The 13th Floor

Does Classic Italian Eurohorror Have a Place in the Modern Genre?

The following guest editorial was written by Ted Geoghegan, writer/director of this year’s new horror sensation WE ARE STILL HERE, which premieres today on Blu-ray & DVD.

While most would agree the modern slasher film was born in Canada with 1974’s BLACK CHRISTMAS, it rose to prominence in the United States, where, to this day, its tropes are endlessly referenced in genre fare. For every film by Sam Raimi or Roman Polanski, there is substantially more attempting to recreate their respective flairs.

From the late 1970s though the mid-80s, American cinemas were flooded with a very different kind of art, both thematically and stylistically: the Italian Eurohorror film. Though movies of that era from masters like Argento, Fulci, and Bava are still celebrated for their unique take on the genre, their presence is still only scarcely felt in today’s horror cinema.

My 2015 directorial debut, WE ARE STILL HERE, is an unabashed love letter to Italian Eurohorror of the late 70s and early 80s. These films had so heavily influenced my own cinematic tastes that I knew my first foray behind the camera had to be dedicated to reigniting these films – and their wildly unconventional constructs – for new generations.

As a youth in rural Montana, my initial view of Rome was through the lens of Italian Eurohorror. When my first screenplay was produced there in 2001, I immediately fell in love with the Eternal City and its motley crew of maniacal moviemakers. Their style, passion and creative processes were unlike anything anywhere else in the world. And as I delved deeper into all that the subgenre had to offer it became clearer and clearer that this unique style, despite its unending critical acclaim, had been largely forgotten by today’s cinema.

The stylistic trappings of the era’s Italian cinema are most likely the reason these films took so long to resonate with today’s filmmakers. Not only are these movies not set in a modern world, they aren’t set in our world at all. Rather they take place in a surreal almost Earth that’s one part reality, and two parts dreamscape. Take TENEBRE’s sparsely populated near-future Rome and THE BEYOND’s time-and-dimension hopping version of Louisiana They present a world eerily like our own, living on the fringes of what we accept as real.

Given the industry’s desire to remain approachable to all demographics, modern horrors rarely take us even slightly outside the realm of reality. Recently, the Canadian film BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW walked this precarious line to great acclaim, offering us a world that is oddly like our own, yet clearly terrifyingly unreal. We Are Still Here attempts to live in this negative space as well. It never commits to a reality that would be dubbed “science fiction,” but, much like John Carpenter’s brilliant IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, takes place in a small New England town that, no matter how far you drive, you’ll never find.

In this world, melodrama reigns supreme. The casts of Italy’s otherworldly classics emote like Victorian stage actors, tactfully avoiding camp as they continually land larger-than-life dialogue and actions. From collapsing in fear over the discovery of a severed hand under the Brooklyn bridge, to the static, wide eyed howls of friends watching one of their friends be devoured by Caribbean zombies – the ways these seemingly human characters react to events both big and small are disconcertingly inhuman.

While this stylistic choice has been popular since the dawn of cinema (and momentarily found its way into North American slashers of the early ’80s), the genre very quickly opted for a more natural understated style of acting that carries through to this day. SLEEPY HOLLOW, Tim Burton’s wildly melodramatic ode to Hammer horror, is arguably one of the finest modern uses of the construct, although the 2014 festival favorite THE EDITOR also tactfully used melodrama to great success. Similarly, we embraced the style for WE ARE STILL HERE and, even after decades of enjoying melodramatic horror, quickly realized how careful one must be when toying with the surprisingly fragile convention, lest it veer towards caricature.

Encompassing countless genres, Italian Eurohorror was a hodgepodge of supernatural shocker (THE PSYCHIC, THE BEYOND), giallo (SUSPIRIA, DEEP RED), undead gorefest (ZOMBI 2, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD), and jungle-sploitation (CANNIBALs HOLOCAUST and FEROX). And while Italians dabbled in proto-slasher films (Bava’s A BAY OF BLOOD, much of which was retooled into FRIDAY THE 13TH PART II, being a prime example), it wasn’t until the trend caught fire overseas that the industry started producing straight slashers, like Michele Soavi’s brilliantly absurd STAGE FRIGHT (1987). Conversely, Lamberto Bava’s DEMONS, a relatively outside-the-box slice of Eurohorror, was released to great fanfare and financial success in 1985, and brought about a short-lived demonsploitation trend in America that gave us NIGHT OF THE DEMONS, DEMON WIND, 976-EVIL, and PUMPKINHEAD.

That said, the Italian Eurohorror scene is impossible to ape in one film, even though its conventions are finding their way back – be it through the psychedelics of BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW, THE EDITOR’s modern twist on the giallo, THE GREEN INFERNO (Eli Roth’s ode to Deodato and Lenzi), or the subtle weirdness of WE ARE STILL HERE.

The wild, stylistic horror films produced in and around Rome some 40 years ago continue to deeply resonate with me, and I pray that a resurgence in their tropes not only inspires other filmmakers to embrace the unconventional, but encourages Generations Y and Z to seek out some the amazing movies that may have previously slipped under their radars.

Fulci lives.

— Ted Geoghegan