Italian horror cinema is well-known for being ultra-gory. At least, that was very accurate in the 70s and 80s with the giallo (a sub-genre characterised by stylised murder mysteries as its focal point, later improved by the American slasher) and directors like Mario Bava, Ruggero Deodato, Lucio Fulci and, of course, Dario Argento.
Although the best times for Italian horror cinema are long gone (with a few sparse exceptions), every now and again an extreme Italian horror flick comes out of the blue and reminds people why my home country had such a legendary status when speaking of horror.
For fans of extreme horror cinema, in this article I’m going to recommend six horror films from Italy: three of them date back to the 70s and 80s (and one is amongst the titles responsible for the Video Nasties list), the other three are very recent and, perhaps, rather obscure. Besides different eras, the movies I picked are quite different in terms of tone, overall quality, extremity level and intent: make sure to read my short reviews before watching them, that way you might be able to tell whether these films are right up your alley or not. I included trailers, which you can take a look at by clicking on the titles if you’re still undecided!
Continue reading and find out about six extreme Italian horror movies below…
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Salo’, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) – During World War II, in the last days of Italian fascism, four fascist libertines kidnap nine teenagers, boys and girls, and subject them to 120 days of torture, degrading acts, psychologically and physically disturbing violence. This infamous picture written and directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini (one of the greatest Italian novelists and filmmakers) is often brought up when speaking about extreme cinema, for good reasons.
Bleak and depressing, this mix of exploitation and horror tends indeed to be disturbing and off-putting: the social commentary (that extends from fascism to the way the wealthy minority treats the masses) is tackled with the use of very nasty content. Salo’ doesn’t shy away from rape, teenagers forced to have sex with each other while a group of old farts is looking at them, ‘questionable’ force-feeding, distasteful torture and over-the-top violence. However, this is a nearly 150-minute-long film where, for the most part, what happens serves to build atmosphere and bleak tone, which is why some people consider Salo’ to be boring.
Nonetheless, I feel Salo’, or the 120 Days of Sodom is mandatory viewing for fans of extreme horror cinema: whether you like it or not, this film opened the gates for depressing and disturbing art-house horror, which makes it worth checking out for its historical relevance alone. Salo’ is still one of my favourite Italian horror films, mostly due to its commentary and the sense of despair it leaves me with.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980) – Dubbed as “the most controversial movie ever made” (which, for once, is an accurate label), Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust is indeed an infamous film: it exploits Amazonian populations for the sake of filmmaking, it caused the destruction of areas in the Amazon forest, it heavily relies on animal cruelty taken to the next level. The original cut of the movie is still banned from many countries, the director even went to trial as people believed he actually made a snuff film! On the other hand, Cannibal Holocaust is a ground-breaking picture as it first invented the found-footage format (19 years before The Blair Witch Project!), it implies some cutting-edge criticism on “civilised countries”, it’s impressive on a technical level and it’s extremely well-made.
Shameless Films recently released a version that heavily cuts the animal cruelty, which is the one I’d recommend watching: there are quite a few scenes of wild animals being killed and tortured on screen (which is honestly sickening to watch), but they’re less exploitative and cruel than they were in the original cut.
Cannibal Holocaust is really hard to talk about: as I said, the movie is very well-made, and it features a powerful social commentary. However, watching a giant-turtle being tortured, a pig being shot, a rat being cut open, a little monkey being decapitated and eaten raw on screen… that’s just too much. The film also features fictional acts of violence like rape, torture against women, cannibalism, mutilation against children… and those fictional parts are enough to deliver the message: they’re hard to watch, confronting and enraging, but at least they’re fabricated! Adding to this fake distasteful content some real animal slaughter is just a dick move that I cannot forgive. It’s a shame because, as I said a couple of times already, Cannibal Holocaust would be a masterpiece in the extreme horror field without those unforgivable acts of cruelty.
If you’re looking for the ultimate disturbing movie, Cannibal Holocaust delivers because part of what you witness is real. But if you feel uncomfortable with the content and prefer to stick to fiction (like I do), please do not watch this movie… as much as I love many aspects of it, I really can’t get pass the animal cruelty and the exploitation of aboriginal tribes.
Wild Beasts (1984) – Speaking of controversy, another movie where animals are killed just for the sake of filmmaking is Wild Beasts. Just like the previous title, Severin Films released a heavily cut version of the movie that censors animal cruelty almost in its entirety: once again, I watched the cut version since I really despise the torture of innocent creatures that don’t have a conscience and, thus, are defenceless at the mercy of sick human beings.
This movie was written and directed by Franco Prosperi, a man surrounded by controversy: whether it’s due to his shockumentaries being racist and inaccurate or because of the mistreatment of animals and people in the production of his films, this guy must’ve really gotten off at violence and torture, which kind of makes me hate him as a person. I’m here to judge cinema, though, and Wild Beasts really isn’t a bad picture: entirely shot at night in Frankfurt, this film features loads of memorable scenes and very gory sequences. Even in its cut form, Wild Beasts is not an easy watch as you can tell the animals are really terrified, which makes you feel angered and powerless as a viewer. Working with “wild beasts”, however, also caused the actors to be genuinely scared, so that their performances feel constantly off and weird. The story itself isn’t that interesting either: the water supply for a large zoo becomes contaminated with PCP, causing the animals to become violent. It’s been done, it’s dumb and the social commentary about pollution, while ahead of its time, gets lost among the senseless violence against those poor creatures.
Besides the animal cruelty, this film also pisses me off because Franco Prosperi clearly had talent (as the movie looks amazing from a technical and visual standpoint) but he wasted it throughout his career for the sake of being controversial and shocking. Not cool man!
The Museum of Wonders (2010) – We make a huge leap from the controversy of 70s and 80s Italian cinema to the artsy and disturbing indie horror filmmaking of the 2010s, when Domiziano Cristopharo (an Italian edgy filmmaker from Rome) claimed the stage. The Museum of Wonders (companion piece of another pretty cool movie called House of Flesh Mannequins) tells the story of a circus of freaks where jealousy and mischief escalate in a bloodbath. Some of the characters in this movie are people with actual deformities to their body, some others are body-modification enthusiasts filled covered in tattoos, piercings and internal inserts (like horns and stuff…).
So, yeah: the movie is inspired by the classic disturbing film Freaks (1932) and it probably influenced The Soska Sisters’ American Mary (2012), as they are friends with Domiziano Cristopharo. The story might be somewhat played out at this point, but The Museum of Wonders is a very cool movie: visually striking, uniquely presented and rather artsy, the edginess of this picture revolves around the body modification aspect, which for some people might be hard to watch or even to understand. Aside from that, this film won’t really shock fans of extreme horror, but it will definitely leave an impression on people who seek for a completely different kind of cinema: The Museum of Wonders is nearly poetry in motion, being one of the most abstract movies Italian cinema has to offer.
This director, however, is also notorious for his extreme horror movies. So, don’t worry: if you’re looking for a real shocker from him just wait for a couple of paragraphs…
Adam Chaplin (2011) – For a totally different kind of extreme horror, Adam Chaplin: this very low-budget indie flick follows Adam Chaplin (portrayed by the director, Emanuele De Santi) investigating the murder of his wife and discovering that a mafia boss is involved. Unable to trust the corrupt police, Adam summons a demon to lead him to the murderer: the demon gives Adam inhuman strength, which he uses to punch and kick the shit out of people in the goriest way possible.
If you’re used to gory and gruesome kills, you won’t experience this movie as disturbing or confronting: Adam Chaplin is just a lot of twisted, ultra-violent and over-the-top gory fun! The stylised fight sequences are the highlight here, as they’re really creative and – most importantly – they go to such extreme lengths I rarely have seen the likes of. Story and acting leave a lot to be desired, as well the continuity that features more mistakes than you can keep track of… but the graphic violence (really, to an unimaginable degree) and the off-putting look of every single character make this film an absolute blast.
If you’re a real gore-hound, you must watch Adam Chaplin as soon as possible.
Red Krokodil (2012) – Distributed by Unearthed Films, Domiziano Cristopharo’s second entrance in this article is a very peculiar film for me. We all have one movie that we consider to be the “most disturbing film ever made”… and, for me, Red Krokodil it that movie (with Strange Circus being close second).
What makes it so special, then? Well, Red Krokodil follows an unnamed man living alone in an incredibly small apartment after a nuclear apocalypse erased (it seems) every other living creature on the planet. He’s fighting a losing battle to Russia’s street drug known as Krokodil: for those of you who don’t know, Krokodil is a much more powerful and cheaper version of heroine, usually cut with gasoline or paint thinner. This drug, which is currently affecting many individuals from the lower classes in Russia, causes a fast and painful decay to flesh and tissues which, in most cases, first appears with the formation of green scales on the addict’s skin (which becomes similar to crocodile’s skin, hence the name).
And this is exactly why Red Krokodil is such a disturbing, powerful picture: it combines the confronting realism of this deadly substance (the main character’s slow decay is scientifically accurate) with the surreal and psychological terror of dealing with that alone, literally with no other person alive on the planet. The unnamed protagonist is not the only character, in a way: the small apartment and the krokodil itself are characters on their own, which presence develops this non-narrative story into a commentary about the self-destructing approach of human kind. This topic, now very current, has been handled in a rather pandering way most of the time, but Red Krokodil presents it in all its depressing, gut-wrenching and tragic realism. Despite the lack of gore (flesh decay aside…) and physical violence, Red Krokodil truly speaks to the viewer through visuals, sounds and horrifying imagery that will likely leave an unforgettable impression on you. Red Krokodil is the stuff nightmares are made of, every extreme horror fan should check it out immediately!
Well, that was quite a lot to endure! I have seen most of these movies more than once (aside from Wild Beasts and The Museum of Wonders) and I can honestly admit it wasn’t a walk in the park to sit through some of them for a second or third time. With the exception of Adam Chaplin, these films are not meant to be entertaining. In fact, they’ll probably leave you with a sense of desperation and nihilism, in the best-case scenario. Still, I do consider them to be more than meaningless shockers: they have a story to tell, messages to be delivered, meanings to be found, images to be experienced. If that sounds good to you and, like me, you wouldn’t mind feel miserable after watching a horror flick, go check them out!
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