I’m going to be brutally honest here and you may try to take my horror club card away, but here goes.
I’m not a fan of Italian horror. I mean, at all. I am a fan of Italian women, so much so that I married one. But I digress. I know that people wax poetic over the artistry of Argento and the trippy avant garde mastery of Fulci, but at best, their movies leave me scratching my head. Or dead asleep. I tend to sleep a lot when I watch Italian horror. And this from a guy who can stay awake through The Haunting of Whaley House (as bland and uneventful as the actual Whaley House tour) and The Darkness (even Kevin Bacon can’t win them all).
Back in the early ’80s, when VHS was starting to be a thing, my friends and the older kids talked about Italian horror flicks as if they were the holy grail. None of the video stores by me carried them, and the thought of asking my father to write a check so I could send away for my own VHS copy was as appealing as asking him to fork over all of his paycheck so I could buy a dozen Star Wars Jawa figures. More on that in a future column.
As far as I knew, no one in the neighborhood had actually seen an Italian horror movie, but that didn’t stop them from whispering about the awesomeness of Suspiria. The name alone had me intrigued. Young and dumb me thought it was the name of the Italian version of Elvira. If Suspiria had anyone half as hot as Elvira, I was in. My friend David burst my bubble, telling me it translated to suspense, kinda like a Hitchcock movie. His translation was no better than mine, but I did enjoy Hitchcock movies, so it had to be good.
Then came Zombie, or as it was known across the Atlantic, Zombi 2, with excited chatter that a zombie fought a shark — underwater!!! Are you fucking kidding me? We all thought that had to be the most badass thing ever put on film. We had to see it. Dawn of the Dead’s influence was heavy on our demented minds and we wanted more zombies. As young teens of little means, we did the only thing we could do. We whined to the video store manager, pestering the poor man until he relented and bought a copy. I’m sure David and I weren’t the only ones putting the screws to him. I mean, who really cared about two snot-nosed kids and their boners for a cheap foreign zombie flick? But at the time, we were sure we had been the ones to bring the horrors of Italy to our little suburb.
Desperate to elevate our status in the idiotic pecking order of the teen caste system, we rented it as soon as it came in and told no one. We had plenty of friends who wanted to see it, but if we let them all in, well, then we weren’t that special. We wanted to be the first. All those lower peasants could see it later.
We picked the movie up after school on a Friday, playing Wiffle ball with our friends as if we weren’t sitting on the greatest find of all time. Night came, the game ended (back when a Wiffle ball game could go thirty innings because, why not?) and David and I hustled into his house. I popped some Jiffy Pop, the mega-brain lump of foil issuing steam like a volcano. David slid the tape into his front-loading VCR, one of the new ones that had better tracking and faster rewinding. We were still in top-loading land in my house. With the lights shut off and enough orange soda to burst our bladders, we sat back, breathless, buzzing with anticipation.
First off, the print was lousy. It looked like it was a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy. That aside, because back in the day, video and audio quality were never a consideration, Zombie was about as exciting to us as watching my sister have a tea party with her teddy bears. It’s not like we were little geniuses or movie critics, but even to our undeveloped minds, it made almost no sense. It was confusing to us, too. If this was an Italian movie, why was it shot in New York? In a word, it was BORING. Yeah, the zombie grappling with the shark scene was cool, but man oh man, what a mess to sit through to get to it. Of course, when we bragged about seeing it, we told everyone it was even better than the hype. As our friends watched it, they agreed. I’m 100% positive we were all bullshitting each other. It was considered cool to be into Italian horror. Daring to admit out loud you didn’t like it was social suicide, at least in my strange social circle of horror loving nerds.
Next came Suspiria. I remember thinking something was wrong with the film because everything was tinted red. To us, it made zero sense. Any aspirations toward cinematic artistry were lost on us. Now that the video store had broken the Italian horror seal, more titles followed. We gave it a go with The House by the Cemetery (slow and, well, WTF?). The box for Night of the Zombies (aka, Hell of the Living Dead) looked way cool, with nasty zombies coming for us right off the shelf. An early lesson that you couldn’t judge a horror movie by it’s awesome cover art. A lesson we refused to learn. We tried Rats: Night of Terror and that was a little better than most, by in large because we grew up Ben and Willard fans.
After a while, we just had to admit it—we didn’t get, or like, the horror movies coming out of Italy. And what was their obsession with doing bad things to eyeballs…in close-up? It may explain why I can’t look in anyone’s eye if they pull their lid down. It was disappointing. I mean, I LOVED spaghetti westerns. I didn’t want to be Clint Eastwood, but I did want to be Tuco (Eli Wallach in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) because bad guys, especially funny ones, got all the great lines. At least those movies moved on a linear line and made sense. When you’re young, you don’t want to have to think too hard, or struggle to appreciate an aesthetic.
So I waved the white flag. I gave up. I dabbled a little in college and afterward, but nothing serious. Now that I’m a bit, ahem, older, I’m willing to try again. To that end, I can say there are a few I have enjoyed, including Tenebrae, Demons and The Church. For my money, none of them can hold a candle to The Changeling or The Shining or even House. But at least now I kinda get it, though if my wife puts City of the Living Dead on, I’m in for a nice 90 minute nap.
And there it is. Mr. Big Horror Guy will never be a lover or expert on Italian horror. You want high quality horror? Look to countries like Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Korea. So much good stuff coming out of there (please watch The Loved Ones and tell me I’m wrong). Me, I prefer my spaghetti with meatballs on a plate with a little parmesan cheese and a side of garlic bread. Not in my horror movies.
PS: I’m open to having my opinion changed. Tell me what Italian flicks make you rise from your couch and shout, “Bravo!” Give me a recommendation that really floats my boat and there just may be a free book in it for you. I may be an old dog, but I still like to learn new tricks.
Hunter Shea is the product of a misspent childhood watching scary movies, reading forbidden books and wishing Bigfoot would walk past his house. He doesn’t just write about the paranormal—he actively seeks out the things that scare the hell out of people and experiences them for himself. You can follow his madness at huntershea.com.