INDY Week: Merging Live Music and Horror Film Screenings

By Bryan C. Reed
October 24, 2018

Among horror film fans, Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 giallo classic Suspiria is easily one of this year’s most anticipated releases. When the new film’s trailer hit the Internet this summer, the movie also became one of the year’s most divisive for horror fans.

The trailer departed immediately and obviously from Argento’s rich, saturated color palette, favoring a more muted, austere aesthetic. And behind the frames, Thom Yorke takes a similarly spartan approach with its minimalist piano moving across foreboding drones. That’s another stark contrast to the original, which featured an equally iconic score from the Italian prog-rock band Goblin. Where Yorke gives the film a dark and tense backing, Goblin offered something more bewitching and groove-driven; Goblin’s keyboardist, Claudio Simonetti, has called the band’s Suspiria score its “masterwork.” Purists of the original, or those looking for a strong point of comparison before Guadagnino’s movie premieres on November 2, will have the chance of a lifetime: the opportunity to see the current iteration of Goblin performing a live score of Suspiria at Raleigh’s Lincoln Theatre on October 30.

Indeed, the week surrounding Halloween is ripe with opportunity to explore the ways a score can affect a movie’s reception. In addition to Goblin’s live score of Suspiria, Local 506 hosts a screening of The Shining with a live synthesizer score from Micah Moses on October 28, and Kings will host Greensboro’s Modern Robot for a live-scored presentation of Night of the Living Dead on October 25.

Each takes a markedly different approach. Where Goblin’s performance is likely to add live intensity, it promises to remain true to the original film and the original score. Moses’s set at Local 506 will give a new dimension to Stanley Kubrick’s classic with the extemporaneous nature of a one-off performance. But for Modern Robot, which has developed this presentation of George A. Romero’s iconic zombie movie over dozens of performances at fringe theater festivals and movie-house screenings, it’s a full reimagining of the source material.

Modern Robot’s live-score projects began like many others have, as one-off improv sets in bars and coffeehouses, playing against familiar scenes or silent-era film clips in a wide-ranging approach. Ben Singer, the band’s mastermind, recalls his first forays into Night of the Living Dead.

“It was a totally different feel,” he says. “I cut all the dialog and just left all the monsters in, and it was just kind of goofy. Look at the gore, look at the silliness.”

As Modern Robot evolved its performances from loose, improvisational sets into more planned, structured scores with the band’s first formal project: F.W. Murnau’s 1926 silent film, Faust. And when the time came to find a new title to score, Singer returned to Night of the Living Dead. He wanted to find something a bit more popular, something with an easy draw and a cult following. And because of an oversight upon its initial release, Night of the Living Dead also falls under the public domain, meaning Singer wouldn’t have to pay out royalties to perform it. That alone made it a solid choice, but Singer wasn’t fully prepared for just how much more popular the new project would be.

“I only really learned after choosing it how many people have a relationship with this movie. It’s big.”

To bring his vision for Night of the Living Dead to life, Singer cut the film from an hour and a half to just an hour, suited to the fringe festival format. He extracted all the dialog to preserve the interpersonal conflict among the film’s characters, and re-added sound effects to keep the film’s sonic dimensions. Then, with a blank musical canvas, Singer had free reign for his minimalist guitar-and-drums arrangements.

“The music in [the original] is really just stock, canned stuff,” he says. “They didn’t have any money to get an actual composer, so I didn’t feel bad about ripping it out. It’s recognizable music, it’s kind of fun, but it’s not like the music really makes this movie. So yeah, let’s give it another run with something else.”

Drawing from minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and the swelling dynamics of post-rock, Modern Robot gives Night of the Living Dead a modern feel, and a heightened sense of tension as the characters face the horrors both inside and outside the abandoned house they’ve barricaded themselves into.

“The zombies are not really evil; they just are what they are,” Singer says. “I liked that moral flatness. It doesn’t say that this is right or this is wrong so much as just, like, we’re all in this shit together and we’re not doing a great job at it.”

Similarly, Singer’s score—which he performs locally with drummer Nicholas Falk—attempts to give the film a subtle shading rather than a bombastic urging. That, Singer says, is one of his major attractions to Glass’s film work.

But whether it’s a subtle shading or a throbbing synth score, music is a vital component of how audiences react to a film. Whether it’s hearing Goblin perform their classics in front of a screen, or watching Jack Nicholson’s manic performance against a new bed of synth music, or seeing Singer bring new life into a classic zombie flick, the live presentation further enhances the role the music plays.

And, Singer says, it gives people a reason to get out of the house and bond over a shared experience.

“I like having a little bit of a push to say this is a reason to be with other people and watch the movie.”