My first introduction to the horror offerings of Italy was a movie trailer that consisted simply of a white background with “ZOMBIE” in bold font across a tiny black and white TV screen. At the time, I was too young to be knowledgeable of foreign films outside of Kung Fu movies but the simplicity of the trailer for what I now know as Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters (AKA Zombie or Zombi 2) filled me with a lingering creepiness well into my teens. I couldn’t even tease out the plot from the trailer but somehow I knew that if I saw this film, I would be witnessing something unlike the slasher fare that dominated the screen during the early 80’s. I didn’t see Zombie until my late teens but my real journey into Italian horror began with what is a more important contribution to the overall horror genre, Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977).
The plot of Suspiria follows Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), a young American who has been accepted to study at a prestigious dance academy in Germany. Besides being an American trying to catch a German cab in the middle of a rainstorm, Suzy’s first night begins in a particularly odd fashion when she arrives at the school but is told to leave. On top of that, she witnesses another student leaving the school in utter fear of something that’s going on inside. Eventually Suzy is able to begin her studies but since this is a horror film, nothing is ever quite right. Whether it’s Suzy’s sudden illness, her paranoid roommate or the late night goings-on of the school headmasters, Suzy is drawn deeper into a chaotic and violent world that is beyond her understanding.
And that’s pretty much it…but not really.
Any further plot synopsis takes away from the full experience, especially if this style of filmmaking is unfamiliar to you. This isn’t a “monster of the week” kind of story. Rich technicolor, agoraphobia inducing camera shots, and a pulsing soundtrack of bizarre vocalizations establish the atmosphere in this cinematic world. Don’t get me wrong, there is still some fine slashing and practical gore effects of the 1970’s variety but there is also a lack of spatial orientation that adds to the horror akin to what Kubrick accomplished with The Shining several years later.
Suspiria is often categorized as “giallo” film, a horror subgenre whose origins can be traced back to the yellow covered Italian paperback mysteries and thrillers of the early 20th century. The classic giallo film years range from the late 60’s through the late 70’s with a few still being produced occasionally. These were stereotypically stories about mysterious killers in black gloves with overtly complicated motives, but it was not unusual to find giallos with plot devices that ventured into the supernatural and the occult. Despite its supernatural conventions, Suspiria is often lumped into the giallo category, but it’s really an art film without any of the unlikeable pretentiousness. In Suspiria’s world, there isn’t a killer to unmask or even a motive to be sought; it’s a film about the chaotic nature of the unknown.
Suspiria’s legacy is a visual and audio experience that I still think no one has done better than the film’s director, Dario Argento. No camera placement, no piece of furniture, nothing feels lazy or haphazard. If you are unfamiliar with why Italian horror has such a dedicated fan base, I guarantee that it is because of Suspiria. I recommend it for anyone who is new to Italian horror, but the sad part is that I don’t know if this film would appeal to a generation of filmgoers raised on found footage horror or torture porn. Suspiria isn’t shock or juvenile exploitation; it’s a film made in the spirit of the most classic and gothic of horror conventions…with a little bit more of the red stuff.