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We might have to wait another eleven months for Halloween to come around again. But the one emblem of horror that keeps shambling all the year along, ad infinitum (unless you blow its brains out) is The Zombie, that ironic representative of mankind as reduced to its primal undead self, fueled onward by a ravenous need for flesh and fluids. And just as the media refuses to let these walking corpses decay, the soundtrack market is unearthing zombie-centric scores from the present and long past to run with the media’s newfound love of all things re-animated. Propped on melody and dissonance, if not always in that order or proportion, a new wave of releases shows off the numerous styles of horror scoring that can be found within popular decay.
When zombies first began appearing in exploitation films, producers didn’t quite know what to make of their condition, blaming it on voodoo, alien mind control or disease, the effects of which left some members of the undead slightly more cognizant than others. Such was the latter cause and diagnosis of what becomes of much of humanity in “The Last Man On Earth.” Roger Corman made the first of many adaptations of Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” in 1964, with Vincent Price in the titular role of an army scientist, an especially unenviable position as the character kills time by staking the vampiric creatures that a plague has turned 99.9% of mankind into.
While “The Omega Man” and “I Am Legend” had far bigger budgets to play with in envisioning the zombie holocaust, director Roger Corman always made economic limitation into a rich asset. Shot in Italy, sans recorded sound, the scenes of a conscience-plagued Price rummaging about abandoned buildings with sharpened wood in hand have an especially haunting, and stark power to them. Unlike the loads of machine gun fire or CGI mutants to come later, this “Man” is stripped down to the fearful essentials of staying alive, an overwhelming sense of loss and loneliness that makes “Earth” the most effectively cinematic Homo Sapien standing, especially given a powerfully sympathetic, if no less creepy score by the team of Paul Sawtell and Bert Shefter.
With a genre-packed resume that includes “The Lost World” and “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” Sawtell and Shefter certainly knew something about how to use a swirling orchestra to optimistically explore uncharted, fantastical territory. “The Last Man on Earth” is far more unfortunate in its scope as its hero treks across a familiar landscape that’s being turned into something new and terrifying, Sawtell and Shefter’s work is certainly chillier as a result, conveying a darkly contemplative sense of wonder, music that’s as much about a man’s inner turmoil as it is the next abandoned building whose inhabitants he’s out to stake.
As the leader of a pack of new retro releases from Monstrous Movie Music (which includes such other cult score chestnuts as “Destination Moon,” “Missile to the Moon” and “The Brain from Planet Arous”) “Last Man On Earth” sounds remarkably lavish, especially given that Sawtell and Shefter likely didn’t have the resources of the studio horror / sci-fi programmers they were used to. It’s pretty much as busy as any soundtrack from the period, music that’s not such much startlingly thematic as it is a wash of activity. But the curiously tender, yet doom-laden, melodic content of “Last Man on Earth” is grandly impressive, and no more unsettling than when the duo bring out a guttural chorus of male and female singers, the voices of the damned rising from their ersatz graves to torment poor Price. Yet the emotive music tells us these aren’t the walking dead as such, giving these pathetic wretches a soul that makes the hero all the less human for relentlessly destroying those he views as being less than human. It’s a pretty neat bit of psychology amidst the Sturm und Drang that’s so gloriously the stuff of scores of this sort from the period, and one reason the last “Man” continues to stand tall.
Nothing brings out the howls of horror fans then when a studio announces they’re remaking an indie classic that’s perfect to begin with. More often than not, their outrage is more than justified. However, one of few pleasantly grisly surprises for an unnecessary reboot remains Zack Snyder’s 2004 spin on1978’s “Dawn of the Dead.” But then, if that original sequel were arguably far superior to the oft remade “Night of the Living Dead,” then why wouldn’t Snyder’s own take for the material be better? While it turned out that the old “Dawn” was in no danger of being surpassed, Snyder’s trip to the cinematic shopping mall was shockingly well made and relevant (if still pleasantly familiar), if missing the consumerist edge that made its ancestor a classic.
George Romero effectively had swung between old horror library music and the progressive synth-scare rhythms of Goblin (whose work would entirely fill Euro versions of the original “Dawn”). That sound would be far different in the hands of Tyler Bates, an interesting composer who’d already been charting a decade-long course between studio and indie projects with his impressively atypical scores for “Get Carter,” “Rated X” and “City of Ghosts,” “Dawn of the Dead” marked Bates’ first major leap into the horror genre, a soundscape where melody had already been turned into steaming entrails of dissonance for filmmakers who thought that nothing was scarier than lobbing chunks of percussion at the audience.
While it’s understandable that Bates wasn’t going to completely break that mold for his shot at “Dawn,” what remains remarkable about his work is the intelligence that was put into the expected shock effects. While there was certainly no shortage of crashing, banging music to accompany the savage zombie attacks, Bates complemented the expected with impressive musical variety. Epic orchestral themes rampaged over helter-skelter sampled percussion, conveying a scale worthy of Armageddon. Shards of electronics uneasily danced between somber strings for a constant sense of trapped dread, with gasping voices at the doors. But Bates was just as adept at capturing the loneliness of those trapped within consumer sanctuary, a child-like lullabye theme working with piano and subtle, symphonic melancholy for the survivors’ growing complacency in the hopelessness of it all. Bates also didn’t completely toss the Goblin sound into the loading duck, giving faint hints at their rock rhythm approach.
With the stylistic synergy between Snyder and Bates, it’s no wonder that fan disbelief turned to an appetite which ate “Dawn of the Dead” up, insuring the duo would collaborate on the likes of “300” and “Watchmen,” while the composer found a healthy, even more outré horror scoring career with the likes of “Halloween,” “Slither” and “The Devil’s Rejects.” But it’s always been “Dawn” that people have been ravenous for in Bates’ repertoire, a score that Milan records has finally released in both iTunes and physical formats to satiate the hunger for music that finally goosed the zombie shamble into a full-tilt, rampaging run.
Arguably one of, if not the best zombie film to have come out since 1978, 2010’s “The Dead” was a huge injection of fresh meat to a rapidly mortifying genre. Made by South African brothers Howard J. and Jonathan Ford, “The Dead” took the zombie formula’s tropes to their continent with startling effect. Sure we’d seen tons of lumbering corpses, sprays of entrails and splattered brains lope long past their freshness date. But never before were these tropes wandering through the deserts of the Serengeti, ripping into tribal villages or attempting to climb towering rock formations. But beyond its ghastly visual splendor and gnarly thrills, “The Dead” offered uncommon emotion to the zombie formula in the uneasy partnership between white and black soldiers, one haunted by a family he can’t save, and the other driven by the hope his son might still be alive.
It’s this mix of exotic location, and universal feeling that comprises the stunning musical landscape of Indian composer Imran Ahmad. For what “The Lion King” was to animation, “The Dead” is to horror scoring, work that’s full of tribal beats, ancient instruments and native chanting. But where Hans Zimmer’s score was about conveying the continent’s life force, Ahmad’s is in brilliant inverse. Just as Simon Boswell used indigenous sounds to conjure the black magic of the unsung “Dust Devil,” Ahmad’s music reaches into Africa’s ancient terrors of witchcraft, as channeled for a zombie spirit that could just as well be cast from Haitian Vudon. Voices form the ritual, singing with thematically eerie melody, casting wordless incantations or breathless serving as percussion. Primal orchestral hits blend with drums, evoking the demons contained within the flickering light of millennia-old pit fire as much as it does the far more contemporary spell of our civilization’s flickering, celluloid imagery.
Yet what gives life to “The Dead’s” score is the poetry within its horror. Just as capably as he can use instruments and voices to evoke fear, Ahmad finds a beautiful lyricism within their sound, evoking a sense of mysticism from a land created long before humanity came along to die and resurrect within it. “The Dead” is this journey between poetry and the primal, one of uncommon and haunting beauty that’s a remarkable counterpoint for the zombie genre, and horror scoring as well. “The Undead” is a major discovery for anyone watching it, let alone hearing it, Howlin’ Wolf has now done justice to this breakout composer’s work with enveloping sound and striking packaging that will likely bring more converts into making the trek to “The Dead’s” particularly dark continent.
“The Ghastly Love of Johnny X” isn’t a zombie film per say. It’s more of a zombie-juvenile delinquent-space invader musical-Alan Freed rock show picture straight from 1958, as wrapped in an insane black and white bow by filmmaker Paul Bunnell. As with such Larry Blamire retro spoofs as “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra” and “Trail of the Screaming Forehead,” “Johnny X” is amazing for its A+ technical execution of the B picture ethos, while working less well as an actual film beyond the retro-gasms. Yet there’s no denying the tremendous enthusiasm, and knowingly humorous charm that’s gone into this movie (along with Kodak’s last remaining stock of Eastman Plus-X Negative Film 5231), crazed energy that radiates in day glo colors from the work of composer Ego Plum.
It’s one thing to capture all of the orchestral lurching about that accompanied zombie Tor Johnson, the Theremin-like weird science of flying saucers invading the earth or hearing the hep rockabilly swing of leather jacket punks. But it’s another talent to bring one’s own sensibility to music beyond its spot-on replication. Ego Plum has the crazed abilities to go beyond that. His score is filled with the delirious inventiveness that powered Danny Elfman’s homage-caked soundtrack for “Forbidden Zone” (whose sequel Plum is set to score), as turned from the cartoon-jazz of 20s era Max Fleisher cartoons to the lightning-in-a-graveyard 50s horror sci-fi sound that Howard Shore brilliantly brought to “Ed Wood.”
Like a music geek doing the fanboy Watusi, Plum’s energy is a huge shot in the arm for “Johnny X,” and an unkempt blast as its own instrumental listen. Better yet, Plum doesn’t keep the score on the level of checking off every genre style from Spaghetti Western to rockabilly-organ rhythms. He brings a neat thematic glue to “Johnny X”’s instrumental score that’s as cemented as its anti-hero’s slick hairdo, a weave that lends the proper amount of mock seriousness to the score in a way this stuff’s musical progenitors didn’t dare to intentionally acknowledge. A bit less certain are the songs by Scott Martin, which range from an out-of-sorts finger-snapping, multi-voice rumble to a truly clever drive-in rhumba and a basic riff on “Purple People Eater” that’s a bit of an odd fit for a rotting crooner who’s supposed to be the equivalent of Roy Orbison. But while “Forbidden Zone-Rocky Horror-Little Shop of Horrors” “The Ghastly Love of Johnny X” is not for its considerably admirable ambition, Ego has the kind of hipster appreciation that Danny Elfman made his bones on, congealing musical flesh that promises a neat drop from this Plum’s own absurd branch. One senses that there are far more than tales from the musical vintage shop crypt waiting to be unleashed the next time out.