By Jed Mayer | Press Play October 4, 2012 at 9:20AM
If you had your windows open on the sultry evening of August 7, you may have heard a series of distant screams: don’t worry, those were actually cries of joy and surprise from horror film nerds around the world when the Russian Women’s Synchronized Swimming duet Natalia Ischenko and Svetlana Romashina gave their Olympic Gold Medal performance to the accompaniment of Goblin’s theme music to Dario Argento’s Italian horror classic Suspiria (1977). I shrieked along with the other nerds, because here was a rare moment: what I thought was an obscure obsession had suddenly entered public recognition on the world stage, and justifiably: well-crafted horror soundtracks should be a public obsession. Their orchestration of dread is a fitting backdrop to our current period of anxiety and uncertainty, and it offers a listening experience even those who generally avoid horror movies as well as soundtracks might find surprisingly satisfying.
In other parts of the world, Goblin would not have seemed an obscure choice for the Russian swim team: the bombastic and innovative progressive rock band became something of a household name in their native Italy when their soundtrack to Argento’s Profondo Rosso (or Deep Red) debuted at number one in the popular music charts and stayed in the top 40 for the rest of 1975. Goblin’s well-deserved fame has had the unfortunate effect of overshadowing other musical innovators like their contemporary Fabio Frizzi, but two of his classic soundtracks are ready for reconsideration, having been recently resurrected and lovingly repackaged by boutique labels Death Waltz and Mondo Records. Frizzi’s work has aged remarkably well, and listeners new to these scores will discover an artist whose aesthetic influenced not only other soundtrack composers but innovators in underground rock and electronic music circles as well.
Frizzi began his musical career in the rock trio Bixio-Frizzi-Tempera, providing tightly woven soundtracks with instruments and arrangements not often heard in American soundtracks for spaghetti westerns and Italian thrillers. Like Goblin, his work is a sterling example of the fruitful synthesis that emerged between experimental rock musicians and film-makers in the 1970s. Pink Floyd, Popol Vuh, Tangerine Dream and other innovative groups offered soundscapes that extended their freeform explorations of studio and stage into the visual realm. As this dynamic entered the realm of the horror genre, the result was a new musical vocabulary that would leave its bloody mark on later developments in both film and music as well.
If the primary criterion of an ideal soundtrack is to enhance and intensify the action on the screen, then many of the most innovative horror soundtracks might be deemed failures. While Bernard Herrmann’s jagged strings ostensibly serve as an accompaniment to Norman Bates’ knife strokes in the famous shower scene from Psycho, try playing the scene without sound, then Herrmann’s soundtrack without Hitchcock’s film, and you will likely find that the strings overshadow the knife. Although horror films have long served as a medium where composers are able to experiment, troubling atonalities and tense polyrhythms so ably serving the subject matter, Herrmann’s unforgettable cue has cast a disproportionately long shadow over the genre. While Herrman’s innovations are justly revered, it would take an offbeat choice of a song outside the real of orchestral arrangements to provide a well-needed shift in the horror film’s aesthetic.
With William Friedkin’s inspired choice of using the haunting theme from Mike Oldfield’s epic progressive rock album Tubular Bells in The Exorcist (1972), the horror soundtrack had a new musical model that combined sinuous delicacy with brooding menace. Like other progressive rock artists, Oldfield added a wide range of instrumentation to the traditional rock pallet, and the ringing percussion of Oldfield’s theme would later be echoed by Goblin’s use of chiming celeste on the unforgettable opening to Suspiria. Both pieces share a child-like delicacy in their jingling instrumentation, but in its transposition to the horror film, prog’s penchant for fairy tale whimsy and Tolkienesque fantasy mutated into twisted nursery melodies and dark folk tales. At their best, Goblin were able to shift effortlessly from subtle melodies and exotic instrumentation to bludgeoning crescendos and sonic mayhem, but they often succumbed to prog rock’s besetting sin: self-indulgence.
In 1979 Fabio Frizzi offered a more subtle approach to the Italo-horror soundtrack, one which deftly combined the minimalist structures of new music composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich with experimental rock, funk and early electronica. While Goblin’s Bacchanalian soundtracks are a fitting accompaniment to the garish colors and extreme art direction of Argento, Frizzi’s scores bear a more oblique relationship to the violence and gore they accompany. Zombie 2 was director Lucio Fulci’s attempt to cash in on the success of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, released as Zombie in Italy, and though far from being a worthy successor, its Grand Guignol horrors set a new standard for movie gore. Boasting an unforgettable underwater battle between a zombie and a shark, the film succeeds by sheer audacity and brazen energy.
Frizzi’s score is no less brazen or energetic, but transcends its filmic context—and in some respects the Italian horror film score tradition itself—by offering a richly arranged and measured composition without sacrificing the film’s violent urgency. By 1979 the synthesizer was beginning to emerge in popular music, most notably in the early synth-pop of British artists like Gary Numan, The Human League, and OMD, where it became synonymous with urban unease and future shock. Frizzi’s score is clearly influenced by the synthesizer’s new austerity measures, as well as drawing from earlier analogue techniques developed by German synthesized space rock, or kosmische music and English prog alike. The most distinctive of the various sounds-of-futures-past dredged up by Frizzi is that of the mellotron, an early electronic keyboard that actually plays pre-recorded tape reels of choral and orchestral sounds. While it was most famously used to grandiose effect in King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King, in Frizzi’s hands the mellotron’s oddly compressed choral effects sound more like a choir of the undead muffled by graveyard soil.
Frizzi’s melding of the futuristic with the moribund in his use of electronics is matched by his peculiar melodic lines, which often move uncannily between the lively and the funereal. While the Zombie 2 soundtrack often bears only an oblique reference to the violent and frenetic story line, this merging of the sounds of life and death provides a disturbingly effective aural equivalent to the undead creatures on-screen. Frizzi’s soundtrack sounds both shockingly new in its use of stark synthesizer tones, and uncomfortably old in its use of tonal distortion and decay. Freud famously defined “the uncanny” as the sense of unease we feel when encountering something that seems alive when we know it should be dead. It is an elusive quality that Frizzi manages to evoke melodically and sonically with seeming effortlessness.
The sense of decay and things long dead brought to life is even more palpable in Frizzi’s best-known score, created for another Fulci film, L’Aldila (The Beyond, 1981). Though created two years after Zombie 2, this soundtrack sounds older, at times ancient, thanks to the dramatic use of (live) choral singers. This later production wears its rock influences more loudly than its predecessor, the nimble drum and dead-cool fretless bass-lines infuses the often-Wagnerian heaviness of the compositions with a welcome dose of funk. The mellotron remains a haunting presence, as are early analog synthesizers, but now the sounds are more crypto than techno. Where Steve Reich was an obvious influence on the repetitive, slowly building song structures of Zombie 2, here the deft counterpoint almost suggests an undead Bach.
These recordings deserve a broader listenership, connected as they are to musical innovations well outside the world of film soundtracks. They are also invaluable documents of the dynamic relationship between film-makes and rock musicians during the classic era of the modern horror film. Like other great scores from the 70s, Frizzi’s work provides an alternative picture of a musical past that deserves resurrection.
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.