Italian composer Fabio Frizzi is a bona fide horror titan. Through a long partnership with b-movie auteur Lucio Fulci, he scored some of the most revered cult horror films of the ‘70s and ‘80s – Zombi 2, The Beyond, City of the Living Dead and many, many more. Tom Fenwick talks to the maestro about his career, influence and recent resurgence.
Fabio Frizzi has soundtracked your nightmares. Eviscerated corpses, melted faces, popped eyeballs, zombies fighting sharks – just a taste of the horrific images Frizzi has scored throughout his long career. To describe him as a legend of Italian cinema would be an understatement. Frizzi is to the horror genre what Ennio Morricone is to the western; the creeping dread of his music an indelible legacy which will continue long after the films have been forgotten.
His career began in the late 1960s with the trio Bixio, Frizzi & Tempera, cutting his teeth on scores for dozens of low-budget Italian films, but he is best known for his long collaborative partnership with horror maestro Lucio Fulci. His soundtracks for cult classics like Zombie Flesh Eaters, The Beyond, Manhattan Baby and Cat In The Brain balanced the terror on screen with compositions that were in turn haunting and playful.
Frizzi’s weapons of choice were the Mellotron, the Jupiter-8 and the Prophet-5, and the way he employed these classic synths later inspired a generation of kids to throw away their guitars and dive into their warm, bubbling analogue sound. The likes of Pittsburgh duo Zombi and Boards of Canada have paid explicit homage to Frizzi (the latter on ‘Reach For The Dead’), while producers like MF Grimm, El-P and Cannibal Ox have overlaid his dark, brooding orchestration onto hip-hop beats.
With Halloween on the horizon, Frizzi is returning to London for Chills In The Chapel, a performance of his most beloved work on October 29 at Union Chapel. I caught up with him in a deserted cinema between screenings at Frightfest 2016 where, far from being the dark and foreboding master of horror one might expect, I was greeted like an old friend by a man whose warmth and laughter resonate almost as much as his music.
You began composing in your early 20s. How did you get your start in film?
My dad was in that industry – he was called Fulvio, and he was the commercial director of a film distribution company [Cineriz]. When I finished my basic schooling I began university — my dad wanted me to be a lawyer — but my interest was in music. One day I met Carlo Bixio, a music publisher who knew that I was already involved in the business and maybe it would be easy to help me. At the time he was he was trying to find many younger ‘eventual’ composers, so there was me, Claudio Simonetti, his band and others often all together in his office.
And is that how your trio Bixio, Frizzi & Tempera was born?
On my early work, he would pair me up with his brother [Franco Bixio] and Vincenzo Tempera, who would help me because he knew I couldn’t do too many things at once. So I worked on Amore Libero [Free Love] and then Fantozzi. On the latter, I wrote the music but Vincenzo helped me to conduct and Franco helped me with the editing. After that, Carlo called me and said, “Why don’t we try to do a group?” And I thought, why not?
So we had the five years of marriage. It was very intense, but I have so many beautiful memories of that time. At the time in Italy there were almost 250 movies released every year, but not everything was great. Sometimes we knew that we were not working on very important projects – they were B-movies. But our passion for the job was so high we’d always do the best work we possibly could.
How did your long association with Lucio Fulci begin?
Carlo, the publisher of our trio, calls me to say we must go to see a new movie. It’s a western called I Quattro Dell’Apocalisse [Four of the Apocalypse], a great movie with great actors. But the music was incomplete, and every single scene was soundtracked by Bob Dylan’s ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’. This is absolutely normal. Every director needs something to work from when editing. But [as a composer], you know he’ll be convinced that he must have something similar. And you are stuck – you cannot have real ideas, so you say to yourself, “He wants it to be like Bob Dylan – dio mio, we are lost!” [Laughs] I mean, he is a genius so what can you do against that? In the end, we did an LP which Lucio was very happy with, and from there our story began. That album is something I’m very proud of, and many people love the acoustic songs from I Quattro Dell’Apocalisse when we perform live.
“When I was young, the fight between Moog and Yamaha was so beautiful because there was always something new”
You have described Lucio in past interviews as having a difficult temperament — how did he challenge you musically?
Lucio had a dual personality. One was sweet and very friendly, but the other side — the professional side — was demanding. Lucio and I shared the same idea towards work: you must have good collaborators, and if you have this you have your problems that are fixed. He was the father and the group of people who worked around him were a bit like his children — we had to do what dad wanted. As a director, he had clear ideas, and in terms of the music he wasn’t the kind of person to give you a reference point. Instead, he worked in adjectives. I remember once he told me he wanted a scene to have ‘transparent music’. I wrote it in my notes and afterwards thought, what does this mean? But of course, you couldn’t ask him! [Laughs]
On Zombi 2 (known as Zombie Flesh Eaters) you capture a truly diverse selection of sounds. What kind of music influenced your choices on that score?
One example I can give is the scene with the splinter and the eye, the inspiration for which came from the Beatles track ‘A Day in the Life’. The start of the second part of that song – “woke up, fell out of bed” – has a strong piano and bass, and then in the end there is an orchestral struggle with piano and bass in the background, “bom-bom-bom-bom”. If you’ve ever played or written music, you’ll know you start with an idea, fill it with other ideas and moment by moment it changes into something original, so I started from that and built on it. You see, there is a secret when you steal something! [Laughs]
Your use of the Mellotron, Moog, Jupiter-8 and Prophet 5 create some unnerving soundscapes. What drew you to using synthesisers in the first place?
Sometimes you are born at the right moment. When I was young, keyboards were coming out one after the other. And the fight between Moog and Yamaha was so beautiful because there was always something new. So it was year-after-year of discovery, and when you have to create music and have ideas, this versatility helps so much.
“The crowd were clapping and shouting and I understood how Mick Jagger must feel. Usually you’re in that position when you’re 25, not 65”
And what was it like working with [Italian synth legend and onetime member of Goblin] Maurizio Guarini on Zombi 2?
Maurizio is not only a good keyboard player but a great mind. He brought everything he had to the studio, including new keyboards like the Yamaha CP-80 and the CS-80. They were incredible because musically you could do anything with them, although they were so heavy that two people would struggle to carry them into the studio.
So do you ever go back to this heavy analogue equipment or have you made the transition to computers?
We use a Korg when we perform and it has many possibilities. For example, we can make it sound like a Mellotron… but it’s not quite the same! On an original machine you could play with an oscillator and change something very slight and it would sound perfect. When we perform we’re like a symphonic orchestra, and my belief is to use nothing pre-recorded because I think that it’s better to make mistakes and to be real. It is the way I am in my life; I may not be that beautiful, but I am myself.
Italian cinema has produced some incredible composers: you, Claudio Simonetti, Stelvio Cipriani, Ennio Morricone and many more. Was there friendly competition between you?
We had good relationships, but maybe without telling one another. [Laughs] As a kid I was in love with Morricone’s music, and when I started working with Carlo Bixio I knew the maestro was working in his studios. One day I asked if I could see him recording and Morricone said yes, which was incredible because he has a bad [reputation]! So for one year I got to sit in with his orchestra, this is something that imprints on you. Then I remember when I was working on my first movie, (Amore Libero) Ennio met me at the studio and said, “You cannot come and sit in on the sessions,” and that was that.
“My belief is to use nothing pre-recorded, it’s better to make mistakes and to be real”
Your work has had a lot of influence on contemporary artists, how do you feel about that?
The internet has helped me to understand this. So many people told me rappers and dance acts are using my music, and so on. I have two thoughts on this: the first is, well done, if you love my work and want to use it for making new music then why not? The second is, obviously I would prefer you ask me beforehand! But sometimes that does happen and we have a contract and I am credited as one of the composers — it’s logical, if you use something from me then I’m very happy, but we’re all in it together.
You’ve been touring your stage show Frizzi 2 Fulci for the last few years, but what are you working on now?
It’s a spin-off of Frizzi 2 Fulci, a ‘composer’s cut’ of [Lucio Fulci’s 1981 classic] The Beyond. We were on the plane in the US last year and one of the musicians said, “Fabio, why don’t we play a concert centred around one movie like many people do now?” And I say the reason is very clear – I cannot stand to be on stage for two hours only to play 20 minutes, I would want to go and have a coffee! [Laughs] But he says, “You are right, but you are the composer, so you could rewrite everything.”
I didn’t want to do something from scratch because those themes are our beloved and it would be crazy. So I spoke to the film editor, Bob Murawski [Academy Award-winning editor of The Hurt Locker] who has been in love with Lucio’s films since he was a child. I tell my idea to him, and he says he can help — sending me the film in HD with the dialogue and music separated. Then I started from original recordings that Lucio had not used and re-orchestrated it because I have no music left from that time. I’m not the best at judging this, because I love the project, but I hope people who enjoy the original will discover this as another way of seeing The Beyond.
Following some great reissues on Death Waltz, your music is being consumed by a new generation. How does the resurgence of interest in your work make you feel?
I often say that my life is upside down, because I started as a serious composer in the studio but now I’m performing onstage and I’m in contact with people who love the music I wrote. Three years ago, at the end of the concert in Union Chapel, the crowd were clapping and shouting and I understood how Mick Jagger must feel every night. [Laughs]. Usually you’re in that position when you’re 25, not 65, and that is the magic of this moment.
‘Chills In The Chapel’ takes place at Union Chapel on October 29. Tickets are available now