EXPLORING: Pittsburgh Giallo

yinz

The other night, while we were watching The Majorettes on the Groovy Doom Drive-In Double Feature, I was struck by a strange idea.

“Do you think this is a giallo,” my co-host Bill asked me. This is a regular occurrence, as I often see the yellow-tinged edges of the traditionally Italian psychosexual film genre — inspired by English writers like Ellery Queen and Edgar Wallace and German krimini films — that got its start in the early sixties thanks to films by Mario Bava, Massimo Dallamano and Umberto Lenzi amongst others before finding its true bloody heart in 1970 with Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

As I continued watching the film, a low budget slasher-era flick written by Night of the Living Dead co-writer John Russo, that question kept knocking around in my head. If I were born anywhere other than Western Pennsylvania, so much of the film would just seem like just any old movie. But the movie’s theme of someone being obsessed with the innocence of young women and feeling the need to kill them to preserve it definitely is right in line with classic giallo like Don’t Torture A Duckling — Fulci in the provinces dealing with religion — and The Blood Stained Shadow, which has the fascinating alternate title Solamente Nero(Only Blackness).

By the end of the evening, I came to admit that yes, this pretty much was a giallo and that there are at least four other films that I would classify in my newly created genre of yinzer giallo.

If you’re not from Pittsburgh, the word yinzer is “historically used to identify the typical blue-collar people from the Pittsburgh region who often spoke with a heavy Pittsburghese accent. The term stems from the word yinz, a second-person plural pronoun, brought to the area by early Scots-Irish immigrants.”

Pittsburghers — yinzers — speak with a certain patois that transforms simple words like downtown to dahntahn and ideas like being a busy body and snooping to simple junkdrawer catchall phrases like the word nebby. I’ll use it in a sentence for the benefit of anyone that hasn’t been within a hundred miles of The Strip District: “Why yinz being nebby? Mind your own business.”

I love Pittsburgh — a Rick Sebak doc will move me to tears in seconds — and I adore giallo. So together? Well, that’s like putting fries on a salad, which is pretty much Allegheny County’s major contribution to the world of cuisine.

So what is yinzer giallo?

I have some rules as to what is and what is not a giallo. As you’ll notice, yinzer giallo breaks from some of these traditions, but let’s review:

  • There’s a murder, generally by someone with black gloves and we see several of the kills from their point of view.
  • The lead character is often impacted by the killings or accused of them; they are often a fish out of water, a foreigner in a new place who is confronted by shocking violence.
  • If the movie isn’t about murder, it’s a psychosexual freakout where the lead character undergoes a drug-like or drug-filled odyssey through a permissive time period or thinks they may have killed someone and can’t really remember all the details.
  • There should be an exploration of religious guilt, if possible. This makes sense as most giallo was made in Italy, a country that has the Roman Catholic Church’s own country smack dab in the middle of one of its largest cities. Not so coincidentally, the large number of Italian immigrants to Western Pennsylvania also makes Catholicism and its morals central to growing up yinzer.
  • Artistically, there should be high fashion, beautiful people, abundant nudity, red herrings, nonsensical plotlines and you should care about discovering who is the killer more than the kills themselves. To wit: if the movie at any point makes you believe the killer or the final girl is the most important element of its story, you’re watching a slasher, the cheap American cousin of the giallo.

To be a Pittsburgh giallo, the film must accomplish all of the above — when possible — and also:

  • Be true to its Pittsburgh roots, meaning that the movie must be filmed here while speaking directly to the experience of growing up in the city.
  • If it’s filmed here, it must reference Pittsburgh and not have the city stand-in for another town.
  • It must feel authentic, which helps several films on this list as they are movies with moments that only make sense when you’re a life-long Pittsburgher.
  • Bonus points for featuring Pittsburgh landmarks, Steelers jerseys and local brands. Trust me, seeing a can or bottle of Iron City in a yinzer giallo is like a J&B bottle in a traditional example.

Without further ado — I already used seven-hundred words to get here — here are the first few films that I’d label as yinzer giallo.

Season of the Witch (1973, directed by George Romero): Sure, there have been plenty of movies made in the Steel City. There is one that is the most important, however.

I subscribe to the notions of Joe Bob Briggs, who opined that modern horror has its roots right here with the release of 1969’s Night of the Living Dead, a movie that ferociously broke with the Universal monster and b-movie science fiction tropes and presented our neighbors and family members as a cannibalistic threat that was out to get us, as well as the people outside our doors ready to destroy the hero because — yeah, my hometown is complicated — black people are just as much of a threat as flesh-eating ghouls.

After Night, Romero kept working in TV commercials and seeking other films to direct. His first follow-up was the comedy There’s Always Vanilla, which makes me think of this Edgar Wright quote about Romero: “…there was always the sense that George had interests in film that stretched beyond the realm of horror.” It’s a romantic comedy but to be honest, it doesn’t work as well as it should.

Romero’s second commercial failure was this film, originally released as Jack’s Back and re-released as Hungry Wives with sex scenes added in by its distributor and then re-issued as Season of the Witch after the success of Dawn of the Dead.

This film neatly fits into the giallo mold of films that are less about murder and more about women awakening to feminism or sexuality at the dawn of the 1970s. It fits neatly in alongside films like A Lizard In a Woman’s Skin and All the Colors of the Dark (ironically released in the U.S. as a Night-ripoff with the title They’re Coming to Get You that truncates the original film’s denouncement), movies that show how the supernatural, drugs and sex can take a woman away from the boring life of committed servitude to uncaring husbands into a world that is at once more interesting, darker and often deadly. Often, these films are trying to take Rosemary’s Baby and make it work within the constraints of the giallo.

Joan Mitchell is the Jack’s wife of the title, a woman with a daughter leaving the nest for college and a husband who is often gone and when he is around, continually mutters about the need to “kick some ass,” which more often than not is hers. Soon, she learns that there’s a coven of witches in her suburban neighborhood — somewhere in the North Hills — and that by joining them, she can have the men her daughter sleeps with fall for her while discovering a violent solution to her marital woes. Of course, she also has to deal with terrifying visions of a devil-masked man attacking her.

Season of the Witch is not a traditional giallo, but definitely fits into the genre, a feminist movie made by a man trying to understand the massive and sweeping changes that 1973 would witness.

Martin (1978, directed by George Romero): I consider Martin to be Romero’s greatest film and the one that so perfectly encapsulates Pittsburgh, casting it as one of the movie’s main characters, a dangerous place that may have lost its fangs but one that can still claim young lives.

I’ve often said that the more supernatural a film is — Suspiria, for example — the less giallo it is. Yet Martin, a film about a vampire, is on my list of yinzer giallo. The answer is simple: Martin believes that he is a bloodsucker in the mold of classic films, a romanticized ideal, when the truth is that he’s a boy with a dark dream that must be aided and abetted by drugs and a razor blade. And while I also stated above that if you care more about the killer the movie is a slasher, the real monster in this movie is its setting, which has lost the vital blood of the young men that once worked its mills and mines and kept it alive, and the old men left behind like Martin’s uncle Tateh Cuda, who will not break from tradition and remains trapped in the days when the word of men and church was not just respected, but feared. Martin may believe that he’s a vampire, but Tateh is dead sure of it and equally certain that he will be the one to destroy him.

With its thrilling stalking sequence on a train — juxtaposed by the sad reality of what is really happening — Martin has moments of bloodletting that bring it into the giallo while flirting with the supernatural, yet never going far from its hardscrabble Braddock roots.

Effects (1980, directed by Dusty Nelson): Little known outside of Pittsburgh until Synapse released it on DVD in 1985 and then later, when AGFA re-released it in 2017, this film often gains the label of a slasher when it mines much deeper territory.

While the movie starts as a story about a team of coked-up horror movie-making maniacs descending on the quiet town of Ligonier to make a film about coked-up psychopaths making a snuff film in the woods, the meta nature of this movie — made decades before that kind of exploration was accepted — creates a world where the violence the crew is lensing is more real than the murder they expected.

In essence, everyone in the film becomes that stranger in a strange land that the giallo form seeks as a hero, all unsure as to whether they are just a character or another victim for the hands of the killer.

Again, this is not a well-known film and it’s time that changed.

The Majorettes (1987, directed by S. William Hinzman): Released in the UK as One by One, this claims to be a slasher but really fits into the giallo mold for several reasons. One, the plot is in no way as straightforward as a slasher, constantly shifting who the hero or heroine is, setting up mutiple plots and red herrings and using the central conceit of a killer needing to preserve the innocence of young girls as his or her reason for needing to slay them.

Russo had already directed 1982’s Midnight, a film that I’ve referred to as “the movie that Rob Zombie keeps trying to make” and The Pittsburgh Press film critic Jim Davidson savaged, saying that the film was “grave and heavy-handed. Russo isn’t doing Grand Guignol; he isn’t spoofing Satanism or catering to an audience that enjoys silliness and artificiality of horror movies.” So basically, the guy hated the movie because it played its brutality straight. Cool.

The Majorettes is a shambling mess, but as stated at the beginning of this article, this is a film that becomes a yinzer giallo because of the cultural touchstones lost by those far from our city. VFWs that double as seedy strip clubs (look for multiple Iron City bottles all over the place and several Steelers jerseys), an above-ground pool as a quick reference to the affluence of one of the girls (that only makes sense if you’re from here, trust me) and the fact that every one of these girls has the hairspray enabled hair claw that was the style of my teen years. People had big hair in the eighties, I know. Girls in Pittsburgh strove to be the one personally responsible for tearing a hole in the ozone layer.

The film also does what giallo always does and what makes it so uncomfortable to watch for some in a modern frame of mind: sex is presented at once as exhilarating and then as a sin that causes destruction. Except that this isn’t a faceless maniac in the woods. This is an authority figure out of control; the first of many in this film, as the only person able to truly have agency in this film becomes a murderer himself and succumbs to the shock of what he’s done. Priests, nurses, cops — every one of them are all horrible people and the only innocent in the film is an old woman in a wheelchair who can’t even communicate any longer.

Lady Beware (1987, directed by Karen Arthur): Arthur also made The Mafu Cage, an oddball movie about two incestuous sisters — one an astronomer, the other primate-obsessed maniac prone to violent outbursts fading away in a decrepit Hollywood Hills mansion — that sounds absolutely perfect.

Her contribution to yinzer giallo has been selected because Diane Lane’s character has the dream job of nearly every young Pittsburgh girl in the 1980’s: she’s a window-dresser for Horne’s department store, a venerable downtown institution that is sadly long gone (another burst of yinzer speak: when you tell someone to mind their own business, you reference another downtown retailer and say, “Does Kaufmann’s tell Horne’s their business?”).

She’s also decorated her mannequins — another giallo trope! — in kinky poses clad in lingerie. That’s pretty much enough to qualify this film, but it goes even further to have Lane be stalked by a married psychopath.

Striking Distance (1993, directed by Rowdy Herrington): In any other city, Striking Distance is not a movie that is remembered. In Pittsburgh, this is a film that is recalled with the same intensity other locales afford to Herrington’s more famous film, Road House.

This was Herrington’s return to the city of his birth, was originally called Three Rivers and was due to start Robert Deniro (to learn that story and how the named changed, check out part three of our interview with Rowdy). Things didn’t quite work out, but despite the issues Herrington had making the movie, it’s still beloved, perhaps most of all for a car chase that illogically combines Pittsburgh neighborhoods miles and miles away from one another, leading to a line constantly referenced in Pittsburgh traffic: “Take Bigelow!”

It has a stranger in a stranger land. Bruce Willis’ homicide cop Thomas Hardy is now off the force and on the River Rescue Squad, his life destroyed by his claim that the Polish Hill Strangler is a fellow cop. And that killer hasn’t stopped murdering people. Beyond killing Thomas’ father, he’s now murdering every woman that Tommy dated (which ends up being plenty of ladies) and calling the ex-cop to play “Little Red Riding Hood” while taunting our hero.

There’s also the black gloves of the Polish Hill Strangler, plenty of red herrings, interfamily secrets and perhaps the best the Steel City has ever looked on film. The fact that there isn’t a River Rescue Squad for real is one of the saddest things I’ve ever learned in my life. In fact, it’s worse than that Santa myth.

Movies shot in Pittsburgh that have giallo elements that are not giallo

Whispers In the Dark is about a sadomasochistic sexually obsessed patient who confesses his fantasies to his Manhattan psychiatrist, who soon begins sleeping with him. However, a series of murders begins which seem to echo the stories that he tells her. Beyond being closer to the erotic cable thriller genre — yes, an off-shoot of the giallo — the other fact that disqualifies this film is that it only uses Pittsburgh as a double for the true setting of the film, Manhattan.

Flashdance is by no means a giallo, but has dance numbers and direction that would seemingly fit right in, as well as a theme song entitled “Maniac” that was supposedly inspired by Michael Sembello watching Joe Spinell in Maniac.

Innocent Blood was filmed in Pittsburgh as well, but it does not make it into the yinzer giallo list. It’s a vampire movie with cop and gangster elements.

The Silence of the Lambs definitely has enough elements — a musical number, psychosexual identity issues in the killer’s modus operati, a strong female character in the strange male-dominated land, being a sequel to the definite American giallo Manhunter — that I could make an argument for it being a giallo. However, it is yet another film that only uses Western Pennsylvania locations and claims that they are somewhere else.

Bloodsucking Pharaohs in Pittsburgh is more slasher than giallo, a film all about a chainsaw killer loose in Polish Hill. That said, it’s the only movie I can think of where Mr. Rogers’ friend Chef Don Brockett co-stars with Veronica Hart.

Two Evil Eyes united Romero and Argento — the producer of Dawn of the Dead — to retell two Edgar Allan Poe stories. While not directly referencing the city, these stories are well-told and hey — Argento once walked our streets, along with Luigi Cozzi!

The Dark Half has George Romero in the director’s chair and a story about a split personality. It was shot in Edgewood and at Washington & Jefferson College. But it’s based on a Stephen King story and is missing many of the elements of the giallo.

Diabolique, the 1996 version, takes place in Pittsburgh and features Western PA native Sharon Stone. I’m going to disqualify this one because the original film that it is remaking — Les Diaboliques — was made in 1955 and predates the first accepted giallo, Mario Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much.

Stigmata is a film that aspires to be a religious themed giallo, one in which a non-believer hairdresser played by Patricia Arquette learns that she has stigmata, which is blood coming out of her body in the same places as the wounds of Christ.  What keeps the movie off this list — beyond the fact that it’s a boring mess — is the worst sin of all against being a yinzer giallo: only using the Pittsburgh setting for establishing shots, then making the rest of the movie in Los Angeles. There’s a goth club in this that Pittsburgh horror fans and goth kids have made fun of for years. Why? Because there is absolutely no way that we’d have something that cool in Pittsburgh. Come on.

Desperate Measures had an interesting premise: a serial killer played by local favorite Michael Keaton has the bone marrow that a cop needs for his dying son. That said, the killings are never seen and the cat and mice game between manaic and detective are the real story here.

Riddle is a movie about a stranger in a strange land — a college student looking for her missing brother in the small town of Riddle, PA — and coming against the town’s mysterious past, reinforced by Val Kilmer as a lawman and William Sadler as one of the town’s leaders. The issue? Well, this was shot in Brownsville and Pittsburgh, but never set there. After all, there’s no such town as Riddle.

What do you think?

The beauty of films are that you can see them in any way that you wish. Your rules as to what makes a movie a slasher or a giallo or just a normal film are all up to you. But as you can see, I love discussing it.

You can also read the Letterboxd list here.

Does your town have its own giallo form? Can you think of another one from Pittsburgh? Let us know!

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