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S.S. Van Dine's The Benson Murder Case, the first giallo ever published (1929). S.S. Van Dine's The Benson Murder Case, the first giallo ever published (1929).

Giallo (pronounced JAH-loh) is an Italian 20th century genre of literature and film. It is closely related to the French fantastique genre, crime fiction, horror fiction and eroticism. The term is also used to mean an example of the genre, in which case it can take the Italian plural gialli. The word giallo is Italian for "yellow" and stems from the genre's origin in paperback novels with yellow covers.



The term giallo was originally coined to describe a series of mystery/crime pulp novels first published by the Mondadori publishing house in 1929 (see Giallo Mondadori). Their yellow covers contained whodunits, much like their American counterparts of the 1920s and 1930s, and this link with English language pulp fiction was reinforced with the Italian authors always taking on English pen names. Many of the earliest "gialli" were however English-language novels translated into Italian.

An example of an Italian giallo cover. An example of an Italian giallo cover.

Published as cheap paperbacks, the success of the "giallo" novels soon began attracting the attention of other publishing houses, who began releasing their own versions (not forgetting to keep the by-now-traditional yellow cover). The novels were so popular that even the works of established foreign mystery and crime writers, such as Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace and Georges Simenon, were labelled "gialli" when first published in Italy. Giallo Mondadori is currently published every month, as one of the most long-lived publications of the genre in the world.

This led to the word "giallo" to become, in Italian language, a synonym of the mystery, crime and detective story genre, with a more generic significance than that it has currently in English, especially when it defines the cinema sub-genre (see later).


The film genre that emerged from these novels in the 1960s began as literal adaptations of the books, but soon began taking advantage of modern cinematic techniques to create a unique genre. Films known abroad as "gialli" are called thrilling or simply "thriller" in Italy, the first term usually referring to Italian 1970s classics by directors like Dario Argento or Mario Bava.


"Giallo" films are characterized by extended murder sequences featuring excessive bloodletting, stylish camerawork and unusual musical arrangements. The literary whodunit element is retained, but combined with modern slasher horror, while being filtered through Italy's longstanding tradition of opera and staged grand guignol drama. They also generally include liberal amounts of nudity and sex.

Gialli typically introduce strong psychological themes of madness, alienation, and paranoia. For example, Sergio Martino's Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (also known as Eye of the Black Cat) was explicitly based on Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Black Cat".

They remain notable in part for their expressive use of music, most notably by Dario Argento's collaborations with Ennio Morricone and his musical director Bruno Nicolai, and later with the band Goblin.


As well as the literary giallo tradition, the films were also initially influenced by the German "Krimi" phenomenon - originally black and white films of the 1960s that were based on Edgar Wallace stories.

The first film that created the giallo as a cinema genre is La ragazza che sapeva troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much) (1963), from Mario Bava. Its title referred to Alfred Hitchcock's famous The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), again establishing strong links with Anglo-American culture. In Mario Bava's 1964 film, Blood and Black Lace, the emblematic element of the giallo was introduced: the masked murderer with a shiny weapon in his black leather gloved hand.

Soon the giallo became a genre of its own, with its own rules and with a typical Italian flavour: adding additional layers of intense colour and style. The term giallo finally became synonymous with a heavy, theatrical, and stylised visual element.

The genre had its heyday in the 1970s, with dozens of Italian giallo films released. The most notable directors who worked in the genre were Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, Aldo Lado, Sergio Martino, Umberto Lenzi, and Pupi Avati.

Notable giallo films

Poster art for Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970). Poster art for Dario Argento's The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970).

The Girl Who Knew Too Much (by Mario Bava, 1963, also known as The Evil Eye)
Blood and Black Lace (by Mario Bava, 1964, also known as Fashion House of Death, Six Women for the Murderer)
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (by Dario Argento, 1970, also known as Phantom of Terror, Point of Terror, The Gallery Murders)
Five Dolls for an August Moon (by Mario Bava, 1970, also known as Island of Terror)
Lizard in a Woman's Skin (by Lucio Fulci, 1971, also known as Schizoid)
Next! (by Sergio Martino, 1971. also known as Blade of the Killer, The Next Victim, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh)
The Cat o' Nine Tails (by Dario Argento, 1971)
Short Night of the Glass Dolls (by Aldo Lado, 1971, also known as Paralyzed)
The Case of the Bloody Iris (by Giuliano Carnimeo, 1972, also known as What Are Those Strange Drops of Blood Doing On Jennifer's Body?)
Don't Torture a Duckling (by Lucio Fulci, 1972)
Who Saw Her Die? (by Aldo Lado, 1972, also known as The Child)
Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (by Sergio Martino, 1972, based on Poe's "The Black Cat" and also known as Eye of the Black Cat)
What have you done to Solange? (by Massimo Dallamano, 1972, music by Ennio Morricone imdb)
Knife of Ice (by Umberto Lenzi, 1972, also known as Silent Horror)
They're Coming to Get You (by Sergio Martino, 1972, also known as All the Colors of the Dark, Day of the Maniac, Demons of the Dead)
Torso (by Sergio Martino, 1973)
Eyeball (Umberto Lenzi, 1974, also known as The Devil's Eye, The Eye, The Secret Killer, Wide-Eyed in the Dark)
A Dragonfly for Each Corpse (by León Klimovsky, 1974, also known as Red Killer)
Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975, also known as The Hatchet Murders, The Sabre Tooth Tiger)
Strip Nude for your Killer (by Andrea Bianchi, 1975)
The House with the Windows that Laugh (by Pupi Avati, 1976, also known as The House with Laughing Windows
The Psychic (Lucio Fulci, 1977, also known asMurder to the Tune of the Seven Black Notes, Seven Notes in Black)
The Blood Stained Shadow (by Antonio Bido, 1978, also known as Solamente nero)
Tenebrae (by Dario Argento, 1982, also known as Unsane or Under the Eyes of the Assassin)
The New York Ripper (by Lucio Fulci, 1982)
The Pencil Murders (by Guy Lee Thys, 1982)
Opera (by Dario Argento, 1988, also known as Terror at the Opera)
Sleepless (by Dario Argento, 2001)


  • Mikel J. Koven. “Superstition & Pseudoscience: The Ambivalence of Belief in the Giallo Film” Midwestern Folklore. 30.2 (2004): 21-29.
  • Mikel J. Koven. “La Dolce Morta: Space, Modernity and the Giallo” Kinoeye 3.12, 27 October 2003.

External links

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