Why Giallo’s Ghoulish Sound Continues to Haunt

Louis Pattison

By Louis Pattison

International Editor
on 10.31.14 in Features
‘You could listen to a Gruppo record like an abstract painting. They were out to reinvent music. — Andy Votel’

The roughly 500 Italian films that fall under the gruesome banner of “giallo” all share a few identifying characteristics. There’s a vivacious, scantily clad female lead. There’s the protagonist, usually male, who’s sucked into a bloody conspiracy he can neither comprehend nor control. There’s a murder mystery plotline, driven forward not by police investigation or rational deduction, but by strange twists involving dreams, insanity or psychic powers. And then there are the villains themselves: Mysterious and murderous, faces obscured, clad in heavy leather overcoat, wielding a hatchet or a cutthroat razor.

But perhaps the surest mark of the giallo is the way they look, sound and feel. With their lavish sets, sumptuous soundtracks and saturated colours — seldom has spilled blood looked quite so rich — they’re a feast for the senses: Slasher flicks, shot like romances. The giallo aesthetic has proven timeless, as evidenced by a string of recent big screen homages, including Tulpa, Yellow and Peter Strickland’s meta-giallo Berberian Sound Studio.

The sound of giallo has also proven peculiarly enduring. Classic scores have been reissued by labels such as Death Waltz and Finders Keepers, and the aesthetic has been influential on a new generation of musicians, lured in by its exotic darkness and groovy, sinister soundtracks.

“My introduction to giallo was Dario Argento’s Deep Red,” says Justin Sweatt, a Texan who records menacing instrumental electronic music under the name Xander Harris. “I remember stumbling upon it during some late-night browsing at a video store, looking for something outside of American teen scream films. The cover struck my interest, and I loved the description on the back, so that was my pick for the night. During the scene where the camera slowly pans over the killer’s gear, I remember noticing the music in the background. There was this opening keyboard melody, then this raucous Chris Squire-esque bass riff kicks in. I remember thinking, ‘Whoa, this music is insane.’”

‘There was this opening keyboard melody, then this raucous Chris Squire-esque bass riff kicks in. I remember thinking, “Whoa, this music is insane.” — Justin Sweatt’

The term “giallo” translates as “yellow,” in reference to a series of budget thriller paperbacks published by the Milan publishing house Mondadori, but it is Mario Bava who is commonly regarded as the man who brought the notion of giallo to cinema. Bava started his career in the special effects department of Mussolini’s film factory, the Istituto LUCE. After the war, he worked as a cinematographer in the genres of horror and science fiction. By the early ’60s, Bava had turned director and invented giallo’s uneasy mix of eroticism and violence with a pair of films: 1963′s The Girl Who Knew Too Much (La Ragazza Che Sapeva Sroppo) and the following year’s Blood in Black Lace (Sei Donne Per L’assassino).

Bava’s stylish, bloody aesthetic caught on and the commercial rise of the giallo coincided with a new golden age in Italian film composition. “Early Italian horror movie music was quite poppy — a lot of pop and jazz,” says Andy Votel, a giallo enthusiast who has released a number of vintage scores on his label Finders Keepers. But if you’re looking for the creator of the classic giallo sound, he argues, “You have to give [Ennio] Morricone a lot of kudos for his work with Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza.”

Formed in 1964, Gruppo was a groundbreaking experimental music group based around the core trio of Morricone, Franco Evangelisti and Egisto Macchi. Gruppo’s explorations of wild jazz and classical dissonance seemed to echo the giallo’s dreamlike evocations of violence and madness. In Morricone’s soundtrack to The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (L’Uccello Dalle Piume Di Cristallo), the stylish 1970 directorial debut by a young newspaper critic turned screenwriter named Dario Argento, you hear the composer establish a familiar jazzy leitmotiv, then use it as a base to explore aspects of free improvisation and modern classical music, with tolling bells and creepy sing-song vocals that sound like a lullaby heard in some nightmarish fugue state. “You could listen to a Gruppo record like an abstract painting,” says Votel. “They were out to reinvent music.”

If these soundtracks sound like nothing before or since, that’s because the Italian film industry in the ’60s and ’70s was a wellspring of musical greatness, a story of bold, creative producers and schooled, virtuoso composers and players. Many musicians attended conservatories such as Accademia Musicale Chigiana, where the teaching staff included film music luminaries such as Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, composer of classics of Italian cinema like 1959′s Continente Perduto. “The majority had degrees from a conservatory,” says Daniele De Gemini, who runs the Italian soundtrack label Beat Records. “Training ground included the studios at RCA Italiano or the national television orchestra, RAI. These were all in Rome, so you just had to take a bus to the studio to find a new place to prove yourself. If you had a talent, it was simple to switch your art from pop to soundtracks.”

In-house orchestras were common, meaning that, even when budgets were tight, small but familiar units of virtuoso musicians could make world-class productions. “There was a serious lack of ego going on in the Italian film industry,” says Votel. “People got on with making music and it didn’t matter whose name was on the tin. These people would make five soundtracks a day — they were machines, you know?” If a degree of one-upmanship found its way into the practice, it was in pushing the form forwards with cutting-edge synthesizer technology or elements of free jazz and tape music. “Unusual scores were part of the formula,” adds De Gemini. “Composers like Pierro Umiliani, Lallo Gori and Teo Usuelli would make highly experimental work. It was often quite situational — directors would leave musicians to interpret the images, and the results were often very special.”

‘People like Simonetti and Morricone had years of training and came with a want to change the world. Now it’s very easy to layer a thousand moans, different sounds. When there’s no artistry or education behind it, it’s masturbatory. — Andy Votel’

In the year 1975, the giallo score was transformed: After a break from the genre, during which he worked on drama and comedy films, Argento was prepared to make his return with a new film titled Deep Red (Profondo Rosso). Unhappy with the efforts of original composer Giorgio Gaslini, Argento tried to secure the services of Pink Floyd. When that plan failed, he approached a promising Italian progressive rock group named Cherry Five. “Dario was looking for a band that could play in a rock way,” says the group’s Brazil-born keyboardist, Claudio Simonetti. “Our producer was also Dario’s publisher, so he recommended us. When we started recording the soundtrack, we didn’t change our music. Dario chose us, because he loved what we did — he said, ‘I want this sound on the film!’”

The group — soon to be renamed Goblin — composed and recorded a fresh soundtrack in a couple of days. Progressive rock that was both ornately baroque and friskily funky, Profondo Rosso would top the Italian chart for 15 weeks, and go on sell in excess of four million copies. Suddenly, Goblin became the de facto sound of giallo — a sound that would be widely mimicked. “As Cherry Five, we would listen to Genesis, Gentle Giant, Emerson Lake and Palmer,” laughs Simonetti. “But then, after we made our own sound, other bands would copy Goblin.” This commenced an ongoing partnership between Goblin and Argento, perhaps best seen on 1977′s Suspiria — a gory tale of a German dance academy under the influence of a witches’ coven.

Simonetti has recently reunited with Argento to score the director’s upcoming film The Sandman and will close 2014 touring Europe with a new line-up of Goblin, playing live renditions of Suspiria and George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead with the original films as a backdrop. “It’s incredible that, after 40 years, people still get excited. It’s especially a surprise because most of these people are very young. I look out in our audience and I see many different generations,” he laughs. “I would like to ask the young people why they like the giallo films, because I don’t know. Maybe in modern films there are too many digital effects, not enough interesting story. Maybe [in the gialli] there is something deeper that we did not see at the time.”

‘Giallo can be seen as a really sexist, horrific form. So it’s interesting to realize that women are really in control of the giallo phenomenon.” — Andy Votel’

Certainly, the giallo sound and style resonates with a contemporary generation of music-makers. It’s there in Pittsburgh prog duo Zombi (who took their name from the European title for Dawn of the Dead) and it’s there in the eerie productions of electronic producers like Gatekeeper and Umberto. Broadcast turned out a brilliant soundtrack for Berberian Sound Studio, and there’s even a Bristol-based label, Giallo Disco, whose sound draws heavily on Goblin’s disco-influenced period (typified by their soundtrack to 1982′s Tenebre). Label co-founder Anton Maovvi describes the label’s typical offerings as “sinister, atmospheric music for dancing that relies more on tension than euphoria.” In truth, this “horror disco” has relatively little to do with the original scores of Morricone or his right-hand man, Bruno Nicolai. Instead, it constitutes a hyper-stylized take on giallo films as we experience them, in a vintage, rediscovered form: the sound defined by churning arpeggiated synths and grainy VHS production; the label’s logo is one of the giallo villain’s murder weapons of choice — a cutthroat razor.

Meanwhile, the giallo soundtrack remains crucial to the thriving reissue industry. Through Finders Keepers, Andy Votel has worked to issue great, out-of-print giallo scores — chiefly works by Bruno Nicolai, such as The Case of the Bloody Iris and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key. He admits to being dubious of most contemporary giallo-influenced musicians, whom he believes to be dilettantes, not trailblazers. “You had to be very dedicated to make experimental music in the 1960s,” he says. “People like Simonetti and Morricone had years of training and came with a want to change the world. Now it’s very easy to layer a thousand moans, different sounds. When there’s no artistry or education behind it, it’s masturbatory.”

Finders Keepers

Which brings us to the elephant in the room when discussing giallo: the erotic violence that teeters on, and occasionally plunges into, a rather unpleasant misogyny. “Giallo can be seen as a really sexist, horrific form, and violence towards women is not something that should be celebrated,” says Votel. “So it’s really interesting to realize that women are really in control of the giallo phenomenon.”

To illustrate his point, Votel points to figures like lost library music queen Daniele Casa — recently subject of the brilliant Finders Keepers compilation Sovrapposizione Di Immagini — and Edda Dell’Orso, the singer whose haunting, wordless vocals drift through seminal Morricone and Nicolai scores. “She is an incredible person. She never sang any words, it’s all a made up language, so not dissimilar to Magma or Can, in that respect. She is something these modern bands trying to ape the giallo sound will never have.” And maybe this is why the original giallo soundtracks have such a hold on our imaginations. Their sound is stylish, intoxicating, but thanks to the unique manner of their creation, unrepeatable; try to grip ahold of it and it disappears, like a killer in the fog.