Dario Argento’s first feature film, 1970’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, took giallo, a campy Italian horror-thriller sub-genre, and pushed it to its extremes, while elevating it to an art form. Argento claimed his crown as master of the kill, when a hunky American writer (Tony Musante) became an enthralled eyewitness to a brutal and beautiful crime. Since then, the Italian director has delivered in film after film, a series of eerie and gory deaths that land somewhere between the boundaries of the iconic and the traumatizing. From The Cat o’ Nine Tails to Opera each of Argento’s film embrace the chaotic beauty of death in all of its mesmerizing blood splatter. For our Spring issue we spoke with the Italian master of giallo about his career, spanning roughly 25 director credits, and discussed the things that frighten him—among other things. In the spirit of Argento’s horrific and gorgeous deaths, here, five of the filmmaker’s most gruesome deaths.
The story goes something like this: an American ballet student (Jessica Harper) transfers to a prestigious ballet academy in Germany. A series of brutal and mysterious murders make it hard for her to settle in. Little does she know the academy is a front for a supernatural conspiracy — spooky! This death is an Argento classic — one student slams and shatters a stained glass window and gets hung by a power cord, only breathing long enough to bare witness to the death of another student at the hand of the shattered glass. Poetic justice? Not so much, but the glory and gore of Argento’s hand are all there.
Inferno tells the story of Rose Elliot, a young poet who gets murdered after she reads a Latin book that tells the story of the Three Mothers. Her brother Mark investigates her spectral murder, and somehow ends up in New York. This is where one of the goriest, and realest, deaths happens — in Central Park, nonetheless. As a man gets devoured by rats in the park, he let’s out a howl fitting of a pulp paperback: “The rats are eating me! The rats are eating me!”
Argento’s 1982 film is about a serial killer whose murderous impulses were inspired by a novel. Tenebrae marked his return to the classic giallo sub-genre. According to various critics, and fans, this film is considered one of Argento’s best thrillers. The film’s apex of gore takes place when main character Jane (Veronica Lario) is murdered by the killer, using an axe that appears from behind the curtains, while she anxiously holds a gun in her hand. Despite Argento’s flamboyant use of fake blood and prosthetics, the scene stands as one of the director’s best kills served to us on a platter of bright red blood. Bellissimo.
In Opera, a hooded figure forces a young star to watch along as he murders performers in a production of Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Any of the deaths in this late Argento film are worthy of inclusion on this shortlist, but nothing can top the slow motion death reserved for Opera’s peephole scene. In it, Mira (played by Daria Nicolodi) hears a knock on her door, and frantically refuses to answer suspecting she’ll die at the hands of “the maniac” as she opens the door. Persuaded by the voice behind the knock, she looks into the peep hole, only to be shot in the eye, resulting in a gorgeous death. Bravo!
Deep Red, 1977
Profondo Rosso is another Argento thriller filled with straight-up creepy deaths. The puppet scene stands out, well, because it’s creepy. It involves a robot-like sinister doll and an off-beat soundtrack. The scene is chilling, as yet another maniac kills the film’s lead, Carlo, by smashing his mouth in what seems to be every sharp corner in the room.