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horror director george a. romero on how he made the soundtrack to night of the living dead

The use of library music in classic horror Night of the Living Dead changed movie history forever. In an edited extract from Unusual Sounds: The Hidden History of Library Music, its director George A. Romero, explains how it came to be.

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Jun 15 2018, 11:18am

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When I made my first film, Night of the Living Dead, in 1968, I found myself with barely enough of a budget to complete the project, let alone hire a composer. The finished film played... mmm, pretty well, but something was missing. It needed music. I and several friends had a small production company at the time, the Latent Image, which was surviving on beer commercials, industrial films and the like. In order to make Night of the Living Dead, we partnered up with an audio production company, Hardman and Associates. (Karl Hardman ended up playing the despicable Harry Cooper in the film. Marilyn Eastman and Judith Ridley, both “Hardmanites,” ended up playing Helen Cooper and Judy. This was truly a homegrown production.)

As it turned out, Karl’s audio company had hundreds... I might say thousands (it seemed like thousands)... of records, vinyl discs that contained countless hours of music. None of it was specific to any film, but there were passages titled “Anticipation”, “Suspense”, “Sudden Shock.”

The composers of all this music had conjured the needs of low-budget filmmakers and had provided scores that could be bought for a fraction of what it might cost to hire a composer and / or an orchestra. Each “needle drop” cost a prescribed amount of money that was easily affordable.

All of a sudden Night of the Living Dead inherited a score. Karl and I spent days, weeks, months listening to tracks. I pulled out musical candidates and would bring them back to my editing room to audition them against scenes from the film.

I constructed a score that I believed to be not only cohesive but supportive of the film’s narrative. I like to think that I, with Karl’s help, pulled passages from those library tracks that served our film almost as well as if we had been able to hire a composer.

I’ve since worked with composers on “original scores” (Donald Rubinstein on Knightriders and Bruiser, John Harrison on Creepshow and -- a score I consider to be nearly flawless), but let me tell you: As a filmmaker who grew up on Alfred Newman, Bernard Herrmann, Victor Young, it is difficult, almost impossible, to communicate an idea, your idea, which comes from deep inside you somewhere, to another artist. With Donald and John, there was a kind of magic. Maybe we knew each other well enough to make unspoken, visceral connections. But I remember culling through those library tracks and selecting exactly the music that I felt was right for each specific scene in the film. No communicating required. No translating. Karl and I made the picks.

When we made Dawn of the Dead, the wonderful Italian filmmaker Dario Argento was one of our partners. He brought in a group called Goblin to score the Italian version of the film. When I listened to the tracks, I thought some of their music was “hot,” but some of it missed the mark, as far as I was concerned. For the US release of the film, I abandoned Goblin in many scenes and went with library tracks. One of them, The Gonk, has become the theme song for the film.

When you’re finishing a film, you normally use a “temp track,” music that you lift from movies that you have admired over the years. When working with a composer, your first attempt to communicate usually involves showing him or her your movie with that temp track. You’ve lived with that music in some cases for months! You’ve come to love it! How can you express to a composer what it is that you love about it? It’s all about emotion, isn’t it? “How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?” (That’s a lyric that makes me cry.)

Some filmmakers have enough clout to insist that their temp tracks be used in the final product instead of music that has been composed and often already recorded at great expense. (“Zarathustra” in 2001: A Space Odyssey and “Tubular Bells” in The Exorcist were temp tracks that survived to become iconic.)

I like to believe that Friedkin and Kubrick were so aware of the effects of film music that they were not willing to compromise. They chose music that was not composed expressly for their films but seemed to be appropriate. In a way, that’s no different from what I was doing when Karl Hardman and I listened to thousands of recordings and selected the few that we believed might enhance Night of the Living Dead.

I’m here to testify that the unknown, unsung artists who compose, conduct, and perform library tracks are heroes. Without a script, they imagine love and hate, enmity and friendliness, salvation and damnation, and are able to express them in the most abstract of mediums.

As someone who knows, or thinks he knows, what film music is meant to do, I’m here to testify that the unknown, unsung artists who compose, conduct, and perform library tracks are heroes. Without a script, they imagine love and hate, enmity and friendliness, salvation and damnation, and are able to express them in the most abstract of mediums. The sounds that result—however abstract—strike something within us that is built-in, hardwired... an elusive, indefinable trigger that makes us laugh, makes us cry, makes us want to dance.

I made a film. It wasn’t complete without music. We scored it with library tracks that greatly contributed to the film’s success. There is actually a soundtrack album available on vinyl. It might be the only commercially distributed film score that is composed entirely of library music.

I owe a lot to a lot of people. A big part of what I owe must go to you: the composers, arrangers, and musicians who never even saw my first film, but who, drawing on their own imaginations, were able to conjure up musical passages that put meat on the bones of Night of the Living Dead. The film would be greatly diminished without their contributions. I don’t know their names, nor did they ever know mine, but we made beautiful music together.

Unusual Sounds: The Hidden History of Library Music is published by Anthology Editions on 25 May .