"The Giallo" and Postmodernism

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There is always a need to look at the context that accompany any film, whether in terms of film history or social context, in order to understand why every decision is taken the way it is. Thus, one can´t understand the Giallo -or would found it completely senseless- without setting it in the 1970´s.

Film Tradition

After years of experimenting with the medium and setting its abilities in storytelling in the center of its appealing, the 60’s expressed the need of giving rise to a more artistic production based mainly in the visual experience and the deconstruction of any established rule, in both narrative structure and visual description. The interest with the story itself declined and it let a more emotional construction take its place. “Emotional” in a similar way as the soviet montage did, creating an intentional discourse by the coalition of two images mixed with sound. The films were personal reflexions better than stories in the classical narrative conception.

With all, here we have a brief description of Modernity that started to have presence specially in Italy and France and was largely spread. The more recognized directors of the period demonstrate their capability to break the rules, to get rid of any other influence but their own point of view of the world and to give live to lost characters with an endless finding. That kind of characters were somehow, for instance, a methaphore for the bizarre narrative structure itself. The movies began to be philosophical perspectives expressing director’s conception of reality, and demanding an active intervention of the spectator in terms of interpretation.

However, once the idea of “fighting” against classical conventions began to be a convention itself, the act of breaking the rules wasn´t enough to sustain a movie and, thus, the search for a narrative story seemed to be needed again. Even if the boundary between Modernity and Postmodernity is somehow unclear and confusing, the need for an answer (an ending for the story) could be one of the main characteristics of the latter. One answer to a complex, confusing and sometimes unreal story, but at least one explanation for understanding why the reality was described how it was and why the characters were acting as they are. Thus, some films in the 1970´s kept using the artistic visual representation of modernity but also included the renaissance of a narrative story. In this context, movies of the Giallo are presenting the serial killing with artistic visual expressions -that, for instance, guide the spectator out of the main narration- but they almost always present in one way or another an understandable conclusion of a narrative story. Moreover, this bizarre representations that could seem mere artistic expressions at the first sight, they are usually related with the main story and help to express the killer´s mental disorder in a further analysis. According to what Adam Knee wrote in Gender, genre, Argento, Argento’s film´s “reality does not prove forever elusive, only exceptionally strange; generally, an explanation for a given film´s mysteries […] is ultimately provided”1. This could help to identify, thus, how the movies of the Giallo gave place to the revival of the narrative story of postmodern cinema

Argento V.S. Fincher

In order to define how the Giallo is depicting serial killing and how its representation differ from its treatment in other films, I´ll analize and exemplify some of the carachteristics that Peter Hutching briefly describe inThe Argento effect. To understand the differences between Argento´s work in serial killing and to compare it to other directors in a more classic representation of murder I chose Argento’s Deep red and Fincher’s Zodiac. It´s important to note, for instance, that the following lines are mere examples of serial killing in both inside and outside the Giallo and of course are not the only option of exemplifying, neither the more important ones. I´ll use them just as an excuse to describe the Giallo (in the case of Deep Red) and to set its delimitation to the classical narration of serial killing (throw the analysis of Zodiac).

As I was suggesting before, Argento’s films are set in a context of postmodernism2 and thus their films present a narrative story. But what differs from the classical narration is that here -in Argento´s movies and postmodernity in general- the plot is actually just an excuse to talk about other things. One can say that it´s more important “how” the story is represented than the story itself or, in other words, that the camera movements, the mise en scene, the dialogues, etc. are eclipsing the plot but paradoxically helping to describe it at the same time. So the first statement is that the Giallo is not only describing a thrilling story of a serial killer and setting a series of clues that the spectator and the investigator must pick up to build an explanation (which is more the case of Zodiac). This is actually left aside by a more personal and subjective description of the reality, inserting in the movie several indirect messages that represent director´s opinion. Thus, the work of Argento in Deep red is more risky than Fincher´s in terms of personal discourse and intervention in how the story is told, and on the other hand, Fincher´s Zodiac is more confident to the real story of serial killing and richer in details and coherence for the investigation. So one can say that Fincher is working to represent what a serial killer means for a society while Argento is focusing on its personality and trying to depict how is their murderer dealing with its obsession for killing. But these are just general words, so let´s start to analyze both films in order to give a deeper explanation.


One of the main differences between the work of both directors in depicting serial murder remains in the treatment that they give to the scenes of killing. In Zoidac David Fincher is describing the killer from a socio-cultural perspective. The movie is full of details that help to identify its intention to explain the context around the killing, such as setting the mass media (specially the press and the radio) as the center of the narration and as the way that the killer is using to communicate to the society. All we know from the killer (apart from his diffuse presence in some murder scenes) is the letters he is writing, the voice messages he is giving to the authorities and radios and, of course, his crimes. Moreover, is not a coincidence that the main character is working for a big press company, it’s actually an excuse to underline the strong connection between serial killing and media. According to this description, one can say that Zodiac presents the serial killer as a social consequence of modernity, as someone trying to find his identity throw the idea of becoming a mass “media celebrity”. In this sense, the narrative construction of the film also helps to define this idea: the audience is one more spectator of the “show” of the unidentified killer. The usage of popular music from the period -note the song of Donovan as a background sound for the opening murder- and the insistence of setting the specific date also helps to develop this idea.

On the other hand, Deep red present a different perspective of the serial killer. Instead of establishing the center of the narration in his/her media implications, Dario Argento tries to describe his/her mental disorder. In this case, the music, the details of the tools of the killer and actually all themise en scene helps to describe the killer’s obsession. So as Fincher’s is using classical representations to describe the connection between the killer and his/her outsides -the society-, Argento in the Giallo is depictiong his/her insides, his/her unconscious with the complexity of postmodern narrative. Argento’s complicated plots (false clues, wrong suspects, apparently incomprehensible flashbacks, twists, etc.) are representing the killer’s mental disorder and the complexity of his/her mind, in order to make the spectator feel as confused as the murderer is. The disorder of the narration have, thus, “implications not only for the characters in the drama but also for our own relation as subjects to the film itself”3. Especially the music in Deep red is helping to transmit this idea. The almost hypnotizing repetition of sounds that always accompany the acts of the killer in is, following this statement, a literal expression of his/her obsession.

With all -and going back to describe postmodern narrative in the Giallo- the structure of most of the films is like a labyrinth where the spectator share with the main character a travel throw the shadows looking for an answer -or exit-. The scenes are not only organized to describe the story but also to provoke a specific emotional reaction to the spectators. And that’s exactly why it differs from the classical representation of serial killing -as is the case of Zodiac- and why one can think of postmodernity at the time to label it. The films from the Giallo are not only stories, but also expressions of director’s perspective of the world. Although in any movie the conceptions of the creators are transmitted, in one way ore another, to the spectators throw the elements that directors choose to put on the screen, in the case of the Giallo -and actually in most of modern/postmodern films- the personal representation of the director takes the most important place, leaving aside the plot itself. Thus, one can find in films like Deep red several aesthetic elements of the mise en scène that are actually the clue for understanding the movie.

Mise en scéne

In the case of David Fincher’s Zodiac all the creative details (the music, the dialogues, the murders…) are vehicles to present the main story, contributing most of them to clarify some aspects of the story plot. Contrarily, in Deep red all these details work exactly in the opposite direction. Every new scene is generating more desperation than the prior, and instead of helping to give information to the spectators it precisely helps to confuse them. One can also identify modern/postmodern attitudes in films when the director is conscientiously choosing to break with the classic way of representation, and develops a more personal style instead. In this sense, Deep red and most movies from the Giallo are authentic pieces of art in terms of audiovisual expression.

As I was suggesting before, the movie is representing the obsession of a killer, putting all the perverse thoughts on the screen, specially with the scenes where we see details of the tools (gloves, knives, dolls, etc) and the scenes where the murders take place. Usually these scenes are accompanied with music and are shot with the freedom of a music video, in the sense of visual resources. Odd camera angles and elaborate camera movements are almost always present when the killer decides to murder again. Even the act of killing become part of the artistic expression in films like Deep red, and these scenes are actually the center of the movie. Again, “how” Argento is presenting the act of killing is even more important than “what” is the killer doing or “who” is being killed. In other words, these scenes “go beyond any narrative-based imperatives”, and fulfill the screen with the red of blood.

In terms of atrezzo, the killer is always surrounded by technology and uses it to recreate his/her scenes of death. Tape players and phones have a very important presence in most of Argento’s movies and make the killing even more spectacular. For example, it is not just a coincidence that the main character in Terror at the opera uses a tape with relaxing music to calm herself, exactly the same tool that the killer in Deep red is playing before every murder. So there is always a connection between murder and music or sounds recorded in a tape, and it somehow have a relation with the unconscious, in the case of Terror at the opera to try to calm it down and in Deep red, instead, to wake up the need of killing.

Another theme to analyze in relation to the mise en scène is the representation of the act of killing itself. I think it’s important to clarify agian the differences between the killing inside and outside the Giallo, in order to have a deeper perspective. So let’s analyze the classical representation inZodiac frist. In Fincher’s representation of killing, one can observe the explicit violence of murders and even see the body of the killer (but never find out his/her identity). The violence in this case, it’s presented with distance -there is no details of knives, guns or blood- and its brutality answers to the anger of the killer but does not involve the spectator beyond his/her position as a distant observer. Thus, the presence of violence it’s not connected with the narrative description of the film. The scenes are representative for its meaning: the spectators understand that the killer is real and dangerous, that he/she has killed and will kill again. But this is its only function and there is nothing beyond its informative character.

On the other hand, in the Giallo the violence is presented as a visual spectacle and the audience is somehow being an active subject of It. The camera close-ups and the irritating music are intentionally pretending to involve the spectator in the act of killing in order to make him/her experience the same as both the killer and the victim. The point of view is sometimes not justified, generating two effects: on one hand suggesting en external point of view (it could be the spectator’s perspective) and, on the other hand, implicating indirectly the audience in the crimes.

A part from that, one can actually find something implausible in this excessive presentation of the violence, but maybe this effect is created in purpose. This unreal representation of killing is a way of underlining the artistic character of the scenes of murder, in order to make clear that they’re emotional expressions of the creativity of the director better than mere scenes of death. Thus, the violence became kind of “abstract” and loses any moral responsibility that is normally connected it. We -as spectators- have the option to stop suffering for observing people dying and start receiving this emotional messages that go directly to our subconscious and are freely interpreted. So, far from the mere passive role of the spectator in classic films like Zodiac, the audience of both modernity and postmodernity films has the right -and the must- of being an active interpret. The emotional messages generated for the complex style of presenting the information have not only one possible reading, but have for sure an emotional effect to our unconscious. The confusing flashbacks in Tenebre and also in Terror at the opera are clear examples of this effect.


Seen most of the differences between a couple of examples of classic and postmodern representations of serial killing, now it’s more clear what theGiallo means and how can it be interpreted. Although there’s no one only answer to the interpretation of cinema and art in general (sometimes the reflexions of the critics scape the intention of the creators), I can say at least that now there are more cards on the table to constrict an opinion with more arguments, what is, in other words, a deeper analysis or interpretation of it. Specially when the role of the spectator is supposed to be active -as is in the Giallo– and they have freedom to interpret the reality that is presented in the film, more difficult is to set a concrete interpretation of a movie. But maybe there is no need to find only one answer as long as they are well argued, and that’s precisely what the modern and postmodern films always involve. As less direct information there is in a movie more active need to be the spectator, more creative Is the film and more possible readings are accepted.

It is also notable here before ending how all this movies, even from the two different perspectives analyzed, are actually dealing with the same concept: the search for a lost identity. As Anthony King explains in Serial killing and the postmodern self, “serial killers have no personal identity precisely because they adhere to shared, institutionalized routines. […] The very processes which constituted the modern self now threaten the serial killer. Consequently, the serial killer’s self is in crisis.”4 And it is actually very interesting to realize how this same concept can be explained in two completely different manners that describe the outsides and the insides of the serial killer. And it’s also notable here that both ways of representation -classical and postmodern- are actually exclusive but complementary at the same time.

Marc Castañé  Muntané

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KING, Anthony; Serial killing and the postmodern self, London: SAGE publications, 2006.

HUNT, Leon “A (Sadistic) night in the opera – Notes on the Italian Horror Fillm” in Gleder, Ken (ed.) The Horror Reader, London: Routledge, 2000.

KNEE, Adam; “Gender, Genre, Argento” in Grant, Barry Keith (ed.) The Dread of Difference, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

MENDIK, Xavier “Detection and Transgression: The investigation Drive of the Giallo” in Black, Andy (ed.) Necronomicon1.

JANCOVICH, Mark et al (eds) Defining Cult Movies, Manchester UP: 2003



ARGENTO, Darío: Deep Red (Proffondo Rosso, 1975), Terror at the Opera (Opera, 1987), Tenebre (1982).

FINCHER, David: Zodiac (2007)


1KNEE, Adam; “Gender, Genre, Argento” in Grant, Barry Keith (ed.) The Dread of Difference, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996..

2Even if it´s sometimes complex to use the label of “postmodernity” and its boundary with “modernity” is usually thin (note the arguments writtenbefore), one can at least say for sure that Argento’s work it´s far from the classical conception of cinema, falling the discussion between modernity/postmodernity outside of the scope of this assignment.

3 MENDIK, Xavier quoted in Jancovich, Mark et ad (ed.) Defining Cult Movies, Manchester UP, 2003 (p.136)

4KING, Anthony; Serial killing and the postmodern self, London: SAGE publications, 2006. (p.112).

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