Spooktober Soundtracks, Vol. 2 – Italian Horror a.k.a. Giallo

by Gavin Mead ’15

In the lead-up to Halloween, Spooktober Soundtracks will be a weekly feature exploring the strange, exciting world of original horror movie scores.

gavin movieMention the word “Giallo” to almost any self-identified “horror nerd,” and you will likely get the same frenzied, reverent reaction one would get by mentioning, say, Krautrock to a disciple of experimental rock. Giallo film, or Italian mystery/horror from the 1970s, is canonized in much the same way, with interest in this very weird and very influential genre often serving as a marker of status for this very particular fandom. It is typically the curious fan’s first venture into a more outré foreign genre, a reaction to what was going on in the U.S. and the U.K. at the time, with instantly identifiable trademarks.

Far from being a more academic take on Hollywood horror films, however, the source of delight in Giallo for horror fans is the genre’s inherent “trashyness.” The movies of Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Lucio Fulci, among many others who were operating throughout the 70s, ooze with sex and violence, captured by cinematography almost comic in its overkill, yet remarkable for its undeniable beauty. These directors, inspired as much by American exploitation films as big budget horrors like Rosemary’s Baby, took things to a new extreme, filming death scenes with a typically very Italian tendency towards the operatic, bathing their sets in deep and highly contrasted colors.

Just as over-the-top music accompanied these visuals. Composers for Giallo films drew inspiration from almost every conceivable direction – lounge jazz, blaxploitation funk, British progressive rock, and atonal contemporary music, among countless other styles. The drive to match the directorial visions of this new wave of Italian filmmakers inspired established composers such as Ennio Morricone to make some of the strangest and most unsettling music of their careers and drove groups of middling King Crimson wannabes into creating terrifying and wholly singular pieces of music.

Here are some of my personal favorite Giallo soundtracks:

Goblin – Suspiria (1977)

Goblin’s soundtrack to Dario Argento’s masterpiece is probably the best known soundtrack of any Giallo film. The group took their progressive rock influences and pushed them somewhere much weirder and overblown. The sheer amount of noise going on at any second in this soundtrack is almost absurd. Breathy whispers, blood-curdling shrieks, folk guitars, pseudo-gamelan percussion, and modular synth tones sound as if they’re bubbling up from Hell. Even better is when the band breaks completely away from attempts at mood-building and launches into scuzzed-out funk jams, sounding equal-parts Isaac Hayes and Mahavishnu Orchestra. It’s almost impossible to choose a representative track from Suspiria, but the main theme has achieved near-iconic status in certain circles of horror fandom.

Ennio Morricone – A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)

By this time, Ennio Morricone already had a number of classic scores to his name, having already defined the sound of Spaghetti Westerns though his work on Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. Only a few years later, he was yet again helping to shape the sonic qualities of another Italian film genre. In soundtracking Lucio Fulci’s erotic thriller, Morricone took his already impossibly cool sound and simply darkened it up, embellishing his trademark psychedelic guitar lines and sleazy lounge music with heaps of dissonance. Jazz workouts suddenly get cut right through the middle by thoroughly scary prepared piano twinklings. Slow ballads devolve into experiments in atonal orchestral composition. Like the film itself, the score merges sexiness and depravity to a singularly trippy effect.

Fabio Frizzi – Zombi 2 (1979)

Despite Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 appearing as somewhat of a total rip-off of George A. Romero’s Living Dead series, it distinguishes itself by being unapologetic in its determination to be gorey trash. The colorful and undeniably skillful gore is pushed in the viewer’s face throughout. Frizzi’s score is skillful because it acts as a counterweight to all the mayhem, creeping onto the scene as the zombies rise from the ground, then kicking into gear at exactly the right time. It is interesting to note just how similar it sounds to the soundtrack of John Carpenter, who would experience his breakthrough in the very same year with Halloween, and was undoubtedly inspired by Giallo films, visually and musically.

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