Riccardo Freda was born in Alexandria, Egypt, of Italian parents. Educated in Milan, he became a sculptor, then a newspaper art critic. He began a career in film in 1937 as a screenwriter and production supervisor. He moved into directing in 1942, beginning a career that lasted some 40 years. Resisting the strong neo-realism trend in postwar Italy, Freda (with Vittorio Cottafavi) continued to make "historical spectacles", at which he became somewhat of a master. He was a pioneer in Italy of horror-fantasy films, especially with Lust of the Vampire (1957) and The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962). From there he went to melodrama and spy films, and even made one western.

Strong on visual style, Freda's films had popular appeal and were usually commercial successes, several being French or other European co-productions. Freda used a number of aliases during his career, including "Robert Hampton", "Dick Jordan", "George Lincoln" and "Robert Davidson", among others. Some critics have praised him as an exploitation "stylist", and to this day his films have somewhat of a cult following.