Dance of the Dead: Remembering George Romero’s iconic soundtracks
On Sunday, July 12, legendary horror auteur George A. Romero died at 77, leaving behind a legacy that has influenced generations. John Twells takes a closer look at Romero’s finest soundtracks, from his collaboration with Italian prog act Goblin on Dawn of the Dead to the melancholy jazz of Donald Rubenstein’s Martin score.
George A. Romero was a true master of horror. Bursting onto the scene with influential low-budget zombie movie Night of the Living Dead, he made Pittsburgh a global horror capital and kickstarted a post-modern obsession with the undead that’s still visible today. Think AMC’s The Walking Dead has a monopoly on the “zombies as social commentary” trope? George Romero did it in 1968.
Arguably, Romero’s high point came in 1985 with Dawn of the Dead, a zombie film so iconic that its setting – a hulking American shopping mall – is still widely referenced in popular culture. His output slowed until his death this year on July 12, but Romero never lost the drive to churn out non-conformist horror that bucked tradition and sidestepped easy scares.
Romero’s soundtracks are almost as iconic as the films themselves, from Spencer Moore’s spine tingling opening to Night of the Living Dead to Herbert Chappell’s ‘The Gonk’, which aside from being used on the end credits of Dawn of the Dead was used in Shaun of the Dead, Robot Chicken and was sampled by Jonny Trunk.
Click on each title to hear the score.
Night of the Living Dead
The soundtrack to George Romero’s enduring zombie-flavored social commentary isn’t your average set of horror cues by any means. Romero opted not to use an original score, instead selecting and editing familiar snippets from the Capitol Hi-Q production music library. These were sounds and themes that had already been used on a handful of low-budget horror and sci-fi movies, but were repurposed by Romero, somewhat ironically, to create a nostalgic backdrop for his genre-defining film.
Spencer Moore’s eerie, tape echoed sci-fi textures were a fitting opening for 1959’s Teenagers From Outer Space, but they take a more sinister turn when Romero uses the same cue to accompany Night of the Living Dead’s controversial ending. What was alien and awe-inspiring just a decade earlier becomes a horrifying juxtaposition as African-American leading man Ben (played by Duane Jones) is gunned down in cold blood by a gang of marauding rednecks.
Composer Donald Rubinstein was just 26 years old when he “wrestled with personal discipline” to compose the score to Romero’s coming-of-age tale of identity and abuse. His brother, Richard Rubinstein, was the film’s producer, which no doubt helped coax Romero from library music to something a little more risky.
And risky it is: Rubinstein completely avoids usual horror tropes, opting to embellish Romero’s unique vampire tale with melancholy jazz moods instead of haunting strings and stabs. It’s one of Romero’s must unusual pairings of music and visuals; it’s not hard to see why the director asked Rubinstein to collaborate again on 1990’s Tales From the Darkside: The Movie.
Dawn of the Dead
Goblin / Various artists
Arguably George Romero’s masterpiece, Dawn of the Dead is blessed a suitably complicated soundtrack. Thanks to the involvement of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, who edited the European version of the film, prog troupe Goblin handled the score on that specific cut, offering up some of their most memorable themes. Goblin’s score has been widely available since the film’s release, but US viewers might be confused hearing it, as the mainstream edit of the film used elements of Goblin’s score along with a handful of stock music.
Romero opted to follow the Night of the Living Dead method, raiding 60-plus cues from the De Wolfe Music Library and juxtaposing these bizarre, jaunty themes with images of terror. For example, Herbert Chappell’s bawdy ’60s romp ‘The Gonk’ is used on the film’s closing credits and is about as far from stereotypical horror soundtrack tropes as you could possibly get; if you need proof, it’s also the closing theme of long-running Adult Swim comedy show Robot Chicken.
While George Romero initially picked a handful of library music tracks (some of which remain in the finished movie) for the soundtrack to his ode to EC horror comics, Creepshow, it wasn’t giving the movie the sense of scale it needed. Romero and Stephen King wanted the music to echo the ’50s era when EC Comics like Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror were at their peak, but they knew they needed something more than a few iffy themes.
Romero’s assistant director, John Harrison, was a rock guitarist and offered to work on the music himself, and the resulting score is one of the finest in Romero’s catalogue. Creepshow was Harrison’s first attempt at writing music for a film, and drips with excitement: Harrison’s use of synthesizers is particularly impressive, and his woozy, VHS-warped themes have, over time, become almost as familiar as their ’50s inspiration.
Day of the Dead
Unlike Creepshow, Day of the Dead was completely finished before John Harrison began composing the score. The finished version differed slightly from George Romero’s initial script, which had involved a much more obvious Caribbean setting, but Romero was adamant that Harrison should work from the initial ideas, which emphasized the location without Romero having to film it.
Harrison used a Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, a Kurzweil K250 sampler and the legendary LinnDrum drum machine to craft one of his most unusual scores – a blend of staccato Caribbean-influenced steel drum rhythms and searing synths that still sounds bizarre and brilliant today.
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