It’s actually very frustrating when one re-watches a film’s credits, purposely to find the name of the composer responsible for the eerie music, only to find no composer credit whatsoever.
Who wrote the music? Where did it come from? Did someone muck up the credit list?
In the case of Night of the Living Dead (1968), it’s been known for years that George Romero used stock or library music, which gave the film a very weird sense of watching some lost black & white classic, but without the heavy-handed bombast associated with giant bugs, or a Day-Glo Lon Chaney, Jr.
Some cues do contain sharp brass performances and shrill strings, but they capture that sense of shock when zombies suddenly appear, and threaten characters; it’s also highly likely that if any one of us ever happened to stumble upon one or a phalanx of real zombies, it’s precisely that type of music which would be playing in our heads before the first bite sent us running into the hills.
NOTLD isn’t a B-movie, really, but it was made by filmmakers whose points of references were the shockers of their youth, and brassy, shrill scores were part of that generation’s entertainment, whether the music was original (as was the case of Universal-International’s This Island Earth), or bought and paid for from a library (such as the brilliantly awful The Brain That Wouldn’t Die).
Romero, however, didn’t want to replicate the monster music of his youth, so he chose cues from the Capitol Hi-Q music library, a wing of Capitol Records that offered filmmakers music they could buy with the intent of using ad nauseam in their film, be they in theatres or TV.
The relative freshness of the music stems from the library’s own relative newness in 1968, which perhaps ensured the cues – be they for ‘horrific’ scenes or plain shock stabs – were tinged with contemporary scoring approaches that were still in vogue by the mid-sixties.
The eerie first track (“Eerie Heavy Echo”) that plays under the opening credits is noteworthy for the weird, electronically processed notes that become increasingly strained, grabbing the listener’s attention, and making it quite clear that if one sticks around for the rest of the film, things will get a lot darker. (Electronically tweaked notes also figure in cues like “Acoustic Space Station, Take 8,” as well as the variations of “Eerie Heavy Echo” that conclude the film.)
Romero seems to have made a point in sticking with cues where there were virtually no overt melodies – just short motifs and phrases, often based around just a handful of notes to keep things simple, and less likely to weaken the film’s docu-drama feel.
The CD presents the cues in chronological order, and the 40 cues which make up the 51 mins. worth of score were written by many composers, so one has to admire the way Romero maintained stylistic and mood continuity by using cues such as “Shock Suspense,” “Heavy Agitato,” and “Chase,” whose generic library titles belie two-note motifs not dissimilar from what appears in the opening “Eerie Heavy Echo” cue.
More familiar fifties horror scoring is evident in “Black Night” (with its Bum-bum-bah! brass finale), the frenetic “Fire,” and the lengthy two-parter “Serene Heart” and “Tension,” which evolve from sweet saccharine strings to agitated brass.
(Then there’s the variations of “Heavy Dramatic,” parts of which may have appeared in numerous el cheapo fifties and sixties monster movies. For some reason 1961’s The Beast of Yucca Flats and 1957’s The Astounding She-Monster come to mind, but who knows who used what from where.)
The musical clichés do work in the film as well as the CD, and there are some fun surprises for vintage library music fans. “Dramatic Eerie” uses a female voice like a spooky Theremin, “Mystery Hour” is filled with meandering bass notes and intersecting string figures reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho (1960), and the nocturnal “Mysterioso” relies on woodwinds and double bass to set an unnerving mood.
“Space Drama” has beautiful waves of dissonant brass and strange warbling horn sounds, and it’s also indicative of the infiltration of jazz into orchestral film writing during the late fifties and sixties. “Dream” contains vibes, and “Somber Emotional” consists of desperate thematic fragments, and an amusing use of clarinet where its blaring atonal sounds (not unlike a snake charmer’s horn) eventually become in-tune when the strings shift to a chord that’s complimentary to the clarinet… and then flip back again to restart the wonky disharmony.
The CD also includes the actual music box tinkling heard in the film (actress Kyra Schon nabbed the fully-functional prop after the film was done), and the album closes with a bonus track: one of the great radio ads used to publicize NOTLD (“A bizarre adventure in fear… A night of TOTAL TERROR!”).
This debut release from new label Zero Day Releasing is actually meant to compliment the label’s NOTLD documentary, Autopsy of the Dead (2009), and is the most exhaustive representation of the actual library cues to date.
A prior LP from Varese Sarabande was comprise of 15 cues, and while that platter ran around 48 mins., it included a few brief bits of dialogue preceding music for the opening cemetery scene, the shooting of Ben, and the funeral pyre. Two other tracks also began with the electronically processed music stabs designed by Karl Hardman, and one cue began with Helen’s processed death screams as her daughter kills with an implement in the basement.
The Zero Day CD offers up superior sound, and producer Jim Cirronella’s dogged research yielded better source materials. Cirronella also contributed lengthy liner notes, with a detailed overview of the Capitol Hi-Q library that was used in many TV shows, and films such as The Incredible Petrified World (1957) and Teenagers from Outer Space (1959).
For an interview with producer Jim Cirronella, and further details on the production of this CD and the Capitol Hi-Q library, click HERE.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan