May 9, 2016

Bloody Ears, Grateful Heart - Music of Italian Horror Cinema

I think it is fair to judge a man based on how the react to the subject of Italian horror. If they look at you quizzically, feel free to introduce them to some of the craziest cinema known to man. If they look at you in a disgusted or disinterested fashion, feel free to disembowel them on the spot. Now, should their eyes light up with the crazy, well, you have just made a new friend for life. There is nothing like the look, the flavor, the texture of Italian horror and when you find a like minded soul, it can be a like this bit from Step Brothers:

Now, there are a lot of elements that go into making an Italian horror, well, Italian. When you are watching one, it is pretty easy to discern some of the elements. Today, we are here to discuss one of those elements. It is an element that I feel is often overlooked, regardless of where the movie originates. That element is the music. Yes, the music is an integral part of cinema, especially in horror. The music can be a point of comfort, suspense, terror, relief, pretty much anything. I recently had the opportunity to speak with the composer Christopher Young (Hellraiser, Drag Me to Hell, and many others) and he spoke about just that, the ability the composer has to play with your perceptions, to carry you through the terror. To give you a taste of his style:

I am sure you are wondering when I am getting to the Italians. When you watch Italian horror, music is one of those elements that just brings everything together. It is the meat sauce on the pasta, it is always there, bringing all the elements of the movie together under one roof. In my rather limited experience, I have quickly fallen in love with Italian horror film music. There are a few that have really stood out to me, and while they may be some of the more familiar, that does not make them any less effective.

Let's start right up front with a trio of my all time favorites. They also happen to be collaborations with one of my favorite directors. Those of you who know Italian horror probably have a good idea of who I am about to name. You also hopefully have a knowing smile on your face. These may be among the usual suspects, but that does not mean they should be taken lightly.

The composer is Fabio Frizzi, a man who worked many times with director Lucio Fulci. It is a collaboration that has resulted in three of my favorite scores. Fabio Frizzi's scores are experimental, memorable, and above all else, atmospheric. Before getting to the three scores I am referring to, it is important to note that he also worked with Fulci on films like Four of the Apocalypse, Contraband and Cat in the Brain.

The first of the Frizzi/Fulci big three is non other than Zombi 2 (although you may know it simply as Zombie). This score is fascinating, covers a variety of styles, and can be very foreboding. This score just drips with tension. Right from the start, the steady hit of the drum and the minor keys employed weigh heavy in the air. You just know that bad things are going to happen. The combination of synth, woodwinds, and percussion blend into something that is truly memorable. The main theme is the thing nightmares are made of.

The next Frizzi/Fulci to collaboration was 1980's City of the Living Dead. This is one of those movies that is completely and utterly surreal. It does not seem to have a lead character and chronicles a number of folks experiences with the invading undead. It is a movie that is carried by tone and atmosphere more than standard narrative. The music helps to cement the surreal nature of the film with its use of synthesizers to create an atmosphere of unease. Frizzi turns in some amazing work here that helps to bring Fulci's nightmarish vision to hellish life.

The third Frizzi/Fulci collaboration to grab my ears was the surreal masterpiece The Beyond. This movie is nightmarish in every way, it flows from scene to scene with one purpose, creeping you out. To that end, Frizzi has turned in one of his creepiest pieces yet. From minor key piano to mellotron vocalizations, to live vocals, this is a completely rewarding and eerie listen. It is quite possibly my favorite of all of their collaborations. There is just something that gets into my head and sticks around, ensuring that I get little sleep. I also cannot help but wonder if this provided any inspiration for the Saw theme, “Hello Zepp.” The build up seems similar at times.

Now, while Frizzi is one of my favorite Italian horror composers, he is hardly the only one in the game. There are others that have just as unique takes on film composing, still feel very Italian, but differ greatly. A great example of this would have to be Riz Ortolani's work on the controversial classic Cannibal Holocaust. We all know that movie can be a rough watch, I have made a begrudging peace with its insane effectiveness. Part of that effectiveness is due to the amazing score. The theme is likely one of the prettiest pieces of music you are ever likely to hear, and the fact that it serves to lead you into the mouth of cinematic hell is just icing on the cake. Just listen to that beautiful melody and tell me you aren't interested in finding where it leads you. Taken as a whole, this score takes you between the beautiful, the playful, and the deadly foreboding and back again with ingenius uses of synth, strings, and guitar. There is some truly great stuff here.

To be certain, Riz Ortolani worked on a lot of films and covered a lot of different styles. To hear something a little different, and show some of his versatility, here is a piece from his score for Ruggero Deodato's House on the Edge of the Park:

This leads me to my all time favorite composer of Italian horror music, even of music for movies I have not yet seen (for shame!)! The almighty Goblin! This progressive Italian collective led by Claudio Simonetti, Massimo Morante, and Fabio Pignatelli is just absolutely amazing. Their music is just otherworldly, and is abslutely perfect for walking the streets of New York City. If you don't believe me, try it (I recommend using the Goblin Collection 1975-1989 release). The funny thing is that my first exposure to them was with an American film, they composed a lot of the music used in George Romero's Dawn of the Dead:

From there, their presence is felt far and wide across the Italian horror spectrum. They are probably best known for scoring Dario Argento's Suspiria, Deep Red, and Tenebrae, they also scored the Australian horror film Patrick and La Chiesa for Argento's protoge, Michele Soavi.

There music does something to me, it is kind of hard to explain. I had the opportunity to see them during their first ever US tour last year at their stop in Philadelphia, it was a transcendent experience listening to this music performed live and in person. Their style works perfectly for the films their work on and they have been so influential as to have inspired what seems like an entire sub genre dedicated to capturing their style and using it in new ways (check out the likes of Zombi, Anima Morte, Bottin, Giallo's Flame, and Umberto).

I am not sure I can really pick a favorite score from them, perhaps Suspiria, although Contamination is really good, too. I think it has to do with the fact that I first experienced them in CD form via a best of collection. Still, there is no denying the amazing music they have turned out, grooving, atmospheric, rocking, creepy, their ability to create these memorable pieces is mind blowing.



Deep Red:

This really is only the tip of the iceberg, there is so much other great music in Italian horror that I am not even touching on that is worthy of listening to outside of the cinematic arena. I also realize that most of what I talk about here are the big ones, but they are the big ones for a reason, they are just that good! Now, I will take my leave, giving you a couple other tracks to ponder on:

House by the Cemetery – Walter Rizzati:

Bay of Blood - Stelvio Cipriani:

L'ultimo treno della notte – Ennio Morricone:

Zombi 3 – Stefano Mainetti:

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