What Is a ‘Giallo’ Film and How Does ‘Suspiria’ Fit the Genre?

Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s classic is in theaters now

Suspiria Original
1977's "Suspiria" (Image credit: 20th Century Fox)

Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” may prove to be one of the most confusing, if not polarizing movies of the year. The bloody mind-bender features multiple “secret” performances from Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson and a challenging, elliptical score from Radiohead’s Thom Yorke to boot.

But amid all the deliciously vexing things about the film, one of the words you may have heard thrown around in reference to it is the word “giallo.” As in, “Suspiria” is a remake of Dario Argento’s giallo horror classic.

So what the heck is “giallo” and what does it have to do with “Suspiria?”

In short, a “giallo” film (plural is “gialli”) is essentially an Italian exploitation film. They’re hyper-stylized crime movies that often include gory murders, erotic themes and masked killers with black leather gloves. As is true of another Italian sub-genre inspired by American cinema, the Spaghetti Western, composer Ennio Morricone often makes an appearance.

Not only that, giallo films are similar to American slasher and exploitation films in the sense that they’re often lush, colorful and even trashy movies that make for howlingly good midnight cinema. Filmmakers such as Brian de Palma, Nicolas Winding Refn, Eli Roth and now Luca Guadagnino, have borrowed from the genre in their own films and cited some of its directors as inspirations.

The name “giallo,” which translates to “yellow” in Italian, refers to pulpy, cheap, paperback crime novels that were identifiable thanks to their bright yellow book colors. While they were first published in the late 1920s as translations of British detective stories, they didn’t gain popularity until post-war Italy thanks to a ban from Mussolini.

So while the term “giallo” itself was originally applied to a wide swath of stories from even American or British origins, it’s come to be associated specifically with Italian crime movies that developed in the ’60s and continued in popularity through the ’70s and early ’80s. Films like Lucio Fulti’s “A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” (1971), Mario Bava’s “Blood and Black Lace” (1964) and Dario Argento’s “The Bird With the Crystal Plumage” (1970) set the tone for this particularly lurid genre.

As for “Suspiria,” while Argento’s film is widely considered a classic, there’s a healthy debate as to whether the 1977 film can even be called a “giallo.” Argento is certainly a father of the genre. But “Suspiria” leans on horror elements and paranormal thrills in a way that’s atypical of other gialli. Search for the term on Google, and it’s easily the first result. And that hasn’t stopped critics reviewing Guadagnino’s remake from labeling it as such. But even lists of essential gialli films will omit it in favor of other Argento favorites, like “The Cat o’ Nine Tails” and “Four Flies on Grey Velvet.”

Just add it to the list of things making “Suspiria” so polarizing. Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” is in theaters now in New York and Los Angeles and opens wide on Nov. 2. You can also stream the original “Suspiria” on TubiTV.