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Giallo Can You Go? Talking Italian Horror With Spector
James Gracey , February 17th, 2012 05:34

You might not guess it from his besuited and bespectacled exterior, but Spector singer Fred Macpherson is a devotee of Italian horror cinema. The BBC Sound Of 2012 nominee reveals more in conversation with Dario Argento biographer James Gracey. Photo by Joe Tovey Frost

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A woman has her eye gouged out, slowly, surely, on a large splinter of wood. A group of people are caught in a rain of maggots. A girl flees from an unseen assailant only to fall into a room filled with coiled wire, while another is ripped open by demonic figures and strangled with her own intestines after opening a mysterious witch's earn. The mother of a deformed and murderous child is hacked to death by a chimpanzee with a straight razor. An evil… What? Oh, come on! Have you never watched the films of Italian horror masters Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci?

Vivid, nightmarish and baroque, the work of Argento and Fulci has left an indelible and blood-spattered mark on horror cinema. Between them, they have conjured up some of the most startling, unsettling and exquisite images of violent death to ever slosh across the silver screen. Consistently pushing the boundaries of on-screen violence, the pair are renowned for their outrageous and elaborately constructed set pieces, striking imagery and lurid atmospheres. Lashings of bizarrely fetishistic images abound in Argento's movies, such as the recurring one of the killer's hands, clad in black leather gloves, fondling sharp implements of death. His killers prefer the intimacy of up-close knife attacks. Fulci meanwhile, specialises in sickening, downbeat and illogical narratives in which his pitiful characters are powerless to fight for their lives against vicious sadists. That their pictures are also laced with unflinching imagery of eye-violation is no coincidence: it serves as the perfect metaphor for their brand of retina-searing shock.

The golden age of Italian horror has a far-reaching legacy that impacts on modern cinema and younger viewers, one such enthusiast being London musician Fred Macpherson. We called up the nattily attired frontman of rising indie-pop crew Spector to talk about his macabre obsession...

What formed your introduction to Italian horror?

Fred Macpherson: My journey came about almost by accident. I tuned into a late night screening of Lucio Fulci's The House By The Cemetery a few years back, and found myself gripped by it. The scene where someone has a knife plunged through the back of their head and out of their mouth accompanied by this horrible synth music, just made me think 'What the hell is this?'. After some research, I realised it's generally held that Dario Argento's Suspiria is as good as Italian horror gets, so I took it from there."

One of the things I love most about Italian horror is its unique sense of style and artistry. All these scenes of brutal violence and nightmarish logic are exquisitely choreographed. It's almost balletic.

FM: Yeah, and quite often the actual storylines seem less important than other stuff, like the way everything is filmed. Especially something like Argento's Tenebrae, the lighting in that is fantastic - it's so bright and over-lit. And in Suspiria, the way the music works with the colours gives it this gestalt quality, where everything merges.

It's all about images and atmosphere, something Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci are renowned for. What draws you to them in particular?

FM: After seeing the sensory overload that is Zombie Flesh Eaters I wanted to see more of Fulci's work. It seems Dario Argento is very much the 'chin-strokers' choice of Italian horror. It's okay to like him and he can be understood as an artist. It seemed a bit unfair to me, when reading about Fulci's career after I saw his Gates Of Hell trilogy, that he was always in the shadow of Dario Argento. He was the Christopher Marlowe of Italo-horror. Maybe Fulci's stuff comes across slightly more silly than arty, but I think it's how you interpret it.

It took me a while to appreciate Fulci's work; I've always preferred Argento. Some of the images I've seen in Fulci's films, however, have ingrained themselves into my subconscious. I can't un-see some of that stuff. That is the mark of a great horror film maker: someone who truly understands the nature of horror and has the power to get under your skin. His work has the stench of the grave about it.

FM: What comes through in his work for me is not this sense of individual scary moments, but an overall sense of disgust that penetrates everything. Like in City Of The Living Dead, with these people running around trying to stop something, and essentially fighting a losing battle, it's all so unglamorous. It's not like there's a definite hero trying to save the day. I first saw The Beyond on VHS and it added to the feeling of finding buried treasure. Even though some of his work seems a little cheap and shoddy, you can still see what he was aiming for. The goriness of his films never struck me as being gory for the sake of being gory. It was just like another colour on the palette.  

It's interesting that you use the analogy of an artist's palette. Fulci once said, "Violence is Italian art."

FM: Yes, and he died with nothing. It's hard to see his stuff as artistry when he dealt with violence and gore, sordid themes and all the accusations of misogyny - a bane of both directors. That era of horror, that kind of lower budget horror, is seen as the lowest form of creativity.

Exactly, and as far as misogyny goes, I would argue that Fulci's films are just plain misanthropic. He has this really bleak, nihilistic outlook. No one in his films is safe, regardless of their gender.

FM: There's also a kind of meta-element as well in his films, especially towards the end of his career, like in Cat In The Brain – not one his best, but still interesting. He cast himself as this horror director who is pushed to the brink when reality and the violent films he's making begin to overlap.

Argento also addressed the accusations of misogyny hurled at him with his highly reflexive Tenebrae.

FM: So they were answering their critics with those films? And didn't Argento say something about how he'd rather kill a beautiful woman than a man? Something that maybe didn't prove his misogyny but wasn't the best argument against it either.  

He did! Much of his approach to filming the deaths of his female characters is rooted in the influence of Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote about such matters in The Philosophy Of Composition. Poe remarked that the most poetic topic in the world was the death of a beautiful woman. Argento's work exudes a morbid poetry that intertwines with these Poe-inspired notions.

FM: That's an interesting way to look at it. It's not just all about some hot Hollywood actress getting killed. In a way those '70s and '80s films had a misogynistic element, but it was somehow less patronising. Argento and Fulci acknowledge masters of horror from before. It's through Fulci that I got into HP Lovecraft and Arthur Machen. It's amazing to traverse these more left-field routes of horror that this generation has missed out on.

Fulci is one of the few horror filmmakers to effectively convey Lovecraft's bleak visions of madness, decay and misanthropy.

FM: Younger generations have been spoiled by having too much of what the idea of horror has become; films that don't have the finesse of directors like Argento and Fulci. Their work is still so outrageous. It takes you on a journey that's almost obtuse, especially when it's backed up by inspiration from the likes of Poe and Lovecraft.

When I interviewed Argento, what struck me was the philosophical way in which he approaches his work. He isn't being exploitative for the sake of it. He's reaching into the darkest parts of his subconscious and exploring these twisted theories and concepts. 

FM: With Argento and Fulci the most scary aspects of their work don't make you jump out of your seat - it's the quieter moments, like that scene in Suspiria with the girl just sitting in front of a mirror, brushing her hair and slowly realising that there's maggots falling from the ceiling. That's more effective than just showing some big monster running down the street.

How would you compare these Italian films to more contemporary horror?

FM: There's something really sordid about these old films. They're so freaky and unsettling and unpredictable. These psychedelic set pieces completely contrast with what you get in modern horror. It's amazing looking back at this underground market for films that are just so distorted and odd; films that don't really play by anyone's rules. Argento really turned that into a craft, and while Fulci may not have honed it as finely, he still left such a mark. An absurdity runs through the work of both filmmakers, and its surreal nature is something that is missing from modern horror. Who would think of something as preposterous as a zombie fighting a shark? While he may have arguably been one step behind Argento, in terms of ideas - odd, interesting and horrific ideas - Fulci was really one of a kind.

There was always rivalry between them. Argento believed Fulci was ripping off his work. Eventually they reconciled their differences and planned to make The Wax Mask together. Fulci envisioned it as a darkly romantic epic, but sadly he died before they made it. Argento eventually produced it and dedicated it to Fulci.

FM: That's interesting. There are parallels of that in history where you have, maybe not enemies, but rivals, and they still respect each other. I remember meeting Eli Roth a while back and he was definitely of the opinion that Fulci's work should be reappraised.

The influence of Argento and Fulci is still immense throughout horror today. It's instantly obvious when something has been inspired by Italian horror.

FM: It really is a genre in itself. Argento and Fulci were at the forefront of a generation who could make the rules. It's good to see that there are people who really care about these older films and are being inspired by them and, in a way, are promoting them to younger audiences. The House Of The Devil is almost like a pastiche of Italian horror films. That felt like a really old film, with the makers using old rules and parameters to create something fresh. It's a bit like when a modern garage-rock band decides to record on eight-track or something. Cabin Fever is another recent example of playing around with genre conventions. It was fun and funny.

Do you think because the work of Argento and Fulci has been so influential, and ripped off, it may seem very clichéd to younger audiences who aren't familiar with them and the impact they had on the genre?

FM: If younger audiences were to watch something like Argento's The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, they'd probably think it was the most clichéd thing in the world because of all the subsequent copycats. I can't imagine what it must have been like to watch these films without having the experience marred by the next 20 years worth of less exciting, turgid films.

One of my favourite things about Italian horror is the music. Often it seems so at odds with the violent imagery. It lends proceedings quite a poetic quality.

FM: Some of these films are worth watching just for their soundtracks. The juxtaposition of the music is astounding, like that scene in Zombie Flesh Eaters where the girl is having her eye thrust onto a big splinter and Fabio Frizzi's score is this bizarre mix of Tropicália and desert island funk. It's more disturbing than a traditional score and gives the film such a different feel. I also love Frizzi's work on The Beyond and City Of the Living Dead, and Walter Rizzati's score for The House By The Cemetery. We're actually trying to clear a sample from Frizzi's score for Zombie Flesh Eaters to use in a B-side.

So does this music ever influence your own work?

FM: I'm in an indie band, so it can be quite hard to bring ideas like this in to it, but I'm working on a project that I want to pay tribute to the music of these films. I'm aiming for something between the feel of these soundtracks, and the feeling that you get in motorway service stations throughout the British Isles. Hopefully it'll be a bit left-field and interesting with a real visual feel. It's called Milton Keynes. Whether anyone will care I don't know, but it'll be something fun to do.

What are your favourite titles by Fulci and Argento? What would you recommend to the readers of the Quietus who feel the urge to explore some Italian horror?

FM: Out of Fulci's work I'd have to say Zombie Flesh Eaters, which was called Zombi 2 in some places. I absolutely love that he had the audacity to make his own sequel to Dawn Of The Dead! I found it a lot more shocking than other modern zombie films. From beginning to end, it's a really odd trip. The Gates Of Hell trilogy too, especially The House By The Cemetery. Aside from Argento's Suspiria, I'd recommend the follow-up Inferno, with that scene where the guy drowns a bag of cats and is then murdered by a hotdog salesman!

My favourite scene in Inferno features one of the characters discovering an underwater ballroom in the basement of her building. It's so eerily tranquil and defies logic. Its beauty is almost marred by the discovery of those bodies!

FM: Coming to these films from a fresh perspective is interesting. Once you get a context, they make more sense because they've been so ripped off throughout the years. I watched some of the more outré ones before getting into the typical giallo stuff, like Tenebrae and The Bird With The Crystal Plumage.

I envy the fact that you are getting to see all these films for the first time!

FM: There's a lot to get through! The great thing about discovering these old movies is the abundance. Getting friends together to watch Fulci or Argento is always going to be a fun night.

Dario Argento by James Gracey is published by Kamera Books. Spector are currently on tour around the UK, dates here.

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.

Dan B
Feb 17, 2012 10:38am

If only I'd timed my 'friends in high places' comments one day later because this guy is the perfect example.

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Dan B
Feb 17, 2012 11:53am

Further idle thoughts: I've noticed, because I've been in film academic circles these last few years, that giallo became a very hip thing to talk about for about a year or so now. This, to me, seems to sum up Fred Blood-Royale quite adequately. Les Incompetents were a trendy post-everything hedonist garage band just after The Libertines. Spector are Hurts two years after Hurts failed to be the sound of their corresponding year. Ox Eagle was interesting for a bit but it never worked out between spots of modelling and presenting on MTV2. Ultimately it's all in the doe-eyed cheekboned guitar wank trying-on-a-genre category. Perhaps in my comments there is a vein of furious envy that I'm tapping into because I haven't seen one ounce of merit for this guy to sit around chatting about some films he's seen, or for your other mates in bands to talk about cookery or dish out advice. What's not ultimately backslapping and cronyistic about that? The Quietus seems to act as a Searchlight for encroaching conservatism within the arts but seems to operate without a degree of self-awareness. I'm not fusing these thoughts together well and I realise that an under-funded project such as yours will always have to call in favours and I totally rate this site (and the Pigeon) but man have a WORD with yourselves.

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Dan B
Feb 17, 2012 11:54am

Also he changed his singing voice, the tryhard CUNT.

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Luke Turner
Feb 17, 2012 4:51pm

In reply to Dan B:

Hi Dan!

Firstly, let's clear a little thing up. To imply that we're getting paid to write about Spector is deeply offensive and you can stick that. We never ever do advertorial, and never will.

And as for "The Quietus seems to act as a Searchlight for encroaching conservatism within the arts but seems to operate without a degree of self-awareness", what do you mean by that exactly? Are you saying we ARE conservative, in which case excuse me while we roll around the floor of the office, sides splitting with mirth at that.

Or do you mean we act as a searchlight that spots encroaching conservativism, before directing flak at it? That is true, we do our best, and thanks for spotting it.

However, we are a broad church, that covers music of many hues. We love pop too, and while I personally am not at all into the music of Spector, others in the building are. We cater for all tastes, sir, because we are people of many tastes ourselves. In fact, I wish we covered more pop music - it's just most pop music is lamentable at the moment.

And surely, a wander around the site and a listen to, say, yesterday's mix from Dead Sound & Videohead will reassure you that all is well in the world.

Now then, a final point: from your comments today and yesterday (eg. " Perhaps in my comments there is a vein of furious envy that I'm tapping into" and referring to being a lazy git who can't be arsed to work on his art) it seems that you perhaps are a musician. Why not come out from behind this Dan B mask of anonymity, and reveal yourself? Why not send us some music? Perhaps we'll like it and talk to you about cookery (? didn't quite get what that was in reference to actually? Irmin Schmidt from Can? Or the excellent writer Sam Herlihy? I am not friends with, and hever never met, either person), whatever interests you. Go on! Give it a whirl! xluke

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Dan B
Feb 17, 2012 4:55pm

In reply to Luke Turner:

Luke, I wrote to you after writing a public response after which the site fucked up and I couldn't retrieve it. Best, Dan.

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Dan B
Feb 17, 2012 4:56pm

In reply to Dan B:

Oh wait you deleted your original response (if only we all had that facility), I responded to that, I can't be arsed re-writing a new response.

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Feb 17, 2012 5:56pm

I have to say, the headline should probably be more akin to 'Spector try to Gain Hipster Credibility by Referencing Italo-Horror on Good Music Website'
But hey-ho

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SilianRail .
Feb 17, 2012 7:13pm

I'm also slightly confused by why this interview was what it was - rather than, say, someone interviewing Argento's biographer instead - but since I'm always delighted to read anything about Argento I won't say more - I wouldn't want to risk a tongue-lashing from JD anyway.

I had the pleasure of seeing Argento-soundtrackers Goblin at the Scala a couple of years ago, having first discovered him through a £1 ex-rental VHS copy of Suspiria in my local Blockbusters and then gradually watched most of his output via Film4 over the next few years. That was one of the more unique gigs I've attended, what with the synched videoshow of Argento clips in the background and all...

I hesitate to share this since it's only going to mean more competition for the prints, but as my girlfriend won't let me buy them anyway I suppose there's no harm: Rock-poster geniuses Malleus are in the middle of an awesome series of Argento posters, as featured on their blog:

Those of you without sensitive girlfriends, lap it up...

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anonymous bosch
Feb 17, 2012 9:33pm

Come on guys!

Okay, so the reason Fred Spector gets to talk about this stuff is because he's in a hyped band and probably ran into the interviewer at a party or something. Whatever. Argento's biographer is not the only person in the world who can talk about his interest in Argento. So you hate Spector/Fred... irrelevant. It's just an interview with someone kind of in the public eye, about a couple of directors (and a genre of cinema) that he enjoys and seems to know at least a little bit about. Don't see the harm in it myself. In fact, his enthusiasm is obvious enough and his comments non-vapid enough that it makes me think he's probably a bit nicer/more genuine than a lot of the other airheads roaming around London town.

And calling someone a 'CUNT' because they have dared to sing in different styles over the course of a near-decade? What kind of mental case are you? Everyone gets one go at life, and everyone is entitled to have different ideas, different things they want to try in their short time on the planet. No one is a 'cunt' simply because they don't seal themselves up in some ascetic prison-of-the-mind, berating themselves for every attempt they made that didn't live up to their original hopes.

I don't know Fred or any of Spector and I'm not into their music, but Jesus! He's allowed to enjoy and talk about whatever the fuck he likes, and only reasoned, rational responses to his doing so are of any merit whatsoever. If you want to be interviewed about Argento, do something that makes you a candidate for interview, like putting yourself out on a limb every night singing songs that are inevitably gonna draw tons of bile and bitterness from people who wouldn't dream of doing something similarly risky themselves (however much they wish they would).

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Dan B
Feb 18, 2012 11:21am

In reply to anonymous bosch:

It's funny how he always sings in the style that is popular at the time. Just saying. Whatever though, Spector will do nothing, they're too white bread.

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Dan B
Feb 18, 2012 11:31am

Last word: I'd like to read the author's book on giallo. Giallo didn't begin as pure horror cinema and was used to denote a type of Italian serious drama that wasn't made for the arthouse. It owed a lot, in my opinion, to the style of Hitchcock. They pick up on the subtler themes in this conversation, such as an understanding of the slow-burning psychological trauma rather than the big shock. I'm surprised Mario Bava doesn't get mentioned here, either. Danger: Diabolik is an awesome film that takes some giallo tropes but pushes them into a more lurid comic setting - generally speaking I prefer that trashier style.

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Feb 19, 2012 5:01pm

In reply to Dan B:

Spot on

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Stavros P. Leibowitz
Feb 20, 2012 10:17am

I really hate Fred Mac. He really is the worst kind of bandwagon chaser there is. All of the bands that he's been in have gone running after a sound the moment it stops being fashionable. He's the kind of media whore that you know will end up presenting T4 On The Beach if the price is right or, worse still, talking shite on Xfm on their Sunday afternoon slots.

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Phorty Phive
Feb 20, 2012 10:28am

In reply to Stavros P. Leibowitz:

Though they'll strenuously deny it, it's always been v.obvious that The Quietus write about their mates, or whoever they've been schmoozed by in the pub on any given week. No different to rest of the (for want of a better term) "music press" these days, but it's curious that they get so out-bloody-raged & self-righteous when their readers pull 'em up about it, isn't it?

After all, if it's not the case, why are they entertaining the frankly embyronic opinions of this "here today, gone tomorrow" Spector klart in the first place?

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Feb 20, 2012 10:30am

In reply to Phorty Phive:

n.b. It's certainly not because they approve of their records, because they're worst kind of opportunistic faux "indie" SHITE.

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Dan B
Feb 20, 2012 10:52am

Luke and I have exchanged emails. He hasn't put me up to this but I would just like to say that I wasn't implying that tQ took any kind of money or favour in exchange for this article. I've found loads of great music through this site and its sister paper and am not trying to wage war or troll anyone. I don't exactly retract the jabs I gave, but I'll wear anything thrown my way on the chin. Best, Dan.

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John Doran
Feb 20, 2012 8:25pm

In reply to Phorty Phive:

I'm a recovering alcoholic. I don't go to the pub. Luke really doesn't like Spector. We really like cult horror movies (and always have if you check the history of the site) and thus an idea was born. But I can tell you, that all this level of spiteful jealousy just makes me want to cover the band more not less.

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Dan B
Feb 20, 2012 8:48pm

In reply to John Doran:

"Jealousy"? Quietus High School is now in session.

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Luke Turner
Feb 20, 2012 8:57pm

In reply to Dan B:

You're very fast replying on this thread, Dan. Anyone would think you're sat there hitting refresh every 20 minutes or so to see our reaction. You've made your point, now it's just getting tiresome.

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Dan B
Feb 20, 2012 9:04pm

In reply to Luke Turner:

Yeah sorry for being interested in your site Luke.

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Phorty Phive
Feb 20, 2012 9:25pm

In reply to John Doran:

"Spiteful jealousy"? Pants-shitting hilarity, more like. If you're such fans of horror, why get a virtual novice to write about it FFS?

Write about Spector as much as you like, I doubt I'll be reading it. Unless you trick me into it with another misleading by-line, as per the above article. I can't see your supporting them doing your site any favours, but if it makes you happy, sir...

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Feb 21, 2012 6:03pm

I hate to say it, because I really do like this site, but I'm in complete agreement with Dan B. I honestly expect better than a 2nd rate 'discussion' with a 3rd rate singer from a 4th rate band with 5th rate opinions on Giallo from this site. But hey, no one forced me to read it...

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Feb 22, 2012 12:24pm

being italian i am pretty curious about what you actually mean for Giallo, i guess you probably link the word with horror fiction or horror movies, even italian made horror movie, here i read someone saying it is linked to "italian serious drama". Now in Italy Giallo is a word linked to classic detective fiction (what you would probably call golden age detective novels, or whodunnit) the kind of paperback from authors such as Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr, mistery fiction with a rational explanation or logical element. The word Giallo actually comes from the cover of those early paperbacks pressed by Mondadori (publishing house) that choosed to print these kind of cheap novels in a yellow plain pantone cover with an illustration inserted in circle in the center of the cover. So Yellow - Giallo (the color) stood for the whole genre of detective novels. Now it's funny how you use this word because horror movies are actually very far from the meaning we italian give to these word. Anyway technically early movies by Dario Argento are actually Gialli, they are actually WHodunnit, (there is a killer and you find out who it is), while after Profondo Rosso (last of the Dario Argento gialli) all the rest of his movies (as well as lucio fulci's movies) are all Horror movies with a plot who's revolting around a supernatural idea and solution (witches, demons, possessions, monsters, evil powers in general). That said i find it very interesting how this italian word has changed his meaning crossing borders and passing times. And really the most interesting thing is that by assuming that Giallo is italian horror movies you actually underline the fact that Horror movies has developed straight out of detective fiction (probably not internationally but surely in italy). Some talked about diabolik which is a borderline product sharing both the characteristic of detective/crime fiction and horror fiction, that's really a crucial product, being italian comic the main cultural gymnasium for italian cinema of the second half of XX cent.

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Wax Mask
Feb 22, 2012 1:34pm

In reply to CR-42:

Have to slightly disagree with CR42 - Giallo in modern Italian is a catch-all term for anything with 'thriller' overtones or any mystery (hence its constant use in crappy newspaper headlines, e.g. "Ibrahimovic, il giallo dell'incidente in auto"), and not exclusively classic detective fiction.

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Feb 22, 2012 1:52pm

In reply to Wax Mask:

Also, just to be nobby about it, Argento has made several (bleeding awful) gialli over the last few years: Trauma, La sindrome di Stendhal, Non ho sonno, Il cartaio and, you guessed it, Giallo. Amusingly, twenty years ago nobody I met in Italy could believe anybody except 16-year-olds would want to watch films by Fulci, Bava, Argento, Margheriti, Cozzi, etc. etc. -in the general imagination they were somewhere between 'Confessions of a...' films and 'Hammer House of Horror'.

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Feb 23, 2012 12:44pm

In reply to Wax Mask:

i Agree with both of you, you can use giallo generally speaking for any mistery (even misteries concerning car crash and football players, though it's all very metaphorical) and yes the late DarioArgento went back to the crime fiction or the more classic giallo. but again giallo is a very specific thing (at least in narrative, a legion of fanatic italian readers of polillo editions, passigli publishing and Mondadori will jump up on their armchair for an argument such as this) and would you really call Argento or Fulci authors of gialli? Still agree with the fact that most of those movies are the classic Bmovies a 13yearoldboy would have rent for an evening with friends, basing the choice on the gorey cover or idiot title (I remember seeing IL GATTO NEL CERVELLO at 14 just because the title was the more stupid in the whole VHS rental), then most of the Bmovies everywhere first goes CULT and then CLASSIC, and that's probably where we are at now: moving Bmovies from cult to classic and Fulci from splatter director to gialli author. Still i associates giallo with a quite boring narrative mechanism and with dull things like JESSICA FLETCHER or Ispettore DERRICK while the works of Dario Argento Ruggero Deodato o Lucio Fulci are still to me exciting gorey violent horror movies, much more than gialli.

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Bob Bruster
Mar 24, 2012 12:15pm

Fred what ever band he's in now talking about Italian Horror? It's like talking British New Wave cinema with Geri Halliwell.

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Apr 2, 2012 9:43pm

Mario Bava came first fellas.

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