the worst of all: in the rare instance that gial­li address gen­der flu­id­i­ty or tran­si­tion, as in Four Flies on Grey Vel­vet (1971) or A Blade in the Dark (1983), it is only to pro­vide a motivation—that of a “psy­chot­ic break”—for the killer.

Sex­u­al and gen­der dif­fer­ences are a peren­ni­al source of anx­i­ety in gial­li. They are a ready source of tit­il­la­tion for the film­mak­er to exploit, but more impor­tant­ly, sex­u­al and gen­der dif­fer­ences ini­ti­ate the chain of trans­gres­sion dis­cussed above: “trans­gres­sion of body leads to trans­gres­sion of behav­iour and trans­gres­sion of soci­etal law” (Hal­lam 98), cul­mi­nat­ing in mur­der. This is true even of rel­a­tive­ly mil­que­toast trans­gres­sions such as adul­tery or voyeurism, Koven con­tends, because they “weak­en the socio-famil­ial struc­ture, and as a result of the weak­en­ing of those bonds, oth­er more seri­ous crimes often fol­low” (69). Accord­ing­ly, the more severe the ini­tial trans­gres­sion, the more swift­ly it leads to death. A cheat­ing spouse may trig­ger a chain of events that cli­max­es in mur­der, but more social­ly cen­sured acts such as incest (In the Folds of the Flesh, 1970) or abor­tion (Strip Nude for Your Killer, 1975) appear to con­jure the killer directly.

Because sex­u­al trans­gres­sion is a cor­po­re­al prac­tice, it is among the most con­crete and visu­al­ly appre­cia­ble forms of trans­gres­sion, but it is far from the only one. Gial­li are fas­ci­nat­ed by—and fas­ci­nate with—all forms of trans­gres­sion: from the minor (play­ing music too loud­ly) to the major (spousal rape), from the abstruse (ani­mal sac­ri­fice) to the abom­inable (dis­mem­ber­ment). The legal ram­i­fi­ca­tions of any giv­en trans­gres­sion are scarce­ly con­sid­ered; indeed, the police are only spo­rad­i­cal­ly present and often incom­pe­tent.6 Yet trans­gres­sion qua crime, as a vio­lent fis­sure in the social fab­ric, is omnipresent and inescapable. Gial­li present an end­less parade of adul­ter­ers, black­mail­ers, embez­zlers, ped­erasts, rapists, thieves, and “sex mani­acs,” a term favoured in many a gial­lo. More­over, a respectable upbring­ing, illus­tri­ous career, or estimable rep­u­ta­tion is no guar­an­tee of inno­cence. A wealthy debu­tante may be friends with stalk­ers and extor­tion­ists (A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, 1971); an acclaimed nov­el­ist may be a vicious­ly abu­sive spouse (Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, 1972); and a ven­er­at­ed sur­geon may turn out to be a high-rank­ing mem­ber of a Satan­ic sex cult that per­forms human sac­ri­fice (Short Night of the Glass Dolls, 1971). In gial­li, no clos­et is with­out skeletons.

Of course, it is not lit­er­al­ly the case that any and every trans­gres­sion neces­si­tates mur­der; that would be a “slip­pery slope” fal­la­cy. Despite what Martino’s All the Col­ors of the Dark (1972) depicts, hav­ing tea with a les­bian does not pre­cip­i­tate join­ing a demon­ic coven’s blood orgies. But the impli­ca­tion is that it could. There may be many inter­me­di­ary steps, each one a com­par­a­tive­ly minor mis­be­hav­iour or crime, yet each step can be (and, in the gial­lo, is) tak­en. The hor­ror of the gial­lo is in fol­low­ing the chain of trans­gres­sion, as mis­be­hav­iour and crime com­pound until they achieve their ulti­mate expres­sion in the ulti­mate trans­gres­sion: mur­der. Unlike in mon­ster movies or slash­er films, the gial­lo killer is nev­er an already-exist­ing embod­i­ment of inhu­man evil; the gial­lo killer is an appar­ent­ly “nor­mal” human who becomes a killer—not because they are com­pelled by the dev­il, or pos­sessed by some amor­phous “evil,” but because they choose to com­mit to murder.

This choice is man­i­fest in the oppor­tunism with which every­day objects are con­vert­ed into weapons. It is uncom­mon that a gial­lo killer has a “sig­na­ture” weapon, with notable excep­tions such as the spiked gaunt­let in Death Walks at Mid­night (1972). Blad­ed weapons are by far the most pop­u­lar in gial­li, not the least because they are eas­i­ly found with­in the mise-en-scène: chef’s knives, meat cleavers, switch­blades, straight razors, let­ter open­ers, scalpels, axes, scis­sors, and so on. Stran­gu­la­tion is a close sec­ond; it can be per­formed with rope, a scarf, a show­er cur­tain, a tele­phone line, or, in the absence of any oth­er imple­ments, by hand. Vic­tims in gial­li have been blud­geoned to death, drowned in bath­tubs, thrown out win­dows, run over, chain-whipped, and worse. This grim inven­to­ry empha­sizes that the gial­lo killer typ­i­cal­ly makes use of their envi­ron­ment and strikes when the oppor­tu­ni­ty presents itself, there­by demon­strat­ing the choice to kill.

If any every­day object can be trans­formed into a lethal weapon, by the choice to use it as such, “then any­one can be a killer” (Koven 74) and, by exten­sion, “any­one is a poten­tial vic­tim” (Free­land 187). The chain of trans­gres­sion implies an unyield­ing dri­ve towards mur­der, which can be com­mit­ted using any ready-to-hand object; vio­lence and death are imma­nent in the every­day, ren­der­ing the every­day itself as hor­rif­ic. The effect, Koven sub­mits, is feel­ing “that we are liv­ing in a ver­i­ta­ble hor­ror film our­selves” (74). The erup­tion of polit­i­cal vio­lence that claimed hun­dreds of lives dur­ing the anni di piom­bo would thus seem like the logical—even necessary—extension of the moral fluc­tu­a­tions and erod­ing tra­di­tions of the 1960s and 1970s. Gial­li rarely explic­it­ly artic­u­late the anx­i­eties sur­round­ing the social tur­moil, eco­nom­ic insta­bil­i­ty, or polit­i­cal vio­lence that con­vulsed Italy: “the excess­es and vio­lence we see in gial­lo cin­e­ma,” writes Koven, “are an impres­sion­is­tic ren­der­ing of moder­ni­ty” (61). What makes the gial­lo a unique expres­sion of those anx­i­eties is the fig­ure upon whom it cen­tres them: the female aggressor.

Fig. 4

Giv­en that the lit­er­ary roots of the gial­lo are detec­tive nov­els (Need­ham; Sev­as­takis 1; Wagstaff 2), the femme fatale of hard-boiled fic­tion and film noir is the obvi­ous pre­cur­sor of the gial­lo’s female aggres­sor. How­ev­er, there are also two antecedents native to Ital­ian cul­ture: the diva, rep­re­sent­ing “[t]he woman as preda­tor, as the dom­i­nat­ing fig­ure, [with] the man in sub­ju­ga­tion” (Ship­man qtd. in Jenks 151); and the fat­tuc­chiera, or sor­cer­ess, embod­i­ment and prac­ti­tion­er of “an alter­na­tive cul­ture and…therefore a men­ace to a patri­ar­chal soci­ety” (Bini 57). These three fig­ures of a threat­en­ing femininity—the femme fatale, the diva, and the witch—were first syn­the­sized in the char­ac­ter of Asa (played by Bar­bara Steele), vil­lain­ess of Mario Bava’s goth­ic hor­ror film, La maschera del demo­nio (1960). Bava would return to the entan­gle­ment of death and the fem­i­nine in two sub­se­quent films: The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) and Blood and Black Lace (1964), wide­ly regard­ed as the pro­to­typ­i­cal gial­li (Need­ham; Sev­as­takis 2; Koven 3-4) where­in, sig­nif­i­cant­ly, the killers are revealed to be women.

Through­out the filone, the female killer has been a preva­lent fea­ture of the gial­lo. So com­mon are female killers that it rapid­ly became a “twist” end­ing to set up the expec­ta­tion of a mur­der­ous woman, only to reveal that it was actu­al­ly a man. Indeed, the audi­ence can nev­er be sure of the killer’s gen­der before the cli­mac­tic expo­sure of their iden­ti­ty. Female killers’ motives are often the same as the males’ (e.g. jeal­ousy, greed, the afore­men­tioned “psy­chot­ic break”) and their meth­ods no less bru­tal. Giv­en that the gial­lo is pred­i­cat­ed upon shock and hor­ror, the filone’s recur­rent por­tray­als of female killers indi­cate that there was some­thing dis­turb­ing about them beyond their motives and meth­ods: the very fact that it was women com­mit­ting these acts.

Among the assump­tions and val­ues that under­gird patri­archy, Ruth Glynn calls par­tic­u­lar atten­tion to women’s cul­tur­al­ly assigned role as care­givers, home­mak­ers, and custodians—that is, as defend­ers and guardians of soci­ety (11). Should a woman con­tra­dict this assump­tion in any way—by refus­ing to sub­or­di­nate her needs to those of oth­ers, by pur­su­ing her own plea­sure, by exer­cis­ing her author­i­ty in exper­i­men­tal, as opposed to con­ser­v­a­tive, ways—then her behav­iour would be under­stood as fun­da­men­tal­ly unnat­ur­al, a direct threat to social order.

Dur­ing the 1970s, patri­ar­chal val­ues in Italy were fac­ing unprece­dent­ed chal­lenge. Along­side the stu­dent protests and labour unrest that explod­ed in the late 1960s, the women’s move­ment pre­sent­ed a dra­mat­ic rift in the social bedrock. At its most rad­i­cal, the move­ment was a response to an “extra-par­lia­men­tary left [that] has not inte­grat­ed women into its polit­i­cal per­spec­tive as an autonomous force, and is dom­i­nat­ed by a male arro­gance which Catholi­cism has pro­mot­ed” (James 15). More broad­ly, the move­ment was an out­growth of Ital­ian women enjoy­ing “unprece­dent­ed pros­per­i­ty, indus­tri­al­iza­tion, and mod­ern­iza­tion… . In short, there was a sig­nif­i­cant shift, even with­in the role of house­wife, from sub­mis­sion and sac­ri­fice to self-grat­i­fi­ca­tion, which, in turn, reflects a grow­ing urge for self-expres­sion” (Burke 211). Of course, if decou­pled from con­sump­tion and in defi­ance of tra­di­tion­al­ly ordained roles, self-expres­sion and social auton­o­my serve neither—indeed, work against—cap­i­tal­ism and patri­archy, and as Sil­via Fed­eri­ci notes, “in bour­geois moral­i­ty, any­thing that is unpro­duc­tive is obscene, unnat­ur­al, per­vert­ed” (24). The Ital­ian women’s move­ment flaunt­ed this sup­posed unnat­u­ral­ness and oth­er-world­li­ness, as expressed in their most icon­ic slo­gan: “le streghe son tor­nate,” or “the witch­es are back” (Bini 66).

The women’s move­ment achieved two impor­tant leg­isla­tive vic­to­ries with the legal­iza­tion of divorce in 1970 and abor­tion in 1978. Per­haps the best illus­tra­tion of how rad­i­cal­ly women’s place in soci­ety was chang­ing is that, in the same decade, the per­cent­age of female mem­ber­ship in left-wing mil­i­tant groups was high­er than in the Cham­ber of Deputies—by more than dou­ble (Glynn 6). Women were not only fight­ing for their rights—they were killing for them. Glynn describes the trau­ma of female-per­pe­trat­ed vio­lence in Italy as a “dou­ble wound” (11): the first is the phys­i­cal wound itself, and the sec­ond is a psy­chic trau­ma root­ed in the fact of hav­ing been attacked by some­one con­sid­ered beyond, or exclu­so­ry to, per­pe­trat­ing vio­lence. The phrase “dou­ble wound” derives from Glynn’s read­ing of Ser­gio Lenci’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy, where­in he recalls being shot in the neck by a female mil­i­tant. “A woman,” Lenci writes, “wounds you twice with respect to a man” (qtd. in Glynn 31). Glynn remarks:

Lenci’s account yields three key premis­es: that female per­pe­tra­tion has the trau­mat­ic valen­cy of a dou­ble wound; that there is a long-estab­lished cul­tur­al cor­re­la­tion between mas­culin­i­ty and per­pe­tra­tion and between fem­i­nin­i­ty and vic­tim­iza­tion; and, final­ly, that that correlation—that cul­tur­al resis­tance to an equa­tion or even an asso­ci­a­tion of women and violence—implicitly works to defem­i­nize the vio­lent woman. (136)

There­in lies the hor­ror of the gial­lo’s female aggres­sor: she refus­es her role as social con­ser­va­tor; she refus­es her role as vic­tim; and she insists upon vic­tim­iz­ing some­one else.7 In these refusals and actions, she becomes some­thing nei­ther female nor male, in Lenci’s own words, “incom­pre­hen­si­ble” (qtd. in Glynn 31). With­in the gial­lo, the detective’s task is “one of uncov­er­ing, nam­ing and con­tain­ing oth­er­ness as some­thing social­ly and moral­ly threat­en­ing” (Need­ham), and that oth­er­ness, that social and moral threat is more often than not embod­ied by the female aggressor.

Grant­ed, the audi­ence will only per­ceive the female aggres­sor as inher­ent­ly mon­strous in accor­dance with patri­ar­chal rep­re­sen­ta­tions of gen­der: “screen males rep­re­sent the Male and screen females the Female; … this iden­ti­fi­ca­tion along gen­der lines autho­rizes impuls­es toward vio­lence in males and encour­ages impuls­es towards vic­tim­iza­tion in females” (Clover 43). The pre­sump­tion of the woman as vic­tim, Fed­eri­ci argues, extends from the pre­sump­tion of female sex­u­al pas­siv­i­ty: “Since we are expect­ed to pro­vide a release, we inevitably become the object onto which men dis­charge their repressed vio­lence” (24). Con­verse­ly, the woman who demon­strates sex­u­al agency and/or phys­i­cal dom­i­nance is abnor­mal, per­verse, a vio­la­tion of the nat­ur­al order, unrepresented—ergo unrep­re­sentable—with­in the psy­chol­o­gy of patri­archy. The sex­u­al­ly active (as opposed to pas­sive) female log­i­cal­ly pre­cedes the female killer because the sex­u­al­ly active female imbri­cates that oth­er thing unrep­re­sentable with­in the patri­ar­chal psy­che: death (Cixous 885; Jenks 159).

Beyond the gial­lo’s female aggres­sor, hor­ror cin­e­ma in gen­er­al dis­or­ders the tidy assign­ment of the role of vic­tim or aggres­sor to a giv­en gen­der. Car­ol J. Clover describes cin­e­mat­ic con­ven­tion: “[t]o the extent that the pos­si­bil­i­ty of cross-gen­der iden­ti­fi­ca­tion has been enter­tained, it has been that of the female with the male” (43) via the camera’s cap­ture of the male gaze. Yet in Clover’s study of Amer­i­can hor­ror cin­e­ma, the fig­ure of the “final girl” enables the oppo­site cross-gen­der iden­ti­fi­ca­tion: that of the male audi­ence with a female pro­tag­o­nist (Clover 43-46). In gial­li, the female killer fur­ther extends and blurs the oppor­tu­ni­ties for cross-gen­der iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. Iden­ti­fy­ing with the sadis­tic plea­sure of a female killer offers the male audi­ence “a cathar­tic work­ing through of the impos­si­ble con­tra­dic­tions between desire and the social dic­tates appro­pri­ate to gen­der” (Jenks 154). Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, the female audi­ence is offered a vio­lence of their own, iden­ti­fy­ing the female killer “not just as male pro­ject­ed hor­ror but also as a con­se­quence of women’s rage, ground­ed in and jus­ti­fied by women’s expe­ri­ence of vio­lence and oppres­sion” (Burke 198) under patriarchy.

The cam­er­a­work and edit­ing in gial­lo mur­der scenes fur­ther desta­bi­lize iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the char­ac­ters onscreen. The cam­era typ­i­cal­ly adopts the first-per­son per­spec­tive of the approach­ing killer as the sus­pense crescen­dos. Dur­ing the mur­der itself, the screen explodes in a flur­ry of edits: the scream­ing vic­tim, the plung­ing blade, cloven skin, flail­ing hands, gush­ing blood, gap­ing eyes, and repeat. The cuts of the film mim­ic cuts into the victim’s flesh, cap­tured in the qua­si-abstract detail of the extreme close-up. Iden­ti­fi­able per­spec­tives dis­in­te­grate in an ecsta­sy of thrash­ing bod­ies. The audi­ence expe­ri­ences par­tial but simul­ta­ne­ous iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with killer and vic­tim alike. For this rea­son, Patri­cia Pit­sers argues:

[B]ody hor­ror allows for cross-gen­der iden­ti­fi­ca­tions and can be seen as an impor­tant tool for rezon­ing the bor­ders of the sub­ject. Both men and women have ten­der bod­ies; ulti­mate­ly, they are made out of soft flesh, and their sub­ject posi­tions are relat­ed not only to sex­u­al dif­fer­ence but also to mul­ti­ple oth­er aspects, such as social back­ground and religion—and they are open to change and becom­ing. (54)

As the onscreen bod­ies trans­gress and are trans­gressed, and clear oppos­ing per­spec­tives dis­solve, the film becomes less objec­tive and more mimet­ic, giv­ing rise to what Gilles Deleuze called the “free indi­rect dis­course” (148) of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty between the audi­ence and the film and between indi­vid­u­als in the audi­ence via the film: “[T]he indi­vid­ual con­scious­ness and the char­ac­ter are cap­tured togeth­er and deport­ed into a region where sin­gu­lar life and col­lec­tive life are con­fused” (Agam­ben 22). The lim­its of film as medi­at­ed expe­ri­ence are tran­scend­ed by the screen­ing of trans­gres­sive and trans­gressed bod­ies pre­cise­ly because the body is so visu­al­ly potent and, thus, affec­tive­ly pow­er­ful. As Lind­say Anne Hal­lam writes, “every­thing returns to the body, for all ideas are expressed through and upon it” (217).

In priv­i­leg­ing the body as the locus of trans­gres­sive poten­tial, the gial­lo inserts itself into a cul­tur­al lin­eage that includes Chris­tian­i­ty and the Mar­quis de Sade. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, from this lin­eage, the gial­lo inher­its the notion that trans­gres­sion that orig­i­nates in the body will nec­es­sar­i­ly lead to car­nal­i­ty or, at worst, car­nage. When bod­i­ly voli­tion exceeds the lim­its imposed upon it by soci­ety, the result is invari­ably vio­lent sex and even more vio­lent death. In this, the gial­lo exhibits the opin­ion that it is the nat­ur­al will of the human body to rape and kill.8 If, as Freud says, “civ­i­liza­tion is built upon a renun­ci­a­tion of instinct” (44), then the urge for free­dom is actu­al­ly the desire to act upon instinct unfet­tered: “The urge for free­dom, there­fore, is direct­ed against par­tic­u­lar forms and demands of civ­i­liza­tion or against civ­i­liza­tion alto­geth­er” (43).

Fig. 5

It is no coin­ci­dence that the mas­cu­line heroes of gial­li—sym­bol­ic body­guards of the sta­tus quo—are so often exec­u­tives, jour­nal­ists, archi­tects, and doc­tors: they are men who live the life of the mind, whose prowess is intel­lec­tu­al, not phys­i­cal. This too echoes Freud: “No feature…seems bet­ter to char­ac­ter­ize civ­i­liza­tion than its esteem and encour­age­ment of man’s high­er men­tal activ­i­ties” (41). Con­trar­i­ly, char­ac­ters con­sid­ered sus­pect and per­verse are those in hot pur­suit of earth­ly delights: pimps, junkies, dope fiends, peep­ing toms, tramps, hip­pies, and the like.

Yet the gial­lo is not blind to the plea­sures of trans­gres­sion. An ear­ly scene in Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) oscil­lates between two neigh­bour­ing town­hous­es in Lon­don. In one, an upper-class fam­i­ly, sur­round­ed by Edwar­dian regalia, sits in joy­less silence as they peck at their din­ner. Through the wall from the house next door rum­ble the sounds of a rag­ing bac­cha­nal: drums pound and gui­tars squeal as rev­el­ers drink, dance, and dis­robe. The con­trast between grey-faced, chain-smok­ing bour­geoisie and the viva­cious, cavort­ing lib­ertines is under­scored by the cin­e­matog­ra­phy. The wealthy fam­i­ly is pri­mar­i­ly cap­tured in sta­t­ic, claus­tro­pho­bic close-ups, where­as the cam­era careens hand­held through the par­ty, with sup­ple tor­sos and flail­ing limbs swim­ming in and out of focus. When the grey­ing patri­arch of the fam­i­ly jokes lame­ly that the noise next door “sounds like a foot­ball match,” the cam­era rush­es in to reveal the foot of his teenaged step-grand­daugh­ter tap­ping defi­ant­ly along to the hip­pies’ music. Nei­ther wealth, good man­ners, nor ele­gant decor can immu­nize a fam­i­ly from the con­ta­gions of Dionysian decadence—or a good beat. Indeed, the gial­lo does not defend the hege­mon­ic order. In Don’t Tor­ture a Duck­ling (1972), Patrizia rep­re­sents moder­ni­ty and its sup­posed moral con­t­a­m­i­na­tion, but she is also smart, charis­mat­ic, adven­ture­some, and empa­thet­ic. Mean­while, the sup­pos­ed­ly hum­ble and earthy towns­folk engage in pros­ti­tu­tion, black­mail, and vigilantism.

The gial­lo’s stub­born ambiva­lence towards its char­ac­ters and their actions deprives the audi­ence of moral clar­i­ty. Trans­gres­sion is sexy and excit­ing but brings with it dis­or­der and death. Hege­mo­ny is intol­er­ant and author­i­tar­i­an, but also reli­able and trust­wor­thy. Rather than attempt to rec­on­cile such con­tra­dic­tions, the gial­lo stages the clash between trans­gres­sion and hege­mo­ny: whichev­er tri­umphs is not a ques­tion of mate­ri­als, ethics, or aes­thet­ics but an issue of pure force. The gial­lo screens a Niet­zschean inter­play of bodies—and, accord­ing to Gilles Deleuze, bod­ies are them­selves “forces, noth­ing but forces” (139). The inter­play of forces does not nec­es­sar­i­ly imply dia­met­ric oppo­si­tion, nor that they orbit a “nat­ur­al” point of bal­ance. As Deleuze claims, “Force no longer has a cen­tre pre­cise­ly because it is insep­a­ra­ble from its rela­tion to oth­er forces” (142), as in a body exer­cis­ing its force with­in a sprawl­ing net­work of interactions.

As a drama­ti­za­tion of the inter­play of bod­ies-as-forces, the gial­lo is hor­rif­ic because this inter­play irre­sistibly pro­duces death. Upon the Sadean premise that human nature tends towards excess, exploita­tion, and dom­i­nance, trans­gres­sion leads to a cycle of ever-esca­lat­ing vio­lence. Yet hege­mo­ny does the same: any­thing that exists in excess to or defi­ance of the sys­tem must be elim­i­nat­ed. In the gial­lo, order is only ever pro­vi­sion­al­ly and appar­ent­ly restored once the killer has them­selves been killed. The final sat­is­fac­tion of either trans­gres­sion or hege­mo­ny is the destruc­tion of the other.

In spite of this, gial­li failed to inspire lethal street fights between lib­ertines and reac­tionar­ies among its audi­ence. Fur­ther, in con­trast to the pious pearl-clutch­ing that com­mon­ly meets exploita­tion cin­e­ma, the com­mer­cial suc­cess of gial­li did not inspire moral pan­ic in its native Italy. The antic­i­pa­tion of such out­comes rests upon two dis­tinct false assump­tions: in the case of the for­mer, that the audi­ence iden­ti­fies lit­er­al­ly with the char­ac­ters onscreen and will repro­duce their ethics and actions in the real world; in the case of the lat­ter, that the films express pre-exist­ing desires and needs on the part of the audi­ence. Against these assump­tions, Louis Bay­man and Ser­gio Rigo­let­to con­tend that film is nei­ther “an answer to a par­tic­u­lar pre-defined need nor as pos­sess­ing a life of its own, push­ing or bind­ing the spec­ta­tor. Film is instead the mid-point in a dynam­ic inter­ac­tion between spec­ta­tor and social con­text, one which helps con­struct new needs through the cre­ative inven­tion of emo­tion­al expe­ri­ences that do not pre-exist the view­ing of a film” (20). More­over, so much in gial­li is the­atri­cal and anti-naturalistic—from the campy fash­ions and unlike­ly mobil­i­ty of the char­ac­ters, to the ver­tig­i­nous zooms and hyper­sat­u­rat­ed colours—that the films draw atten­tion to their dis­tance from real­i­ty, extend­ed by the styl­ized and often sur­re­al mur­ders (Koven 125). Koven elaborates:

These shock­ing sequences call atten­tion to themselves…we are jolt­ed out of our cin­e­mat­ic com­pla­cen­cy to think not only about “how” such a sequence is made, but “why”… . These sequences, in gial­lo, are inter­est­ing not just because of their shock val­ue, but because they demand we think about the very ontol­ogy of the cin­e­ma and our plea­sures of watch­ing such images. (157)

More specif­i­cal­ly, because the gial­lo focus­es upon the vio­lent inter­play of trans­gres­sion and hege­mo­ny, it pos­es a fun­da­men­tal ques­tion: with which do you iden­ti­fy more close­ly, trans­gres­sion or hege­mo­ny, and why? The answer to this resides in our rela­tion to that which trans­gres­sion pro­duces: dif­fer­ence. Dif­fer­ence can be regard­ed as pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive. Recall, for exam­ple, the het­eroge­nous assem­bly of tow­er-block occu­pants in The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972): is social diver­si­ty an oppor­tu­ni­ty to broad­en com­mu­nal empa­thy or does dis­sim­i­lar­i­ty weak­en secu­ri­ty? In oth­er words, is social dif­fer­ence addi­tive or subtractive?

Fig. 6

There is no cor­rect answer to that ques­tion in the gial­li them­selves, inso­far as the films are open to a choice in inter­pre­ta­tion. Yet there are eth­i­cal con­se­quences to this choice. To regard dif­fer­ence as bad is to want it sub­tract­ed, annulled, exhaust­ed. As depict­ed in the gial­lo, it is this dri­ve to anni­hi­late and erase dif­fer­ence that ulti­mate­ly pro­duces death. How­ev­er, the oppo­site choice is also avail­able: to regard dif­fer­ence as good, gen­er­a­tive, invigorating—a pro­duc­tive force with which to affil­i­ate, cor­re­late, and inte­grate. This addi­tive inter­play of forces, claims Deleuze, is “the kind which knows how to trans­form itself, to meta­mor­phose itself accord­ing to the forces it encoun­ters, and which forms a con­stant­ly larg­er force with them, always increas­ing the pow­er to live, always open­ing new ‘pos­si­bil­i­ties’” (141).

This is why the gial­lo—a cat­e­go­ry that could so eas­i­ly be writ­ten off as cryp­to-reac­tionary pablum—consistently presents mod­ern­iza­tion and trans­gres­sion as seduc­tive and excit­ing: mod­ern­iza­tion and trans­gres­sion are well­springs of the new; new peo­ple, new places, new sen­sa­tions, new expe­ri­ences. Death may be inevitable, but it comes much quick­er by (and to) those who wish to extin­guish the excess­es and messy het­ero­gene­ity of life. Far bet­ter, as Deleuze advis­es, “to be exhaust­ed by life rather than exhaust­ing it, always…at the ser­vice of what is reborn from life, what meta­mor­phoses and cre­ates” (142).

Works Cited

Agam­ben, Gior­gio. “For an Ethics of the Cin­e­ma.” Cin­e­ma and Agam­ben: Ethics, Biopol­i­tics and the Mov­ing Image. Edit­ed by Hen­rik Gustafs­son and Asb­jorn Gron­stad, Blooms­bury, 2014, pp. 19-24.

Argen­to, Dario, direc­tor. L’uccello dalle piume di cristal­lo [The Bird with the Crys­tal Plumage]. Cen­tral Cin­e­ma Com­pa­ny Film, Glazier, Seda Spet­ta­coli, 1970.

---. 4 mosche di vel­lu­to gri­gio [Four Flies on Grey Vel­vet]. Mar­i­anne Pro­duc­tions, Seda Spetac­coli, Uni­ver­sal Pro­duc­tions France, 1971.

Bava, Lam­ber­to, direc­tor. La casa con la scala nel buio [A Blade in the Dark]. Nation­al Cin­e­matografi­ca, Nuo­va Dania Cin­e­matografi­ca, 1983.

Bava, Mario, direc­tor. La maschera del demo­nio [The Mask of Satan; Black Sun­day]. Galatea Film, Jol­ly Film, 1960.

---. La ragaz­za che sape­va trop­po [The Girl Who Knew Too Much]. Galatea Film, Coro­net S.r.l., 1963.

---. 6 donne per l’assassino [Blood and Black Lace]. Emmepi Cin­e­matografi­ca, Les Pro­duc­tions Georges de Beau­re­gard, Monachia Film, Arrow Film & Video, 1964.

Bay­man, Louis and Ser­gio Rigo­let­to. “The Fair and the Muse­um: Fram­ing the Pop­u­lar.” Pop­u­lar Ital­ian Cin­e­ma. Edit­ed by Louis Bay­man and Ser­gio Rigo­let­to, Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 2013, pp. 1-28.

Baz­zoni, Lui­gi, direc­tor. Gior­na­ta nera per l’ariete [The Fifth Cord]. B.R.C. Pro­duzione S.r.l., 1971.

Bergonzel­li, Ser­gio, direc­tor. Nelle pieghe del­la carne [In the Folds of the Flesh]. MGB Cin­e­matografi­ca, Talía Films, 1970.

Bianchi, Andrea, direc­tor. Nude per l’assassino [Strip Nude for Your Killer]. Fral Spa, Blue Under­ground, 1975.

Bini, Andrea. “Hor­ror Cin­e­ma: The Eman­ci­pa­tion of Women and Urban Anx­i­ety.” Pop­u­lar Ital­ian Cin­e­ma: Cul­ture and Pol­i­tics in a Post­war Soci­ety. Edit­ed by Flavia Brizio-Skov, I.B. Tau­ris & Co., 2011, pp. 53-82.

Burke, Frank. “Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crys­tal Plumage: Caging Women’s Rage.” Killing Women: The Visu­al Cul­ture of Gen­der and Vio­lence. Edit­ed by Annette Bur­foot and Susan Lord, Wil­fred Lau­ri­er Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2006, pp. 197-217.

Carmi­neo, Giu­liano, direc­tor. Per­ché quelle strane goc­ce di sangue sul cor­po di Jen­nifer? [The Case of the Bloody Iris]. Galas­sia Cin­e­matografi­ca, Lea Film, Anchor Bay Enter­tain­ment, 1972.

Cixous, Helène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Trans­lat­ed by Kei­th Cohen and Paula Cohen. Signs, vol. 1, no. 4, 1976, pp. 875-893.

Clover, Car­ol J. Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gen­der in the Mod­ern Hor­ror Film. Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2015.

De Mar­ti­no, Alber­to, direc­tor. L’uomo dagli occhi di ghi­ac­cio [The Man with Icy Eyes]. Cine­gai S.p.A., 1971.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cin­e­ma 2: The Time-Image. Trans­lat­ed by Hugh Tom­lin­son and Robert Gale­ta, The Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 1989.

Ercoli, Luciano, direc­tor. La morte cam­mi­na con i tac­chi alti [Death Walks on High Heels]. Atlán­ti­da Films, Cinecom­pa­ny, 1971.

---. La morte accarez­za a mez­zan­otte [Death Walks at Mid­night]. Cinecom­pa­ny, C.B. Films S.A., Mon­do Macabro, 1972.

Fari­na, Cor­ra­do, direc­tor. Han­no cam­bi­a­to fac­cia [They Have Changed Their Face]. Film 70, 1971.

Fed­eri­ci, Sil­via. “Why Sex­u­al­i­ty Is Work.” Rev­o­lu­tion at Point Zero: House­work, Repro­duc­tion, and Fem­i­nist Strug­gle. Autono­me­dia, 2012, pp. 23-27.

Fou­cault, Michel. “A Pref­ace to Trans­gres­sion.” Aes­thet­ics, Method, and Epis­te­mol­o­gy. Edit­ed by James D. Faubion, trans­lat­ed by Robert Hur­ley, The New Press, 1998, pp. 69-87.

Frayling, Christo­pher. Spaghet­ti West­erns: Cow­boys and Euro­peans from Karl May to Ser­gio Leone. Rout­ledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.

Free­land, Cyn­thia A. The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Hor­ror. West­view Press, 2000.

Freud, Sig­mund. Reflec­tions on War and Death. Trans­lat­ed by A.A. Brill and Alfred B. Kut­tner, Mof­fatt, Yard and Com­pa­ny, 1918.

---. Civ­i­liza­tion and Its Dis­con­tents. Trans­lat­ed by James Stra­chey, W.W. Nor­ton & Com­pa­ny Inc., 1962.

Ful­ci, Lucio, direc­tor. Una lucer­to­la con la pelle di don­na [A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin]. Atlán­ti­da Films, Les Films Coro­na, Inter­na­tion­al Apol­lo Films, Mon­do Macabro, 1971.

---. Non si sevizia un paperi­no [Don’t Tor­ture a Duck­ling]. Medusa Dis­tribuzione, Blue Under­ground, 1972.

---. “Lucio Ful­ci.” Spaghet­ti Night­mares, by Luca M. Palmeri­ni and Gae­tano Mis­tret­ta, Fan­tas­ma Books, 1996, pp. 58-66.—Criteria.” Gial­loScore, http://​gial​loscore​.com/​c​r​i​t​e​r​i​a​.​a​spx. Accessed 30 April, 2017.

Glynn, Ruth. Women, Ter­ror­ism, and Trau­ma in Ital­ian Cul­ture. Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 2013.

Gun­ning, Tom. “An Aes­thet­ic of Aston­ish­ment: Ear­ly Film and the (In)Credulous Spec­ta­tor.” Film The­o­ry and Crit­i­cism, 7th Edi­tion. Edit­ed by Leo Braudy and Mar­shall Cohen, Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2009, pp. 736-750.

Hal­lam, Lind­say Anne. Screen­ing the Mar­quis de Sade: Plea­sure, Pain and the Trans­gres­sive Body in Film. McFar­land & Com­pa­ny, Inc., 2012.

James, Sel­ma. “Intro­duc­tion.” The Pow­er of Women and the Sub­ver­sion of the Com­mu­ni­ty, by Mari­arosa Dal­la Cos­ta and Sel­ma James, Falling Wall Press Ltd., 1975, pp. 5-20.

Jenks, Car­ol. “The oth­er face of death: Bar­bara Steele and La maschera del demo­nio.” Pop­u­lar Euro­pean Cin­e­ma. Edit­ed by Richard Dyer and Ginette Vin­cen­deau, Rout­ledge, 1992, pp. 149-162.

Lado, Aldo, direc­tor. La cor­ta notte delle bam­bole di vetro [Short Night of the Glass Dolls]. Dieter Geissler Film­pro­duk­tion, Doria G. Film, Dun­hill Cin­e­matografia, Jad­ran Film, Rewind Film, Surf Film, 1971.

---. Chi l’ha vis­to morire? [Who Saw Her Die?]. Dieter Geissler Film­pro­duk­tion, Doria G. Film, Roas Pro­duzioni, 1972.

Koven, Mikel J. La Dolce Morte: Ver­nac­u­lar Cin­e­ma and the Ital­ian Gial­lo Film. The Scare­crow Press, 2006.

Lenzi, Umber­to. “Umber­to Lenzi.” Spaghet­ti Night­mares, by Luca M. Palmeri­ni and Gae­tano Mis­tret­ta, Fan­tas­ma Books, 1996, pp. 67-72.

Mar­ti­no, Ser­gio, direc­tor. Lo stra­no vizio del­la Sig­no­ra Wardh [The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh]. Cop­ercines, Devon Film, Lau­rie Inter­na­tion­al, MLR, 1971.

---. Tut­ti i col­ori del buio [All the Col­ors of the Dark]. Lea Cin­e­matografi­ca, Nation­al Cin­e­matografi­ca, Astro C.C., Shriek Show, 1972.

---. Il tuo vizio è una stan­za chiusa e solo io ne ho la chi­ave [Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key]. Lea Film, Arrow Films, 1972.

---. I cor­pi pre­sen­tano trac­ce di vio­len­za car­nale [Tor­so]. Com­pag­nia Cin­e­matografi­ca Cham­pi­on, 1973.

Mendik, Xavier. “The Return of the Rur­al Repressed: Ital­ian Hor­ror and the Mez­zo­giorno Gial­lo.” A Com­pan­ion to the Hor­ror Film. Edit­ed by Har­ry M. Ben­shoff, Wiley Black­well, 2014, pp. 390-405.

Mul­vey, Lau­ra. “Visu­al Plea­sure and Nar­ra­tive Cin­e­ma.” Visu­al and Oth­er Plea­sures. Pal­grave, 1989.

Need­ham, Gary. “Play­ing with genre: An intro­duc­tion to the Ital­ian gial­lo.” Kino­eye, vol. 2, no. 11, 10 June 2002, http://​www​.kino​eye​.org/​0​2​/​1​1​/​n​e​e​d​h​a​m​1​1​.​php. Accessed 23 March 2018.

O’Leary, Alan. Trage­dia all’italiana: Ital­ian Cin­e­ma and Ital­ian Ter­rorisms, 1970-2010. Peter Lang, 2011.

Pasoli­ni, Pier Pao­lo. Hereti­cal Empiri­cism. Trans­lat­ed by Ben Law­ton and Louise K. Bar­nett, New Acad­e­mia Pub­lish­ing, 2005.

Pis­ters, Patri­cia. The Matrix of Visu­al Cul­ture: Work­ing with Deleuze in Film The­o­ry. Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2003.

Sev­as­takis, Michael. Gial­lo Cin­e­ma and its Folk­tale Roots: A Crit­i­cal Study of 10 Films, 1962–1987. McFar­land & Com­pa­ny, 2016.

Sor­lin, Pierre. Ital­ian Nation­al Cin­e­ma 1896-1996. Rout­ledge, 2001.

Totaro, Dona­to. “The Ital­ian zom­bie film: from deriva­tion to inven­tion.” Fear With­out Fron­tiers: Hor­ror Cin­e­ma Across the Globe. Edit­ed by Steven Jay Schnei­der, FAB Press, 2003, pp. 161-173.

Wagstaff, Christo­pher. “A fork­ful of West­erns: Indus­try, audi­ences and the Ital­ian West­ern.” Pop­u­lar Euro­pean Cin­e­ma. Edit­ed by Richard Dyer and Ginette Vin­cen­deau, Rout­ledge, 1992, pp.245-261.

---. “Ital­ian Cin­e­ma, Pop­u­lar?” Pop­u­lar Ital­ian Cin­e­ma. Edit­ed by Louis Bay­man and Ser­gio Rigo­let­to, Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 2013, pp.29-51.

Image Notes

Fig. 1. Bianchi, Andrea, direc­tor. Nude per l’assassino [Strip Nude for Your Killer]. Fral Spa, Blue Under­ground, 1975.

Fig. 2. Bava, Mario, direc­tor. 5 bam­bole per la luna d’agosto [5 Dolls for an August Moon]. Pro­duzioni Atlas Con­sorzi­ate (P.A.C.), Arrow Films, 1970.

Fig. 3. Ful­ci, Lucio, direc­tor. Non si sevizia un paperi­no [Don’t Tor­ture a Duck­ling]. Medusa Dis­tribuzione, Blue Under­ground, 1972.

Fig. 4. Ful­ci, Lucio, direc­tor. Una lucer­to­la con la pelle di don­na [A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin]. Atlán­ti­da Films, Les Films Coro­na, Inter­na­tion­al Apol­lo Films, Mon­do Macabro, 1971.

Fig. 5. Petri, Elio, direc­tor. Indagine su un cit­tadi­no al di sopra di ogni sospet­to [Inves­ti­ga­tion of a Cit­i­zen Above Sus­pi­cion]. Vera Films S.p.a., The Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion, 1970.

Fig. 6. Carmi­neo, Giu­liano, direc­tor. Per­ché quelle strane goc­ce di sangue sul cor­po di Jen­nifer? [The Case of the Bloody Iris]. Galas­sia Cin­e­matografi­ca, Lea Film, Anchor Bay Enter­tain­ment, 1972.</p


1 “Genre,” as con­ven­tion­al­ly under­stood in pop­u­lar Anglo­phone film crit­i­cism, implies a fix­i­ty of char­ac­ter­is­tics that is dif­fi­cult to main­tain in dis­cus­sions of Ital­ian pop­u­lar cin­e­ma. Bet­ter suit­ed here is the Ital­ian crit­i­cal term is filone (lit­er­al­ly “vein” or “cur­rent”), sug­ges­tive of con­cur­rent streams or threads which min­gle or sep­a­rate arbitrarily.

2 Gial­lo tropes are so con­sis­tent that an online film direc­to­ry, Gial​loScore​.com, ranks films accord­ing points award­ed for the pres­ence of var­i­ous tropes in a giv­en film (black gloves = 5 points, mis­tak­en iden­ti­ty = 2 points, bath­tub mur­der = 1 point).

3 “In 1975, first-run cin­e­mas, which made up only one eighth of the total, received half of the total box-office tak­ings” (Sor­lin 120).

4 Because of the sheer num­ber of terza visione and the low­er cost of dis­trib­ut­ing films to them, they offered a dis­tinct finan­cial advan­tage to low­er-bud­get pro­duc­tions that did not need to recoup their costs in a hur­ry. Such films could tour the ter­tiary mar­ket indef­i­nite­ly, earn­ing “excep­tion­al­ly large receipts from terza visione and the provinces over longish peri­ods (four or five years)” (Wagstaff 247).

5 Despite its forced con­trast between upward­ly-mobile, cos­mopoli­tan North­ern­ers and South­ern­ers trapped in “archa­ic and feu­dal modes of exis­tence” (Mendik 395), the Mez­zo­giorno gial­lo rarely makes any “seri­ous exam­i­na­tion of the social or eco­nom­ic fac­tors that under­pin [the South­ern­ers’] malaise” (Mendik 397).

6 This pro­vides an inter­est­ing con­trast to anoth­er 1970s filone, the poliziottesco or crime-thriller. In those films, the pro­tag­o­nist is unvary­ing­ly an iron-willed and bru­tal­ly effec­tive police offi­cer who refus­es to let the law stand in the way of jus­tice. O’Leary under­stands the poliziottesco as both a screen­ing of and salve for the ten­sions pro­duced by the polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic vio­lence of the anni di piom­bo: “they depict sit­u­a­tions pushed to the ne plus ultra which artic­u­late not the real­i­ty of con­tem­po­rary Ital­ian soci­ety so much as a fan­ta­sy pro­jec­tion of that real­i­ty which is part anx­i­ety and (I pro­pose) part wish-ful­fil­ment” (95).

7 The gial­lo’s female killer is some­thing like the obscene symp­tom of Amer­i­can horror’s “final girl”: both claim for them­selves and per­form so-called “mas­cu­line” vio­lence, but the gial­lo’s female killer does so pre-emp­tive­ly and vol­un­tar­i­ly, rather than reac­tive­ly and defensively.

8 This is a gross sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of Freud, not to men­tion a con­fla­tion of Freud and de Sade. Nonethe­less, it is a sim­pli­fi­ca­tion and con­fla­tion made pur­pose­ful­ly and explic­it­ly by the gial­lo. For exam­ple, the open­ing cred­its of Lo stra­no vizio del­la Sig­no­ra Wardh (1971) end with a title-card fea­tur­ing the fol­low­ing quote from Freud: “The very empha­sis of the com­mand­ment: Thou shalt not kill, makes it cer­tain that we are descend­ed from an end­less­ly long chain of gen­er­a­tions of mur­der­ers, whose love of mur­der was in their blood as it is per­haps also in ours” (60–61).