Italian Cult Film Sub-Genres & Beyond

I recently received a question from Anomalous Cinema enthusiast Max P about Italian cult films. It wasn’t specifically about sub-genres, but I got onto the topic in my reply, and could not find a simple online article covering the subject. I am trying to fix that here.

Italians are well known for creating film sub-genres primarily motivated by cashing in on other popular movies. “Oh, The Road Warrior and Escape from New York were successful? Let’s do a cheaper version, and make some quick money.” Occasionally this made for some very entertaining films like 2019: After the Fall of New York. Here are the main Italian Film Cult Sub-Genres, with examples linked to imdb. If I am particularly fond of the example, it is in bold.

Three Arguably Original Italian Sub-Genres:

CANNIBALNOT FOR THE SENSITIVE VIEWER! Jungle adventure films that began firmly in Italy with The Man from Deep River (not recommended, it is slow and overstuffed with animal abuse). Most of these films are very nasty and only for die-hard cult film fans. This is primarily because of horrible real-life animal killing for the camera. Italian cannibal films are often sexploitational, naively racist, and a little bit violent, to full-blown G-R-O-S-S. Examples (all by Ruggero Deodato): Jungle Holocaust (a good starting point), Cut and Run, and the most notorious of them all, Cannibal Holocaust. The latter is particularly nasty, but honestly borders on art film quality at times, if you can stomach it. Thankfully Grindhouse Releasing added an “animal cruelty free” play option to their discs. The Cannibal Holocaust soundtrack is also stunningly beautiful. You should definitely check out Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox as well if you appreciate Deodato’s cannibal films.

GIALLO – Giallo is Italian for yellow, like the covers of cheap murder mystery paperbacks. They are a spin on Alfred Hitchcock-type mysteries and horror thrillers. Some are quite tame and heavy on the thriller, while others are more like slasher horror films. The stabby ones range from mildly to EXTREMELY violent. Gialli are often erotic, and/or psychedelic as well. Examples: Blood and Black Lace, Tenebrae, All the Colors of the Dark, The Fifth Cord, and A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin.

PEPLUM (often referred to as Sword and Sandal) – Peplum is a reference to Ancient Roman / Greek clothing. This sub-genre was inspired by films like Ben-Hur, and the excellent Jason and the Argonauts (1963). I am saying this is arguably an original Italian deal, as they added their own action-packed twist. Examples: Hercules, The Colossus of Rhodes (the first film by Sergio Leone) and Hercules in the Haunted World.

Here are the other major sub-genres to the best of my knowledge:

NAZI EXPLOITATION – Nazi-themed films inspired by The Night Porter, that spun off into the sleaziest and most ridiculous concentration camp trash because of Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS. In case you’re thinking, how AWFUL, well… the bad guys always get their just desserts in these flicks. Examples: Salon Kitty, Gestapo’s Last Orgy, and Women’s Camp 119.

NUNSPLOITATION – Naughty nun flicks inspired by Ken Russell’s excellent film The Devils. Examples: Flavia the Heretic, The Killer Nun, and Images in a Convent.

POLIZIOTTESCHI – Italian crime films influenced by The French Connection and Dirty Harry. There’s a good documentary called Eurocrime! if you want a full rundown. Examples: High Crime, The Big Racket, Contraband, and Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man.

POST-APOCALYPSE – As mentioned above, films influenced by The Road Warrior and Escape from New York, that also sometimes mixed in elements of The Warriors. Examples: 2019: After the Fall of New York, Endgame, and 1990: The Bronx Warriors.

SPAGHETTI WESTERN – I don’t need to explain this one right? Well, if you like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, check out these examples: The Great Silence, Cut-Throats Nine, and The Big Gundown.

ZOMBIE – This movie craze happened because of Dawn of the Dead, and should be self-explanatory. Examples: Zombie, Burial Ground, and Nightmare City (yeah, yeah, they’re technically not zombies, but CLOSE ENOUGH).

There’s are also Macaroni Combat (WW2), Post-Star Wars, Post-Exorcist, and Animal Attack films that I am not even getting into. If you’re feeling adventurous, check out crazy sub-genre mashups like Cannibal Apocalypse, and the arguably terrible films Conquest and Zombie Holocaust.

Do yourself a favor and just watch films by director. Most Italian filmmakers touched on several of the above sub-genres. I suggest Mario Bava (his son Lamberto made some decent movies too), Enzo G. Castellari, Joe D’Amato, Lucio Fulci, Umberto Lenzi, and Sergio Martino. Proceed with caution, all of them made some AWFUL films. I recommend using imdb ratings and critic / user reviews to avoid the stinkers.


What about Italian cult movies after 1994 or so? There are almost ZERO good spaghetti cult films after Dellamorte Dellamore. That film’s director, Michele Soavi, went on to work in TV, including the very good Uno bianca, and three episodes of the well-received Rocco Schiavone. Dario Argento keeps making movies, but they all range from meh to suck after Tenebrae in my opinion. Well, Jenifer and Sleepless were not bad.

The only good stuff I’ve seen come out of Italy in the last 25+ years are their mafia / crime related movies and series. The best feature film example is Gomorrah, and it is a serious movie with no exploitation elements.

I am familiar with two decent Italian crime series, but they’re mostly drama. When the action kicks in they can be great, but you have to sit through a lot of talking. I watched quite a bit of Suburra: Blood on Rome, but fell off watching it (because of all the TALKING). That series is on Netflix – I recommended the movie version on Anomalous a long time ago, but they took it down. The other series was Romanzo criminale, but again, I stopped watching because there was SO… MUCH… TALKING. Additionally, there’s a series based on the movie I mentioned earlier, Gomorrah, but I haven’t tried it yet.

Here’s a list of a BUNCH more Italian crime series. That must be why there are no great spaghetti cult sub-genre films after 1994. All the damn money goes to criminale shows! What a pity.

Thank you and buona visione! -Jonathan Canady

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