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Later, the terms were embraced by fans of the films, similar to the terms "spaghetti western" or "shoot-'em-ups". Griffith with his 1916 Intolerance, peopled their historical epics with dramatic conflicts and realistic protagonists, many of the pepla merely took a real historical or Biblical event and used it as a backdrop for a simple heroic adventure tale, on a comic book level.

Italian director Vittorio Cottafavi called the genre "Neo-Mythology". The pepla are a specific class of Italian adventure or fantasy films that have subjects set in Biblical, medieval or classical antiquity, often with contrived plots based loosely on mythology, legendary Greco-Roman history, or the other contemporary cultures of the time, such as the Egyptians, Assyrians, and Etruscans.

The pepla attempted to emulate the big-budget Hollywood historical epics of the time, such as Spartacus, Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments.

The terms "peplum" (referring to the tunic-style Greek and Roman garment often worn by characters in the films) and "sword-and-sandal" were used in a condescending way by film critics.

Riccardo Freda directed another peplum, Theodora, Slave Empress in 1954, starring his wife Gianna Maria Canale. This spawned the 1959 Steve Reeves sequel Hercules Unchained, the 1959 re-release of Cecil B.

In 1949, the postwar Italian film industry remade Fabiola (which had been previously filmed twice in the silent era).

The contrived plots, poorly overdubbed dialogue, novice acting skills of the bodybuilder leads, and primitive special effects that were often inadequate to depict the mythological creatures on screen all conspire to give these films a certain camp appeal now.

To be sure, however, many of the films enjoyed widespread popularity among general audiences, and had production values that were typical for popular films of their day.

But, similar to the American serials of the 1940s, the peplum always focuses on the hero's narrow escapes from the most preposterous dangers throughout the course of the film.

Italian filmmakers led the way in the peplum genre with some of the earliest silent films dealing with the subject, including The Sack of Rome (1905), The Fall of Troy (1911) and the sensational silent version of Quo Vadis? The 1914 Italian silent film Cabiria was one of the first peplum films to make use of a massively muscled character, Maciste (played by actor Bartolomeo Pagano) who served in this premiere film as the hero's slavishly loyal sidekick.

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