Lights! Camera! Legwarmers! Popular formulaic trends coupled with an evolving home video market resulted in a glorious amount of content in the 80s. Slashers, teen comedies, macho drenched action films and buddy-cop flicks were booming business. Keeping step with these cinematic heavy hitters was the extremely popular genre of dance films. Sashaying hand in hand with the larger societal trend of fitness, dance films like Fame, Flashdance, Staying Alive and Breakin’ all saw huge returns at the box office.
While horror was certainly familiar with the idea thanks to films like Suspiria and Prom Night, it was Lucio Fulci’s 1984 film Murder-Rock: Dancing Death that truly fed off the mainstream trend. Add in a score composed by keyboard master Keith Emerson and you’ve got a potent mixture of pop culture, Giallo sentiment, and earworm candy.
The world of dance can be brutal. The rehearsals are grueling. The competition is fierce. At the Arts for Living Centre in New York City, the best of the best are dying for a part in a major production. But only a select few will be chosen. The selection process seems to be at the hands of mysterious killer who pierces women’s bare breasts with a hatpin, puncturing their hearts. Ambition and jealousy appear to be the motive, which makes everybody a suspect!
By 1984, Fulci had already carved out his own goopy niche in the horror genre. Thanks to films like Zombie, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin and his Gates of Hell Trilogy, Fulci undoubtedly became one of the quintessential maestros of horror. That being said, Murder-Rock marks a pivot point in the director’s career. Following up the controversial New York Ripper and Manhattan Baby, Murder-Rock would be the last film Fulci would make before falling severely ill with hepatitis. While his output would certainly continue with cult classics like A Cat in the Brain and The Devil’s Honey, the films that followed lacked the director’s undeniable energy and style.
Looking back with the grace of hindsight and context, Murder-Rock was a brilliant idea. Capitalizing on the dance trend instantly infused the film with young demographic appeal. It provided a visually stimulating backdrop and naturally hinted at potential plot points. Even logistically, centering the film around a dance school implies dance numbers. These breaks in narrative can be very useful to manipulate pacing and stretch a film’s runtime. Sprinkle in a few murders here and there and boom! You’ve got yourself a Slashdance. (Also one of the film’s many alternate titles)
“Capitalizing on the dance trend instantly infused the film with young demographic appeal. […] Sprinkle in a few murders here and there and boom! You’ve got yourself a Slashdance.”
As one of the young dancers in the film points out, it’s hard to dance without music. Fulci knew that in order to pull of the film properly, it would need a particular kind of talent to helm the score. Everyone, please welcome to the stage….Keith Emerson. An incredibly talented musician, Emerson began his rise to fame in the late 60s while playing with The Nice. The group quickly made a name for themselves with their interesting reworks of classical pieces. By integrating modern instrumentation, extended techniques and rock star energy, The Nice created a sound that became to be known as ‘symphonic rock.’ Although all members of the band were talented, it quickly became clear that Emerson was on a whole other level.
After leaving The Nice in 1970, Emerson joined up with fellow musical geniuses, Greg Lake (King Crimson) and Carl Palmer (Atomic Rooster). With Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Emerson reached unprecedented heights in skill and fame. ELP was incredibly popular and allowed Emerson the freedom to explore and grow as a performer and as a musician. For nearly a decade, Emerson dominated the rock scene with ELP as one of the most talented, creative and engaging keyboard players. His contributions to the industry still resonate and helped properly usher in a new era of synth and electronic keyboard technology. However, nothing gold can stay, and ELP broke up in 1979 so that all members could pursue other interests.
Never one to sit still for long, Emerson quickly moved on to solo work. But things were changing in the mainstream music market. New wave and pop music were rapidly taking over the scene. Seeing the writing on the wall, Emerson made the intelligent decision to venture into film work. His intimate understanding of both popular and classical music gave Emerson a unique and strong appeal to filmmakers. Interestingly, his first feature score was for Dario Argento’s classic Inferno (a truly incredible score, I highly recommend checking it out). In 1981 he scored the Sylvester Stallone classic, Nighthawks. And finally, we arrive at Murder-Rock.
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Perhaps introduced through Argento, Emerson not only fit the bill for Murder-Rock because of his versatile style and technical capability, but because of his mainstream fame as well. Murder-Rock needed not only a functioning score, but a score that worked diegetically within the film too. As previously mentioned, the dancers needed music to dance too. With Emerson’s name recognition and popularity, his music functioned both practically and intelligently. For example, as we are first introduced to the dance school and it’s characters, we witness a large group number accompanied by Emerson’s track ‘Streets to Blame.’
Providing the vocals and the lyrics for the song is Doreen Chanter. An accomplished British singer, Chanter also had her own unique connections to the horror world. Along with her twin sister, Chanter appeared in the 1971 Hammer Horror film, Twins of Evil. She also wrote and performed several songs from 1977’s Tintorera: Killer Shark. As her repeated lyrics about ‘paranoia coming your way‘ bob their way around the room, the dancers shimmy and shake with fervor seemingly immune to the foreshadowing. Emerson’s keyboard stylings underscore the lyrics beautifully creating an intensely catchy, rhythmic and upbeat backing track.
As the track picks up and modulates, the sweat accumulating on the dancers becomes tangible. Their movements intimately tied to the music, there’s a symbiotic ridiculousness between the music and the dancers. Much like the soft glow of stage lights bouncing off spandex, there is a perfectly dated feel to the disco-tinged pop track. And yet, here lies the brilliance that will resonate throughout the entire score. Murder-Rock is a seriously fun film that neither Fulci, Emerson or anyone involved wants to be taken too seriously. Light on traditional Fulci gore, Murder-Rock stands out in the filmmaker’s storied career. By its nature, the film is vibrant, youthful and trendy. This fact becomes instantly apparent through this early song and dance number as it expertly lays the foundational tone for what is soon to follow.
Before long, we’re introduced to another key track in the film, ‘Tonight Is Your Night.’ As young Janice (Carla Buzzanca) performs a solo dance number for a room of mysterious strangers, Chanter and Emerson trade vocal duties over chimey keyboards and sexy bass lines. The song is categorically saccharine and excessive. And yet, it is simultaneously perfect. As practical as Janice‘s leotard and utilizing a rain machine while dancing on a slick wood floor, every bit of the scene embraces the sandbox its playing in. Even though there are unmistakable nods here to films like Flashdance, kudos must be given to Fulci for keeping the moment intimately his own. While he executes many of his favorite techniques like heavy backlighting, tight eye shots, upfront sound design and lots of shadow, Emerson’s music lightly anchors the moment in a surreal form of reality. In the world of Murder-Rock, Janice‘s unique interpretative dance-move choices make sense. Her outfit makes sense. The strange performance space makes sense. And holding all the pieces together is the singular thread of Emerson’s music.
Despite the flamboyant nature of the film, there is indeed a darker side to the story. To bring out the mystery, paranoia and fear that begins to saturate the dance school, Emerson composed a variety of unique stings, cues and pieces. One of the stronger examples of this comes through in the track ‘New York Dash.’ Capitalizing on the New York atmosphere, there’s an inherent grittiness within the track. Electric guitar sits back in the mix, but it’s presence adds just the right amount of sleaze. Driving rock drums and syncopated punches of keys and percussion create a slightly uncomfortable dissonance and pace. The steady, determined beats naturally impart a feeling of pursuit…but by whom remains to be seen.
Playing counterpoint to the many of the film’s pop heavy tracks, ‘New York Dash‘ leaves the predictable major key progressions at the door and opts for a more uncertain journey. Emerson’s expert level talent flawlessly executes runs and note choices that keep audiences playfully on edge. Leaning more towards prog-rock territory, tracks such as this also emphasize the giallo nature of the film. The genre’s connection to the music style is a long and storied one that was especially strong during the late 70s and early 80s. By embracing this fact, Emerson was able to contribute and strengthen Fulci’s voice despite the fact that the film was so far from his usual fare.
The fine balance that Fulci and Emerson strike with Murder-Rock is truly remarkable. Always one to emphasize texture and contrast, Fulci continued to do so in Murder-Rock, but in very 80s fashion. Fur coats counter slick, locker room tile. Stage lights pulse and alternate light and shadow. Hyper stylized colors alternate with dull grays and tan. Spandex is traded in for wool and cotton. Even the ornate, bejeweled murderous hatpin stands in stark contrast to the tender, soft tissue of it’s victims. Whether by discussion or by simply understanding Fulci as a filmmaker, Emerson also managed to implement this idea into his score. Trendy pop tunes counter dissonant piano chords. Major tones alternate with minor. Synthetically altered tones and instruments stand in contravention to the human voice and traditional piano. By playing with seemingly disparate and contrasting ideas, Emerson unites Fulci’s sensory feast in a uniquely comprehensive and beautiful fashion.
“The fine balance that Fulci and Emerson strike with Murder-Rock is truly remarkable. […] By playing with seemingly disparate and contrasting ideas, Emerson unites Fulci’s sensory feast in a uniquely comprehensive and beautiful fashion.”
Even though Emerson was and remains a big name in the realm of rock music, Murder-Rock has seen pretty slim physical releases. Multiple vinyl versions were released on varying labels throughout the 80s, and none are particularly expensive. The most recent reissue of the film music came in 2001 when Cinevox released a new CD version. Yes, the music is rather silly. Yes, it feels rather dated. And yes, it is all the more brilliant because of it. It’s an often overlooked gem in both Emerson’s and Fulci’s career, but it is certainly worth taking for a spin.
Want more scores? Check out our previous installments of Terror on the Turntable, where I dissect an iconic horror score each month! Talk all things Fulci with us over on Twitter or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group!