Examining Zombie Flesh Eaters
It's remarkable that an pseudo-sequel to one of the best-loved horror films of all time still stands today in such fine stead. Lucio Fulci's infamous Zombie Flesh Eaters (aka Zombi 2) may not have the social and satirical commentary of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, but it makes up for that in tension, scares, and a lot of gore. Like Dawn, Zombie is also propelled by music from the great boot of Europe, but while Romero had Goblin, Fulci had his own secret musical weapon: Fabio Frizzi. Fulci and Frizzi had worked together on many occasions before, notably I Quattro dell'apocalisse (Four of the Apocalypse) and Sette note in nero (The Psychic) with regular collaborators Franco Bixio and Vince Tempera, but Zombie was the first time Frizzi composed solo for Fulci. The film is typical of the director; a mix of terrifying scares and stomach-churning gore that goes for your throat from the beginning and doesn't let go until the end credits have rolled, the image underneath as haunting and apocalyptic as the rest of the film.
It's an image that stays with you, and so does Frizzi's score. The soundtrack runs the gamut from moody synth pulses to Caribbean travelogue highlights, but really what embeds itself into your head is the driving main theme. But while it's used effectively, it's not brought out for every occasion. There are three scenes that stand out both in terms of visceral and musical effect: shark versus zombie, eyeball versus splinter, and zombies versus everyone.
The shark versus zombie scene is one of the more iconic and celebrated sequences not just in the film but across the genre itself. If you haven't seen the film, a young lady decides to take a swim in the Pacific ocean only to find herself face to face with a tiger shark. She takes refuge in a nearby reef, only to be attacked by a zombie. One thing leads to another and the shark and zombie end up in hand-to-hand combat. Spectacular stuff, especially given that it's a guy in zombie make-up wrestling with a real live shark.
Frizzi shows the far reach of Bernard Herrmann's influence when we go underwater, with shimmering and swirling synths echoing the composer's famous harps from scores like Beneath The 12-Mile Reef. It's anyone's guess as to why harps became synonymous with undersea adventure - perhaps the calming sound of the instrument is in league with the ocean's serene nature. Frizzi chooses to score the dangerous shark with a shrill repeating phrase, like an alarm, and in doing so becomes one of the few post-1975 composers to not use a variation on John Williams' Jaws theme for a shark.
As the diver evades the shark, Frizzi mixes the earlier swirling synths with a thumping beat, which as any self-respecting horror soundtrack fan knows is the backbone of the main theme. As she hides in the reef, a decrepit hand reaches out and grabs her and bang - the main theme kicks in. As the zombie moves from the diver to the shark the melody mixes with the previous synth, echoing in an otherworldly way as the two battle away.
The splinter scene doesn't use the theme at all, and instead uses both silence and wild synths to get its point across. It's an infamous sequence that was trimmed down for decades in the UK until the BBFC let it out, and it's not surprising. A zombie decides to try and get into a woman's house, and as she barricades the door it cracks open a wooden panel and grabs her hair, pulling her eyeball-first onto one of the resulting splinters. It's all shown in classic Fulci-vision: a proper close-up of the splinter going right into her eye and further into her head. Brutal.
Here, silence is used in force. Wild synths occasionally puncture the void, with fingers at a window, or scratching at a door. But when the zombie starts to get in through the slightly open door, piercing synths come in as she forces her against it, chopping off its fingers. For a while, all we hear is the creaking and bashing of wood as she pushes a dresser against the door, but the score is brought back in as the hand grabs her head. Frizzi uses a mix of atonal sounds, a wild mix including the piercing, but places it over a steadily rising scale with a throbbing drum beat.
It gets crazier and crazier as the eye is drawn towards the splinter, and Frizzi is an expert in using the scale to mimic the closing distance, and suddenly the eye is skewered and the score cuts out with the scene change. It's worth noting that it's not especially well mixed and the score is quite low, but can be heard isolated as 'Sequence 6' on the soundtrack.
The theme comes back with a vengeance in a sequence that takes place in a graveyard where they find headstones of conquistadors. Two of the group decide to have a lie down (bad idea!) and are faced with an onslaught of zombies rising from the nearby graves. Silence is used well here, with a shot of the pair kissing moving to a patch of earth. As it starts to move, a synth line begins to pulsate, in line with the groaning of the zombie. As it grabs her hair and his leg, the score cuts out and we just hear screaming. As they're helped by another of the group, the rising scale from the eyeball scene returns as another member is struck dumb by the sight of a zombie slowly escaping his grave and going for her neck.
Again, the score cuts just to hear the screaming and the sound of gushing blood - it's almost like ESPN in the way Fulci gives us multiple shots of the neck wound, sounding like Niagara Falls, before the pulsating synths come back as the zombie continues, only for him to lose his head, literally. There's a short interlude where they find their fallen comrade which is scored by a light and slightly surreal echoing synth line and then the iconic beat of the main theme comes in as we get a montage of the dead rising and their resulting shambling.
It's a mesmerising sequence when the zombies rise, and we get an example of the way Frizzi's theme is a signifier of inevitability and of instinct. The beat is mirroring the drive of the creatures and their search for food, and this is overlaid with a frankly apocalyptic keyboard riff that tells us we as a species are dead. There is no escape. It's also one hell of an earworm.
There are two movies out of the Frizzi-Fulci collaboration that generally stand above everything else; one is The Beyond and the other is Zombie Flesh Eaters. Both are incredible examples of how effective this pair were, and just how much of a part of the success is down to Fabio Frizzi's score. It says a lot that in the recent release of the Frizzi 2 Fulci concert recorded in London in 2013, the crowd whoop and holler when the Zombie main theme is unleashed, positioning Frizzi into the rock star role his work deserves. -CB