A Brief History of Italian Giallo Films: Part I

By definition, Giallo is the Italian word for the color “yellow.” Most commonly associated with the eye catching yellow covers of early Italian pulp novels produced for a great many years by Mondadori Publishing dating back to 1929. These paperback thrillers often contained tales of sex, mystery, and murder, with the earliest examples being English-language novels translated into Italian. In the years that followed, these stories began to lend themselves quite nicely to low budget cinema fare, hence leading to the coining of the pseudonym “Giallo” to represent this genre of film. In the mid-to-late ’60s, the Giallo really took hold in Italy, and by the ’70s it became big business. During this peak period of popularity, nearly every Italian director dawned a anglicized pseudonym (by their producer) and took a proverbial stab at this genre of filmmaking. There are several key elements that help both define and separate the Giallo from a typical Hitchcockian styled whodunit murder mystery. Beautiful women appear as both heroines and victims, commonly models, often scantily clad, sometimes nude irradiating an overwhelming sense of eroticism throughout the picture. The over-complicated whodunit plot is often involving, but not always limited to, the revelation or discovery of the killer’s secret identity. This being made even more difficult by red herrings such as suspicious supporting characters, all with their own possible set of malicious motives and agendas to commit homicide. The film’s psychopath sometimes wears sunglasses, but is more commonly dressed in the trademark Giallo killer disguise, consisting of a black trench coat, hat, black leather gloves, and sometimes a mask. These trademark killers also frequently appear equipped with a bladed weapon, such as a knife, straight razor, or even something far more unique or diabolical in which to dispatch his or her victim. Let us not forget the most important point of separation: the ultra-violent and gory murder-set-pieces generally consisting of misogynistic overtones shot in lavish surroundings, accented with musical arrangements. Last but not least, the twist ending, often consisting of several layers and not always completely coherent Gialli (the plural for Giallo) typically introduce very strong psychological themes such as insanity, paranoia and alienation generally attributed to blackmail, adultery or impotence.

The first giallo novel to be adapted for film was James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, adapted by Luchino Visconti as Ossessione (1943). Though the film was technically the first of Mondadori’s giallo series to be adapted, its neo-realist style was markedly different from the stylized, violent character which subsequent adaptations would acquire. Condemned by the fascist government, Ossessione was eventually hailed as a landmark of neo-realist cinema, but it did not provoke any further giallo adaptations for almost 20 years.

In addition to the literary giallo tradition, early gialli were also influenced by the German “krimi” films of the early 1960s. Produced by Danish/German studio Rialto Film, these black-and-white crime movies based on Edgar Wallace stories typically featured whodunit mystery plots with a masked killer, anticipating several key components of the giallo movement by several years and despite their link to giallo author Wallace, though, they featured little of the excessive stylization and gore which would define Italian gialli.

The Swedish director Arne Mattsson has also been pointed to as a possible influence, in particular his 1958 film Mannequin in Red. Though the film shares stylistic and narrative similarities with later giallo films (particularly its use of color and its multiple murder plot), there is no direct evidence that subsequent Italian directors had seen it.

The Monster of London City (Edwin Zbonek, 1964)

The Giallo genre first took flight with a picture titled The Girl Who Knew Too Much/The Evil Eye (1963), starring John Saxon, and directed by Mario Bava. This black and white feature, whose title is an obvious play on the Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much, was a far more conservative effort compared to what fruit the genre would later bare. Bava, who had grown up under the influence of American filmmakers, such as Alfred Hitchcock and reading pulp fiction periodicals written by Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace, and Mickey Spillane, had already proved himself as a master of the macabre with hit films Black Sunday (1960) and Black Sabbath (1963). It was not until the release of his second title in this genre that the quintessential look and style of the yellow films became more clear cut. Blood and Black Lace (1964) presented the first disguised killer, complete with his own graphic and brutal tendency for on-screen bloodshed, all the while, hidden away behind a bright white silk mask and black dress attire. The film also set a standard by casting its lovely leading ladies as fashion models, a reoccurring theme and staple seen throughout the genre. Blood and Black Lace revolves around a fashion house filled with gorgeous models who are being offed one at a time by our cleverly-disguised villain. Sounds a bit similar to our slasher movies of today doesn’t it? Well, it should since the Giallo gave birth to the slasher sub-genre, and no other film did more to get that ball rolling than A Bay of Blood (1971). So what sets a slasher apart from a Giallo? In a Giallo, if the graphic murder scenes and bloody body count are removed, you still have a competent narrative whodunit picture. You can’t really say that about a slasher where these two elements are the main focal point of the movie. Remove all those key ingredients from a slasher title, and you are basically left with a soft core, coming of-age, T&A flick at best. Bava released two more Giallo films which presented varying directions for the genre to follow. His Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1969).

Death Knocks Twice (1969) A wealthy businessman, Francesco Villaverde, who suffers from mental issues, strangles Mrs. Ferretti (Anita Ekberg), the beautiful wife of another businessman, on a beach after they make love. The murder is witnessed by two criminals who then blackmail Francesco’s wife to get some property they desire from her. Two private eyes try to prove that Francesco murdered the woman on the beach, so they use a young blonde (the daughter of one of the detectives) to pose as bait for Francesco to kill. The Doll of Satan (1969) Directed by Ferruccio Casapinta When her uncle dies, Elizabeth goes back to her family’s castle to hear the reading of his will. Her boyfriend, Jack, suspects there is a plot afoot to steal Elizabeth’s inheritance and keeps a close eye on her. She learns the castle is said to be haunted, and her relatives try to get her to sell it cheaply, but she hesitates. Later, she’s kidnapped and brought to a dungeon where Elizabeth is tortured by a hooded figure.

Mario Bava may have ushered the Giallo into cinema, but it was largely Dario Argento who brought the emerging Italian genre to the mainstream. Argento unleashed his directorial debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), the first film in what would eventually become known as “The Animal Trilogy” The story revolves around a writer who happens to stumble upon a murder attempt, scaring off the black gloved killer with his unexpected presence. Convinced he witnessed something of importance, the writer begins to investigate the crime all while eluding the killer himself. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage lacks the obscenely graphic violence that Argento’s later Gialli would come to be known for; however, the emphasis on style is certainly accented. The film lays down a foundation of fancy, extravagant set pieces and distinctly complex camera work that eventually became only staples of the genre, but were nearly perfected by Argento himself in his later works. Argento had redefined the genre by furthering both the level of gore and fetishistic violence, a theme Bava had only touched on, leading to problems with international censors. Still, “Bird” was a tremendous success in Italy, although not immediately. The film managed to hang around the box office, but it was only after the incredible reaction to the film overseas, upon its American release, that Italian audiences began to flock out to see this sleeper hit. Obviously, success bred imitation and rather quickly for that matter – over the next five years, following the release of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, no less than fifty Gialli made their way into cinemas! Argento’s next two features were part of the aforementioned boom, and both released in 1971 to round out “The Animal Trilogy:” The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971). “Cat’s” plot revolved around a reporter and blind man investigating a string of murders related to a bizarre break-in at a genetics laboratory where research is being performed that may link the tendency for criminal behavior to an XYY chromosome. The violence in Cat took a considerably more graphic approach than seen in “Bird,” with two outstanding death scenes: a man pushed in front of a train to meet his brutal demise and the killer plummeting down the ropes of an elevator shaft while his hands are torn to shreds.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet concerned a drummer in a rock band who accidentally murders a man he feels has been following him for days. The plot takes flight when a photograph is taken of the accidental murder by someone up in a balcony donning a strange puppet mask. This voyeur soon begins to make attempts on the drummer’s life and murder those around him. Violence and paranoia ensue as the audience is led closer and closer to the masked killer’s identity with the only real hiccup in the film being the plot point referenced in the picture’s title: the four flies on grey velvet is an image that has supposedly been burned on the retina of one of the killer’s victims, the last image the victim saw before their death. Despite this notion of science fiction, “Four Flies” manages to stay away from conventions of that genre with a little suspension of disbelief in order to provide an effective and gory Giallo experience.

Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970) A clique of the idle rich gathered for a swinging weekend at an island beach house is murdered one by one in this ultra-groovy, Pop Art giallo. Soaked with a glamorously sleazy ambience and an absurd lounge music score by the great Piero Umiliani. Produzioni Atlas Consorziate purchased Mario di Nardo’s script for Five Dolls for an August Moon with plans to make it into a vehicle for actress Edwige Fenech, though early publicity instead spotlighted Princess Ira von Fürstenberg (who was one of the film’s principal investors). The film lost its director just days before filming was scheduled to begin, leading producers Mario and Pietro Bregni to appeal to Mario Bava to take over. Bava was very reluctant to take on the project, since he felt the script was a poorly written ripoff of Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None, but agreed to do it under the condition that he be paid up front. He was further dismayed when, at the meeting where he was presented with the contract for the movie, the Bregnis told him that the original director’s departure was so last-minute that the cast and technical crew had already been selected and filming was to begin in just two days, leaving him no time to rework the script.

Bava made two significant changes to the film’s script: putting the corpses in polythene bags inside a walk-in freezer (di Nardo’s script put them in underground graves with cross-shaped headstones) and adding on the twist ending with Farrell and Isabelle.

Death Occurred Last Night (1970) by Duccio Tessari, Following the disappearance of his beautiful but mentally handicapped daughter, Avanzio Berzaghi (Raf Vallone) travels to Milan to track her down. Local detective Duca Lamberti (Frank Wolff) investigates the city’s pimps and prostitutes for clues, eventually finding the girl’s burnt body in a field. Apparently the pimps disposed of the young girl when they heard investigators were looking for her. Berzaghi vows to find the girl’s murderer, eventually tracking down his quarry from a clue related to the girl’s teddy bear. Berzaghi exacts his revenge, but finds no satisfaction from having done so.

Dead of Summer (1970) by Nelo Risi, the story of the psychological disintegration of a woman, Jean Seberg, who in the background of Agadir battered by heat and an incessant sandstorm, she lives waiting for’s return her husband. It will end by discovering that she herself killed him, during a nervous breakdown and erased from her mind all memory of the crime.

Dead of Summer (1970)

Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971) The corpse of reporter Gregory Moore (Jean Sorel) is found in a Prague plaza and brought to the local morgue. But Moore is actually alive, trapped inside his dead body and desperately recalling how the mysterious disappearance of his beautiful girlfriend (Barbara Bach) led to a terrifying conspiracy of depravity. He begins to walk in through his mind. How Mira’s sudden disappearance made the police to suspect him instead. He delves more & more into the matter & discovers a mysterious Klub99 which exteriorly practices music but interiorly more occultly sinister. He ends up visiting the club discretely & searches or at least tries to search every corner of the club. But Moore ultimately fails to search the very room where his missing girlfriend Mira’s dead naked body is lying covered with flowers with her sightless eyes staring at the ceiling. As Moore leaves, the janitor of the club checks on Mira’s body & praises how lovely she is even after death. Ultimately, the entire fact bounces right back at Moore which takes him to even a more sinister and shocking end.

The film is one of the more overtly political compared to other gialli of the time. The Prague Spring occurred in 1968, and as Czechoslovakia began getting over communism, Short Night of Glass Dolls happened a few years later. It is a movie that challenges the governmental domination of elderly elites who exploit the virility of younger generations. It is critical of communism, but doesn’t show capitalism as the answer, just another oppressive system out to smash the people. While not necessarily falling into the giallo fantastico sub-sub-genre, which implies a level of supernatural happenings, Short Night of Glass Dolls definitely crosses the line into occult inquiry, similar to other more famous titles like Martino’s All the Colors of the Dark and Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (also both 1972).

SPOTLIGHT: Director Aldo Lado

The film was first called MALASTRANA , then LA CORTA NOTTE DELLE FARFALLE DI VETRO (“The Short Night of Glass Butterflies”). But the simultaneous release of a film with a similar title resulted in a last-minute change.
Aldo Lado: Yes, it was because of UNA FARFALLA CON LE ALI INSAGUINATE (Note: “A butterfly with bloody wings “) by Duccio Tessari and not 4 FARFALLE PER L’ASSASSINO (Italian title of the film STRAIGHT ON TIL MORNING by Peter Collinson ) as some believe it. The poster was already made with the title. It was therefore necessary to hide ” farfalle ” to stick something else. Someone came up with the idea of putting ” bambole ” (” dolls “), which is beside the film. One could, at worst, think that the young girls sacrificed are glass dolls. But OK…

And what do you think of the French title, JE SUIS VIVANT?
Aldo Lado: It’s too explicit, I don’t like it very much. It is not even fascinating. It reveals too much without attracting interest.


The cast was motley. Jean Sorel was very fashionable in the sexy-gialli der Lenzi . Ingrid Thulin , Barbara Bach … how did you manage to work with actors from such different backgrounds. ?
Aldo Lado: Ingrid Thulin , a great actress. Very serious, great experience with Bergman . Somehow, she was physically more Czech, which fitted well. Just like Barbara Bach , in which it was the first role, was more like a girl from Prague. Jean Sorelwas a star at the time. But I think from a gaming point of view he made one of his best movies with me. He was very docile, which is a plus for a director like me who is more into the work of directing actors. The technique did not prevail. Today, it is the reign of the camera and the technique. We care less about the actors. And a lot of so-called good actors become bad because they are not directed.

What feeling for a first shoot?
Aldo Lado: I didn’t have the jitters, oddly. It was as if I had already worked on four or five films! It was my work with Marcel Carné on TERRAIN VAGUE which taught me many things. It was natural, but I didn’t even know it.

It shows in this movie. I saw a lot of assurance and daring in it. The mix of political and social themes with a plot that resembles a Giallo tinged with the supernatural. This mixture confuses the viewer. It was clever, and unprecedented for the time. At least that’s my interpretation.
Aldo Lado: I wrote what I felt. At the time, when an Italian magistrate put his nose too much in shady cases, he was buried alive in a remote place so as not to bother anyone. If I had written an overtly political film, I would never have sold a script. It had to be made up in a “fashionable” story. So the Giallo. Beside, I have a special love for what touches on Central Europe. But, for me, it was not clever. I just wrote something that I could achieve. Because you must also see that you are only hired by looking at the money you were able to put in the pocket of the previous producer.

From a technical point of view, your choice of assembly pleases me very much. At the beginning, Jean Sorel has very brief flashes where Barbara Bach bites an apple, the glass butterflies. Which is mirrored at the end with again a series of time-lapse flashes, as if to give adrenaline rushes to the lost viewer.
Aldo Lado: You are quite right.

Is it true or just a rumour that you made an unacknowledged contribution to the writing of Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage?
Aldo Lado: I haven’t said much about this for the last forty years but now I feel like talking about it, so here’s a bit of a scoop for you… I was working as AD on a film produced by Dario’s father, Salvatore. Dario talked to me about ideas he was considering for his first film. He gave me the book he wanted to adapt and asked me what I thought of it. After I read it I told him that frankly I didn’t think very much of it but that there was something in there which would translate very well into a film, i.e the idea of the killings being seen from the killer’s point of view. So we worked together on a treatment of the film, until I was called away to assist on a Western in Spain. When I came back, he was making The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, featuring all these POV shots that would become “his trademark” and it was being presented as something that he had dreamed up all by himself, with no mention of me whatsoever. Dario built a very successful career on the back of that film and if he’d acknowledged me, it would have opened a lot of doors for me, too. So now I regard him as my sworn enemy, because why would you treat somebody like that unless they were your enemy?


At the climax of your brilliant giallo Who Saw Her Die (1972) it’s revealed that the child killer is a priest but the film ends with a hastily dubbed line, right out of the blue, to the effect that he wasn’t a real priest, just somebody who dressed like one… was this ending imposed on you by the censors?
Aldo Lado: Yes. You have to realise what a Catholic country Italy was in those days and how much power was wielded by the Church. The producers told me either we insert this false ending or the film will not be distributed, it was as simple as that. If you know me, you’ll have no doubt whatsoever what my attitude towards this was. I’ve been saying for decades that one day the truth will come out about all this sexual abuse in the Church and look where we are today…

Paolo Cavara with Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971) directs a tense, sunny and at the same time threatening film, which boasts a narrative structure even more compact than that of Argento. Even the title, which undoubtedly refers to the zoonym fashion introduced by The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, hides its fascinating logic, as is the fascinating idea of the killer who first paralyzes his victims and then dismantles them while they are still conscious. If the trauma from which the madness arises is perhaps a bit too pretex, the rest works more than admirably, starting with the large female cast (Stefania Sandrelli , Barbara Bouchet , Rossella Falk , Barbara Bach , Annabella Incontrera ), up to the good Giancarlo Giannini, committed to outlining a human inspector full of doubts and uncertainties. The Argentinian influences are many and are concentrated above all in the ritual of murders, in the setting (Rome), in the use of macro (objects in the murderer’s house) and the subjective, in the music of Ennio Moriccone and in the look of the murderer (black gloves and raincoat). The relationship between Commissioner Giannini and his girlfriend Sandrelli also recalls that between Tony Musante and Suzy Kendall in The Bird with the Crystal Feathers, with the placid tram tram of the life of two (the furniture to buy, the little misunderstandings) that is upset by a red chain of crimes and, as expected, in the final “he” will have to run to save “her” from the clutches of a murderer.

A mysterious killer is attacking women associated with a blackmail conspiracy. The deranged murderer, wearing surgical gloves, kills his victims by paralyzing them with a needle and then slicing open their bellies with a knife (in the same way tarantulas are killed by the black wasp or spider wasp). The victims are conscious and can feel the pain, but they are unable to move, resist or scream. One victim (Barbara Bouchet) is wearing a yellow nightie when she is killed, an obvious nod to the giallo covers of the lurid Italian murder mysteries on which the films were based. It is up to the reluctant Inspector Tellini (Giancarlo Giannini) to find out who the killer is, before he or his girlfriend become the murderer’s next target.

Luigi Bazzoni , author of the splendid La donna del lago , returns to the genre with The Fifth Cord (1971). Let’s say immediately that with The Fifth Cord, Bazzoni signs another milestone of the kind. Tense, dark, beautifully photographed by Vittorio Storaro and with an unusual narrative compactness, which stops (something more unique than rare in the genre, considered by many useless) to deepen the psychology of the characters, the film rises above the cheap production of the time. As in La donna del lago , in which the chiaroscuro of the characters served to amplify the cold nightmare atmosphere, so also in The Fifth Cord for the ram , the total lack of redemption of every piece put into play, transforms the film into a “sick” microcosm in which no one is really guilty, but not even innocent.

“Mr. Bild” is a reporter with a drinking problem who is assigned to investigate an assault in a tunnel. In the meantime, a number of murders begin to pile up in which the killer is leaving a black glove with digits cut off to symbolize the number of people he has killed. The speculation is that the first victim was not killed due to the intervention of a couple making out near the tunnel, but now the killer has returned to finish killing his victims. The police have no clues, but as Mr. Bild gets closer and closer to the truth, the police begin to suspect him, his newspaper tries to take him off the story, and the killer makes threatening phone calls. More people are killed however, until the killer tries to kill his son and Mr. Bild intervenes, catching the real murderer red-handed.

Franco Nero himself, failed journalist both from a professional point of view (his communist ideas are not well seen in the editorial office where he works) and sentimental (on the one hand a broken marriage, on the other a pathetic relationship with a much younger girl), not you can certainly define a winning character. The Argentine moments are many and all absolutely recognizable; on the contrary, Bazzoni, with his dry and elegant style, almost succeeds in sublimating them, making them even more compact and incisive than those of Argento. He wisely plays with classic stylistic features, with music box music, falsetto voices and the murderer’s accessories (the black leather glove becomes the abacus on which to keep track of murders with a cut finger every time someone is killed ). Murders are never particularly heinous, but equally significant; the murderer kills to avenge a disappointment in love, but also because he theorizes the feeling of omnipotence that murder gives. In short, a brilliant film that suffers only a little from excessive intricacy in the plot and in the too many characters staged which Bazzoni reminds us every time with a quick flashback.

The Bloodstained Butterfly (1971) When an attractive college student (Carole Andre) is stabbed to death in the park during a rainstorm, the police arrest TV sports announcer Alessandro Marchi (Giancarlo Sbragia) as the killer. His attorney presents a weak defense and Marchi is incarcerated, not realizing his lawyer is having an affair with his wife, and the two are glad to get rid of him. But the murders continue, so the police begin to think they’ve jailed the wrong man.

The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire (1971) In Dublin, a young woman is murdered in her home by somebody who throws acid in her face and then slits her throat with a razor. Her body is later discovered, mangled and unrecognisable, in the boot of a limousine owned by the Swiss Ambassador to Ireland Sobiesky. Frustrated by their lack of progress, the police bring in the unofficial help of ex-Inspector John Norton, who was kicked off the force after a man he was violently interrogating blew his own brains out. Then a nightclub singer who was Sobieski’s mistress is also found killed, and Norton thinks that the best way for getting information is through Sobieski’s lovely daughter Helen….

Riccardo Freda was winding down a career that had began in 1942 and mostly consisted of historical dramas when he made this film, a project which he seems to have initiated. The opening credits state that it’s based on the novel A Room Without a Door by Richard Mann, but it appears that the novel and its writer were made up, something that was nothing new. The screenplay was written by Freda and Sandro Continenza, the other credited writers André Tranché and Gunther Ebert being credited solely for co-production reasons. Freda wanted Roger Moore for the lead role, but he was unavailable. It was shot on location in Ireland especially Dublin, in Switzerland for a short period, then at a studio in Rome. Freda was unhappy with the finished product and had his name on the credits replaced with the pseudonym “Willy Pareto”, while the German co-producer Artur Brauner thought it to be so poor that he decided not to release it in German cinemas. Of course it did come out in Italy but grossed poorly at the box office.


SPOTLIGHT: Actress Dagmar Lassander

She was born in Prague to a French father and Chilean-German mother, and began her career as a costume designer in the Berlin Opera. Her first role was in Sperrbezirk (1966) by Will Tremper. Starting from 1969, she began to work regularly, especially in Italian crime, horror and erotic movies. Her first non-erotic film was Hatchet for the Honeymoon. Her experience making the film was unpleasant: the producers required her to lose 25 pounds before filming, script revisions sidelined her character in order to give a larger role to co-star Laura Betti (who Lassander has said was “extremely rude” to her on the set), and because she only spoke German and a little English at the time, communication with the director was difficult. Lassander later successfully sued producer Manuel Caño for failing to deliver on his promise that she would be the movie’s top-billed actress.

She was cast in several other gialli such as Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion (1970), The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire (1971) and Reflections in Black (1975), as well as in two Lucio Fulci horror films, The Black Cat (1981) and The House by the Cemetery (1981). In the 1980s, she was also featured in several Italian TV series, the French-German feature film S.A.S. à San Salvador, and the 1984 Lamberto Bava thriller Monster Shark.

The Italian cinema of the ‘70s was very much based on the aesthetic artifact of beautiful women – what was your experience like, living through this era?
Dagmar Lassander: “I never asked myself the question of whether I was being objectified or not. I didn’t have these feminist problems. Also because, frankly, nobody ever forced me to do things that I didn’t want to do. Yes, there was a certain caution around some of the more ‘explicit’ scenes: the naked shower, for example, was typical in Italian films. But that voyeurism element was all very much one-sided. We were naked for the audience, but I couldn’t see them.”

Were these sets tiring?
Dagmar Lassander: There were a lot of film shoots happening all the time. The critic Guglielmo Biraghi called me ‘the parsley of Italian cinema’, because, at a certain point, I was everywhere, between important roles and participations. My agent said I had to do it and so I did. Today I blame him for making me work like a donkey.”

Ah, but he didn’t bother you?
Dagmar Lassander: But I remember being quite tired. However, we were young, so I just kept on going.

Was it difficult to combine family and work life?
Dagmar Lassander: I had a very bourgeois life, with a husband who wanted me to work. He always wanted a busy woman next to him – in fact he was often the one making me work. I went on set already five months pregnant, with a big belly. Ugo Pagliai, my partner in the film, was frightened: ‘Ah, the child kicked’, and stopped shooting. I had to have a body double in the film, because obviously you couldn’t see this belly.

What brought you to Italy?
Dagmar Lassander: My agent, after the first six films I had been working in Germany, told me it was time to go to Rome, to London, to Paris. He took me here to Rome and already on the second day I had a contract for Piero Schivazappa’s film, The Laughing Woman. They had seen one of my German films, Andrea, and when my agents arrived to meet this producer, he said they’d already been looking for me. So it was also a stroke of luck. Then I stayed in Italy and I never stopped working here.

What was it like working in Schivazappa’s film, The Laughing Woman (1969)?
Dagmar Lassander: Not easy. He was an intellectual, not an overly cheerful person. On the set he was always very busy, very busy. It didn’t make the job particularly easy, especially as I hadn’t yet learned Italian at that point and had many communication difficulties. There was a very severe atmosphere on the set, I remember that well. Philippe Leroy was very much on his side, very serious, and there were no great talks between us. He remained very much on his own.

What was Mario Bava like?
Dagmar Lassander: A great gentleman. I did one of my first films in Italy with him, Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970) it was called, or something like that. It later became The Red Sign of Madness. I didn’t speak Italian well, so there was a very focused relationship on the need, on the job. Besides, even Bava didn’t speak English. We shot the film in Italy, in a villa near Frascati.

Remember a movie called The Forbidden Photos of a Lady Above Suspicion?
Dagmar Lassander: Yes, by Luciano Ercoli. We shot it in Spain, my partner was Pier Paolo Capponi, a very serious actor, very career-driven. Luciano was a funny guy, a nice person, pleasant.

How come you ended up working predominantly in gialli or horror movies?
Dagmar Lassander: I’ve never really thought about it. I often think back on my career as having done a lot of Italian comedy, but what everyone remembers me for is for all the gialli, the horror films, from Mario Bava to Lucio Fulci, Fernando di Leo, Riccardo Freda, all films of terror or detective stories. Those are the films from my career that just seem to have stuck.

What was it like working with your ‎The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire (1971) director Riccardo Freda?
Dagmar Lassander: I especially remember my co-star Valentina Cortese, she was incredible. What a charming, nice, adorable woman! When I arrived on the first day on the set, Luigi Pistilli told me: ‘You will see now what happens to you!’; “What’s wrong with me?”; ‘You don’t know what Valentina’s like’; ‘What do you mean?’; ‘You’ll see when it happens…’

Then in the first scene Valentina and I shot together, she goes: ‘One, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight, nine, ten…’, all the way up to a hundred! That was how she counted out for her dialogue, and I had to guess at what number my dialogue entered. Counted, you understand? It was almost impossible to know where to attack. Luigi Pistilli told me he also did it in the theater. Riccardo Freda let her act like this. On Freda’s set she arrived in a wheel chair. Then, quietly, she got up and took off the plaster on her leg! It was a trick – she explained – that she needed to so she could be carried while traveling by plane, to avoid getting tired and stress. This was Cortese!

Riccardo Freda was also very snobbish, very sneaky – he had this white Rolls Royce. He was someone who knew how to live his life well. With Riccardo we had actually been friends before filming started, he’d often been a visitor at our house. My husband was a former officer of the Guardia di Finanza and I remember that Freda with this Rolls had a license plate problem or something – so that was how we first met, in Rome.

Let’s talk about Fulci: it’s a common rumor that he was sadistic on the set?
Dagmar Lassander: Yes, he was sadistic: he had the mania that things had to be serious, true, authentic. In England he took a bucketful of worms and put them on the body of an actress. I looked at him and told him: ‘Lucio, why do you put worms on this poor thing? I do not understand…’; ‘Ah, you know, we need to keep this as real as we can – it must be so’; ‘Are you kidding me?!’

The film was The Black Cat (1981); do you remember anything else from the set of that one?
Dagmar Lassander: The fire here in Cinecittà happened while we were filming that one. I remember starting the scene looking down this corridor wrapped in flames, and Lucio tells me, ‘Now you walk in this corridor and you go down to the bottom. Don’t worry: there’ll be a wall down there at the bottom. We did everything right, the wall will then open to the outside, you get there and the wall will no longer be there. Do not worry…’

Well, I went into those flames, trying to find this wall. While not being able to breathe – the flames eat oxygen, you can’t breathe, apart from the heat. And then there is a scary noise. I run in this corridor, I go to that wall that was supposed to free me…and how does it fall? On me! And yes, they were wrong. The wall had to open on the other side to allow me to go out and instead – since the gentlemen had not done things very well – it fell here. There was a fireman who hadn’t trusted him, he was ready with the suit, and as he saw the danger, he jumped into the flames and pulled me to the last second out from under this wall, which was collapsing on me. If not, I would’ve definitely been crushed. Lucio was dismayed: ‘Dagmar, forgive me! Do you want a whiskey?’

But it was Piero Schivazappa on The Laughing Woman (1969) who really wanted to make me suffer. It was the same concept as Fulci: worms must be real! He attached handcuffs over my head and left me hanging for eight hours. My wrists got completely swollen. I was crying, I was crying, even after shooting I kept crying, because everything hurt. He says: ‘Yes, but this is of even greater pain to me’. These are very questionable things – do you have to make me suffer to the point that I don’t understand anything anymore?

What do you remember about that villa next to the cemetery?
Dagmar Lassander: Not much except that in Boston, where we shot, I was staying in a hotel along the river and that was where Fulci took me for the first time in my life to eat in a Japanese restaurant. Lucio was nice, he was a laugh, joking, he liked conviviality. He was just so sadistic when he worked.

What memories do you have of Werewolf Woman (1976)?
Dagmar Lassander: Not many – I remember Rino Di Silvestro, who was a gentleman; and then Howard Ross, who I have always been friends with. He was very masculine, he had this wonderful body, beautiful. But his nature was also kind – he is a very kind soul, very polite. Quite different from the violence you’d expect with macho. A very respectable person.

One thought on “A Brief History of Italian Giallo Films: Part I

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