George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” is incomparable. It is the quintessential zombie film that set the standard and most of the rules for every zombie film that followed**. For me, however, George A. Romero’s masterwork was his 1978 film, “Dawn of the Dead.”
“Dawn of the Dead” is a study of the human condition in the face of extinction; characters deal with what happens once they have survived the unthinkable, or as I like to say, “Apocalypse, Now What?” It also serves as Romero’s commentary on consumerism. Its relevance has only grown in the decades since it debuted, and its focus on the burgeoning cultural icon of the suburban indoor shopping mall seems eerily prescient today.
In the film, four people--Peter, Francine, Stephen and Roger--escape a zombie infested Philadelphia in a helicopter and find an oasis in a large indoor mall. This safe haven contains all the amenities they need, as well as many luxuries they would never have been able to afford. All the material things they could ever want are suddenly theirs for the taking.
Once they have secured the mall, they make themselves at home. Expensive clothes, gourmet food, video games, furniture, high end electronics are all theirs to enjoy. As time goes on, however, they begin to realize that survival is not enough. They are--in fact--prisoners of their own sanctuary, living a life empty without a purpose beyond merely existing.
I could go on and on about the socio-cultural themes of this work of speculative fiction, but this blog is about music. While “Dawn of the Dead” is famous for its visuals, it is the music--and at times the lack of music--that really provides the emotional reinforcement of the chaos, peril, elation, desperation and despair.
Romero used a combination of original music composed and performed by the Italian group, Goblin, and stock music from the De Wolf Music Library. Periods of silence contrast these perfectly to reflect what is happening to our characters--on an emotional level--throughout the film.
NOTE: I will be using the U.S. Theatrical Version that I first saw and--in agreement with George Romero--it is my preferred version.
"L'alba Dei Morti Viventi"
[The Dawn of the Living Dead]
“L’alba Dei Morti Viventi” is the first piece of Goblin’s music in “The Dawn of the Dead” as well as on its soundtrack.
The music begins with a swelling keyboard pad and kick drum whose rhythm mimics that of a heartbeat. These create a drone upon which everything that follows is layered. The music slowly builds as the bass doubles the kick drum, but with a slight stagger so that the heartbeat now has more of a groove. Once the drone is fully established, the winding melody of a lead keyboard enters the piece, providing a moving contrast to the steady drone. The melody develops and is eventually punctuated by a carillon bell. The piece then continues to build as a distorted guitar and additional--ornamental--keyboards and percussion join the chorus building to a climax which slowly diminishes in the final seconds of the music.
The droning nature of the piece and the winding melody convey the monotony of “Apocalypse, Now What?” The slow and unrelenting rhythmic pattern whose layers continuously build mirrors the unrelenting hordes of the slow moving dead.
The film begins with a close-up of Francine waking from a nightmare into a nightmare world where the dead walk and civilization is in decline. She works for a local television station, and the studio is in chaos. Two men discuss the situation on the set of a makeshift talk show while camera operators and others in the studio are screaming their opinions back at the host and his guest.
Other people are yelling at one another in a panicked effort to keep the station running. Others leave their posts and go home while station manager screams about keeping lists of out of date rescue stations running so that the viewing audience won’t tune out. Maybe he’s still worried about ratings because he’s an example of corporate greed--which would fit into Romero’s condemnation of consumerism--but I like to think that he’s in denial of what’s going on. That he believes the crisis will pass. This is one of many reactions shown in this chaotic opening scene.
The audience is thrown into a world in disorder, so it begins without any music to detract from the natural sounds of the setting. Slowly and intermittently Romero adds music to the cacophony of the studio. The ethereal backdrop of a stock selection from the De Wolf Library is contrasted with the intentionally relevant excerpts from “L’alba Dei Morti Viventi.” This interplay allows the audience to hear all the naked conversations which are then underscored by the unobtrusive stock music. Finally, everything is punctuated by Goblin’s music written specifically to provide “The Tell-Tale Heart” beat that comes from the chaos both within and outside the studio walls. As the title of the piece suggests, this is the music of the dead.
“La Caccia” provides contrast to the dark drone of “L’alba Dei Morti Viventi.” While the title translates to “Hunting,” I like to think of this upbeat piece as “our plan is working.” The characters have come up with a clever plan to secure the mall, and “La Caccia” plays while they are implementing it, when all seems to be going well. For the audience, the music inspires confidence and even a sense of fun, however temporary.
The piece begins with a staccato bass line. The bass guitar is doubled by a synth bass to give it a little extra brightness. The keyboards and guitar play a major-key chord progression giving way to an equally optimistic melody.
The bridge is a visceral release as the bass becomes melodic and fluid, contrasting the rapid staccato pattern of the mandolin. With each repetition, the music grows in intensity as strings double the mandolin, and the keyboard melodies return over the strings.
When “La Caccia” is first heard in the movie, Peter and Roger have just hotwired tractor trailers and are moving them to block the entrances to the mall. Stephen is flying the helicopter to monitor their progress and keep watch. Francine is on the roof with a scoped rifle to provide additional cover.
The scene is very exciting and this piece adds tremendously to that excitement.
“La Caccia” ends when Peter and Roger return to the truck yard. The eerie library music returns, emphasizing the danger of the yard where dead are lurking. But Roger has become cocky. He’s certain of victory, and leaves the door of the cab open while hot wiring the truck. Zombies slowly surround him. Just in time, Peter saves Roger from getting bitten and the duo begins their second run. This time instead of “La Caccia” playing, “L’alba Dei Morti Viventi” makes its return, foreshadowing impending disaster. This second run culminates with Roger getting bitten.
Herbert Chappell‘s "The Gonk," is the most significant piece of music from the De Wolf library to appear in this movie, and one of the more famous pieces of incidental music in popular culture. It is a particularly chipper piece that begins with bright fanfare, a melody played on the xylophone and solo trumpet, and a percussion section whose centerpiece is a drumhead tambourine.
The first time “The Gonk” is played is in the aftermath of the film’s climactic battle, a battle that involves zombies, a hostile biker gang, a pie fight, and the death of Stephen.
As the piece plays, we see zombies reclaim the territory our heroes had won at great personal cost. The implications of the visuals are dark, but the music juxtaposes how really funny it is to watch zombies wobble--seemingly in time to the beat--around a large indoor mall.
The quirkiness of the piece speaks to the absurdity of the situation. Likewise, it speaks to the self-awareness of this movie.
The music is temporarily distorted as it is revealed that Stephen has joined the zombie horde. It soon resumes its playful melody and tempo, however, contrasting the undeniably dark image of a zombie Stephen leading the horde to what had been the trio’s safe haven.
In the final scene of the movie, Peter shoots Stephen in the head after he breaks through their defenses. Francine and Peter then escape from the mall in the helicopter, flying into the dawn of a new day and an indeterminate fate. The film ends as “The Gonk” plays over a montage of zombies waddling around the mall, the embodiment of unbridled consumerism.
As the credits end, “The Gonk” fades and is replaced by the chimes of the mall’s clock tower. The clock chimes call back to the carillon bells of “L’alba Dei Morti Viventi,” bringing a bleak and somber note to the end of the movie.
George A. Romero
For most of George Romero’s career, he made movies with very small budgets and decidedly limited resources, yet he always surrounded himself with a talented, resourceful team of artists--friends and family--all of whom shared in his vision. His passion and the dedication of those around him inspired financiers to support these films as well. Even so, the money financed was below what a low budget movie--even at that time--would have had.
According to people who worked with him, George Romero was a kind, generous person, and a focused visionary. He encouraged those around him to contribute their ideas freely, and would integrate those contributions into whatever film he was working on. He was also a man who trusted the people he worked with. He’d lay out his vision, solicit ideas, and give his people the freedom to execute them. His films were true products of cooperation.
Romero’s first film, “Night of the Living Dead,” is one of the gold standards for filmmakers with limited resources and low-to-no budget. For more than a year, he and his team—including his writing and producing partner, John Russo—would spend their weeks making commercials for local businesses and their weekends on the labor of love that would become “Night of the Living Dead.” They would drive out to a rural farmhouse and spend their weekends living and filming in a house without running water. Romero once commented about having to bathe in a local stream.
Each week they would have to restore everything they had taken down the previous week. Their weekends began with rebuilding sets, gathering the extras they needed, and feeling fortunate they were always able to get their lead actors back.
The details of continuity were painstakingly maintained over the course of the year. If you look closely at the boards and planks covering the interior windows and doors of the farmhouse, you can see markings the crew drew to indicate their placement. This was done to ensure that they knew exactly how every piece fit together when they returned the following weekend, and the results speak for themselves.
In “Night of the Living Dead,” Romero used Bosco chocolate syrup for blood, as anything red would not have been as clearly visible in black and white. The darker color of the syrup provides a great contrast when used on a lighter surface, such as the basement wall at the end of the movie.
Last fall, when we made our first live-action short titled “Reflections of Childhood Through Porcelain Shards,” we specifically used chocolate syrup for blood and filtered those scenes in black and white as an homage to Romero. However, limited budgets and resources are things we deal with at The Lost Signals as well, and the store brand chocolate syrup was a third of the price of a bottle of Bosco. I think George would have understood.
It was indeed a personal thrill to be setting up the shot on the patio while Scott and Ian were in the kitchen preparing a quart of chocolate blood. We discovered that syrup straight from the bottle was too viscous, so they slowly incorporated water until they got the consistency right. I wonder if Romero and his team found that they needed to do something similar.
George Romero would go on to inspire so many filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. He would help the careers of those he worked with in his films such as Ed Harris, Tom Savini and Greg Nicatero.
For a man who would inspire so much and so many, George Romero would often struggle and fight to get his movies make. Even though financiers and studios were hesitant to invest, those people whose careers he helped and whose works he inspired would always come back to help him in whatever way they could.
We’ll miss you George, but you’ll always be with us through your work and the work you inspired.
--Chris Morgan, July 2017
**The idea that zombies eat brains came from Dan O’Bannon’s zombie satire, “Return of the Living Dead.” Funny enough, the movie’s premise was that “Night of the Living Dead” was based on a real incident in a Pittsburgh hospital and Romero just changed the details in his film. A fitting meta-tribute.
Dan O’Bannon, we miss you, too.