Between the mid-1950s and the 1970s, the Italian film industry produced an enormous number of genre films. The first of these specifically Italian versions of themes more often identified with Hollywood than with Rome was the sword-and-sandal epic, also called the neomythological or peplum film, accounting for 10 percent of Italian production between 1957 and 1964. Hercules (Pietro Francesci, 1958) gave birth to a flood of muscle-men pics with body-builders (often Americans, such as Steve Reeves or Gordon Mitchell) playing the lead roles and bearing the classically associated names of Hercules, Maciste, Ursus, Spartacus, and Samson, to name only a few. Perhaps the most skilled of the directors who worked in this genre was Vittorio Cottofavi (1914–1998), whose The Warrior and the Slave Girl (1958) and Hercules and the Conquest of Atlantis (1960) are classic examples of the genre. Set vaguely in classical times and populated by mindless musclemen and buxom damsels in distress, these works appealed to a predominantly male audience that thrived on violent action and strong, anti-intellectual heroes. The genre flourished during the 1960s and then again briefly in the 1980s, but its production values were far removed from similar works made in Hollywood, and these films rapidly became cult favorites and the butt of jokes on Saturday Night Live satirical skits, which poked pun at the cheap dubbing that allowed actors to speak without moving their lips and to fall silent when they did move. In Italian film history, such films made conscious reference to the far older tradition of silent film epics, such as Cabiria .
The other remarkably successful commercial genre during this period was the "spaghetti" western, dominated by a great director, Sergio Leone (1929–1989), who virtually revived a dead Hollywood genre with A Fistful of Dollars (1964) by a conscious departure from what had come to be known as the "classic" western formula. Leone's film owed a debt both to Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961) and to Carlo Goldoni's play The Servant of Two Masters (1945). The Stranger, or The Man with No Name (a part that was to make Clint Eastwood an international star), leaves prison and cleans up a border town infested by two rival families: American gunrunners and Mexican bootleggers. Leone plunges his audience into a violent and cynical world far removed from the traditional West of John Ford or Howard Hawks. His hero is motivated by the same greed as the evil bandits, and graphic violence is accompanied by grotesque comic gags and mannered close-ups indebted to Eisenstein. A crucial artistic element is the skillful music of Ennio Moricone (b. 1928), whose unusual sound track composed of gunfire, ricocheting bullets, cries, trumpet solos, Sicilian folk instruments, and whistles became an international best-selling record. The classic western gunfight became, in Leone's hands, a ritualistic act that concludes a narrative cycle and employs a crescendo of music not unlike the close of an aria in a grand opera. This international hit was followed in close order by four other films of the highest quality: For a Few Dollars More (1965), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), and Duck, You Sucker! (1971). The link between popular film genres in the Italian industry may be discerned from the fact that Leone's first film before he began making his westerns was a colossal peplum, The Colossus of Rhodes (1961), no doubt inspired by the success of the Hollywood production of Ben Hur filmed in Italy in 1959. More than a few links exist between the musclemen of the peplum and the strong, silent gunfighters of the spaghetti western. Between 1963 and 1973, over four hundred Italian westerns were produced, but none of them had the impact of Leone's works or were made with the same high production values and fine acting. Like the peplum genre, the lesser Italian westerns followed a formulaic pattern, focusing upon a single gunfighter hero, such as Sabata, Django, Ringo, Sartana, and Trinity. Eventually, the genre began to parody itself in such interesting films as My Name Is Nobody (Tonino Valerii, 1973); or to incorporate radical political themes, such as A Bullet for the General (Damiano Damiani, 1966) or Don't Touch the White Woman (Marco Ferreri, 1975). Again, as was the case with the peplum film, the high-water mark of this genre was reached within approximately a decade.
Another popular and low-budget genre that generated enormous profits for the industry and, like the peplum and the western, became an object of cult attention, was the so-called spaghetti nightmare or Italian horror film, often also called the giallo (the name being derived from the yellow covers that Italian publisher Mondadori employed on their mystery novel series). Pioneers in this genre were Mario Bava (1914–1980), Lucio Fulci (1927–1996), and Riccardo Freda (1909–1999), whose directorial debut, Black Sunday (1960), turned little-known British actress Barbara Steele into a cult-figure "scream queen." Perhaps the most highly regarded horror director is Dario Argento (b. 1940), whose successful works include The Gallery Murders (1970), The Cat o' Nine Tails (1971), Deep Red (1975), and Suspiria (1977). Argento's work combined the excessive gore and splatter violence of the traditional B-horror film with extremely elaborate and baroque visual settings. Because of the praise these spaghetti horror films have received from American directors Quentin Tarantino, George A. Romero, and John Landis, as well as writer Stephen King, the best and the worst representatives of this Italian genre remain popular and still command cult followings even larger than those that exist for the peplum or the spaghetti western.