Italy fills a weird niche in film history. Some of the best and worst movies in history have come from the mountainous Mediterranean nation. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly was produced in Italy, but so was Legend of the Titanic, and Titanic: the Legend Goes On, horrible children’s animations that get mixed up a lot because they’re both xenophobic cartoons about the Titanic tragedy. That bizarre idea happened twice, in Italy, and one of them got a sequel.
I’m going to go over some unusual things common to Italian films, to try and convey the tone of Italy’s history in cinema. Please keep in mind that I’m being extremely general with the points that I’m making. There are probably a lot of films from Italy where few, if any, of these tropes are present.
My god. There are an awful lot of zoom shots in Italian movies, and the beginning of Zombi 2 is my favorite example. The image flies all over the place to intrigue and disorient the viewer, and it all happens while the camera sits completely still. There’s something comically lazy about that, but this trope give Italian films a distinct feel and sense of energy.
It’s not uniquely Italian to have a bunch of people kill each other in your movie, but most Italian films that I’ve seen are extremely violent. This is shown blatantly in “Spaghetti Westerns”, movies in the 60s that were produced in Italy by Italians, often filmed in Spain, and set in the American West. American westerns up to that point showed violence, but they typically tried to glorify it or lend it some kind of morally-justified dignity, but Spaghetti Westerns did it differently. They showed violence frequently and frankly, with a great deal of injustice and brutality. They made it look horrible, but they used it without hesitation to fill the screen with corpses. It’s entertaining and at the time, it was jarring to American audiences.
Violence against Women
The entire Giallo subgenre is known for inspiring later slashers by shocking audiences with violent acts against female characters. Hitchcock did it too, but he didn’t splatter his actresses in blood and show their boobs. These were extremely edgy movies that frequently got banned by Christians and other conservative organizations.
Women in Peril
There’s nothing new about this concept, and it’s made more effective by the fact that Italian directors often haven’t shied away from horribly mutilating and abusing their female characters. Women got killed all the time in American and British movies, but there’s something about having to watching it happen that made Italian movies that much meaner.
They showed them before all the Americans did it in the 80’s. This got them banned frequently, but usually the complaints weren’t coming from teenage guys who bought tickets.
It seems like Italian directors historically have a soft spot for things that make everyone else squirm. The puncturing, slicing, squishing and squeezing of those wet things that let you watch movies is a quick and easy route to making everyone sick. Maybe there’s an artistic metaphor there, but the blunt trauma of watching people getting blinded is enough for me.
This happened for practical reasons. Due to budget constraints and the fact that almost every well-known Italian film was made for export to other countries, many of these films have dialogue that was recorded in post, in a different language from the one that was used on-set. What else can you do when all of your extras only speak Italian, and you’re filming in Spain on thin ice with the Fascist government, and your film is supposed to be set in the 19th century American West?
The myth of The Odyssey seems like it had a huge influence on Italian filmmakers. It’s an interesting cultural trait that most of them seem to have. The characters travel great distances against terrible danger, even if the goal isn’t to get home, and the protagonists are usually clever and brutal men who treat others harshly. This applies to almost every Spaghetti Western as well as some of their other dramas and adventure films. For a perfect example of this, look no further than the trash classic Nightmare City (1980). The Italian take on the antihero looks a lot like Odysseus.
Hand-held Camera Shots
In the 60’s and 70’s, long before Paul Greengrass flailed his cameras around to make action sequences feel more frantic, Italians like Lucio Fulci and all three of the Sergios were doing it in their films. It led to a scrappy, realistic feel, like the audience is seeing the documentation of real events. The best part, in my opinion, is that filmmakers that long ago understood that letting the camera wobble is enough to increase immersion, rather than flailing it around and obscuring the action. I’m looking at you Assassin’s Creed, you mediocre tangle of confusing shots.
Weird and Legally Dubious Marketing
Zombie only had that name in America. In Italy, where it was produced, it was called Zombi 2. Dawn of the Dead (1978) was released in Italy as “Zombi”. See where this is going? Zombie/Zombi 2 had nothing to do with Romero’s classic shopping mall siege, but it was billed as a sequel to it, by completely different people in a different country, and without permission. That’s like a bunch of European fans making a 23 Jump Street without paying for copyrights.
Way too Many Different Titles for the Same Project
This is a funny one. For an example we’ll use The Mercenary, one of my favorite Spaghetti Westerns and directed by Sergio Corbucci. Other than The Mercenary, its name in America, it was marketed as “Il Mercenario” and “A Professional Gun”. “Il Mercenario” makes sense to me because that’s just the same name in Italian, but the baffling part is that they called it “A Professional Gun” in the UK. Why would they bother to do that? Couldn’t they use the same marketing material and feedback to sell it in the US and UK instead of sabotaging themselves by confusing everyone for no apparent reason?