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Bloody, Disgusting, and Just Perfect: An Interview with Italian Horror Composer Fabio Frizzi

We talked to the horror genius on some of his classic scores from 'The Beyond,' 'Zombie Flesh Eaters,' and the upcoming reissues of some of his work.

Joseph Yanick

Of all the things that Italian genre cinema has made famous (or, quite often, infamous), the one aspect that can almost always be praised is its music. Some of the greatest composers were born and thrived in these films; they set their symphonic masterpieces to its ultra-violent and hyper-sexualized imagery. Love or hate the films, good music is good music.

It is from this period that Fabio Frizzi emerged. Beginning in Italian comedies, his career followed the rapid evolution of the country’s output through westerns and into horror. When his path found him paired with the Italian “godfather of gore,” Lucio Fulci, Frizzi found his proverbial muse.

Paired with Fulci, Frizzi’s name became engrained in film history, the collaboration producing some of his most well-known and significant works. Each partnering produced experimental and dark scores that evoked unearthly impressions; from the island-flavored Zombie Flesh Eaters, to the hypnotic and evil The Beyond, and finally their last combined effort with the frenzied Cat in the Brain.

Though his work tends to favor the darker side of things, Frizzi is a man full of passion and excitement. Interviewing him from his home in Rome, his speech is interrupted by a consistent, boisterous laughter and, though there were over 4,000 miles separating us, you could feel the presence of his glowing smile in the room as he gleefully recounted his life’s work.

Noisey: You began professionally scoring at a very young age, 23 I believe, How did you find your way to it?
Fabio Frizzi: I come from a cinema family. My dad was the director of an Italian distribution company. When I began playing, at 14 or 15, my first bands were playing The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, things like this. But my family was always listening to scores from movies — Morricone, Rustichelli — and I fell in love with this kind of music. Then, the most important thing was that I met Carlo Bixio, a great music producer, and he believed that I could do something in the field. So we tried, when I was 21 or 22 with Amore Libero (Free Love) and that was the beginning.

If I am not mistaken, your second feature length work was with Ferdinando Baldi, who by ’74 was a fairly accomplished director in Italy. What was it like working with Baldi?
It is the memory of working with a very sweet man. We say, ‘un signore,’ a gentleman, no? It was very different than working with many other directors. Ferdinando Baldi was a professor. He was a very cultured man. Very often directors are rough but he was so noble. [Laughs] You know, it was fun to work with him on this typical Italian Western, the Spaghetti Western.

And you continued that the following year, as you began your long-time collaboration with Lucio Fulci.
With Baldi I was working on the Spaghetti Western and with Lucio was [pause] well, nowadays I call his westerns not a Spaghetti Western but a ‘Fulci Western,’ because it’s very typical of him: a lot of blood and a very hard story. My publisher was working very hard at the moment on my trio — Bixio-Frizzi-Tempera. Working with Fulci, we were a little bit afraid; I was quite young, 25 I think. Lucio was so sure of himself Llaughs]. The only real problem of [I quattro dell'apocalisse aka Four of the Apocalypse] was they put template music on the edit, the Bob Dylan song “Knockin on Heaven’s Door.” So you can imagine that when he asked for new songs, we were quite upset because against Dylan, it wasn’t so easy.

While both of your names are tied to horror, your early work is dominated by both comedy and these western scores — certainly a sign of the time for Italian cinema — was there anything that you were musically able to do in these genres that you weren’t in horror?
That was really a great problem at the beginning, because you know I was a younger man, a young composer. The positive was that I have always loved every kind of good music, so I was listening to everything. But [the transition to horror] was the moment when I learned what scoring a movie means. It is not to write a good song, a good line, a good melody. It’s another thing. It’s to enter with your mind and with your soul. To understand, in the situation, what the director and producer want the movie to say. I can say that it is the same thing to work on a comedy, a western, or a horror film it depends on you. Depends on if you know how to enter. Helping to tell a story with your music is something really beautiful. Lucio wasn’t an easy man but he was for me a teacher. In many situations it was not easy to follow him but it was really a great lesson in life and work.

Did his work ethic push you make your best work, simply because he was so hard?
Earlier, I was telling you that Ferdinando was a gentleman because usually directors are a little rough. They have to explain their point of view. Lucio was really like this. I can tell you that I am quite sure that if I didn’t meet Lucio, my story of scoring would have been quite different. Because, he was rough but he was clear in telling what this job and work is. As I often tell young musicians that I work with, today has changed so much but the main idea is always the same: to enter, like a character in the movie, and produce something like every actor has to.

Italian genre cinema has produced quite a few monumental names for composing, mainly Ennio Morricone, Goblin, Riz Ortolani, Stelvio Cipriani but the list goes on. What was this world like at that point in time? Was there a lot of competition (friendly or otherwise) amongst yourselves?
This was a quite magic moment for Italian cinema. It was not the 50s cinema, you know the ‘Oscars’ one: De Sica, etc. Except for Morricone who did many international films, we were young and we knew that Italian movies at that moment were B movies. I never thought that we were doing masterpieces; maybe after Lucio was appreciated everywhere I found out they were. Italy is quite different from many other countries. There is always a little competition. I’ve seen that maybe in America, everybody is meeting everyone else and they are kind. Maybe it is something they have to do, be kind to everybody in your profession. I think everyone of us did our personal job, but there were cases when we could lose a movie to another composer. There is one case were Lucio didn’t need me to score a film and some fan today say, ‘why didn’t you do that movie!’ But that is life. I think, for instance, with The Black Cat Lucio told me, “Fabio you are working a lot everywhere, the producer asked me to use this other composer. Forgive me for this and next time we will be together.” But when you had a working possibility everyday it’s no problem. Obviously you are not so happy, but it’s ok. I think there was the possibility to grow together. It was a great thing because I was young but I was near them, so I had to follow them.

Zombie Flesh Eaters is also a wildly diverse score. In it, you really successfully capture an island feel. What kind of artists, styles, and perhaps other composers, were you looking at for this work? Everyone of us has many reference points.. In fact, the island was really necessary because the ambiance was there. I had this percussionist, Adriano Giordanella, who had so many bags full of things to play, things that went. So with Adriano we were able to create a similar ambiance to Africa, to this island in the ocean. The other real important musician for me was Maurizio Guarini. Maurizio had bought a couple of keyboards from Yamaha, very new in that moment: a piano called the CP-80 and a synth called the CS-80. They were very heavy [laughs], when you brought them into the studio it would take a minimum of two people. But the music you could create was also a great weight. Musicians are so important for a composer because they have to express what you are thinking, what you are writing. In Toronto, Frizzi 2 Fulci will meet with Maurizio and it will be the first time ever that we play on a stage together. So we are both very happy about this because we have been [and still are] great friends.

Your use of the Mellotron makes for some truly unnerving sounds. I think you’ve even described it as capturing the “sound of the dead” in past interviews. What is it about the Mellotron that is able to create these sounds?
Loving those kind of instruments — like the Mellotron or the Moog — was coming from my passion for progressive rock from England. You know, Genesis used to use the Mellotron and the Beatles in very late moments when the Mellotron was just born. Everyone of us would love to have played with an orchestra but when you are a young player in the ‘70s, the big problem you have is that cannot because you have not so much money to ask 20 people to come. So the beautiful thing about the Mellotron was, it was the first real sampler. You could have strings and flutes — almost real but maybe more beautiful than real — and obviously you could have voices, choruses. I found that with the Mellotron, you could go with the lower octave and get something almost human but not so real [imitates groaning chorus]. I tried to do a melody from that pace, sometimes I call it the ‘sound of the dead.’ Every time you write for horror movies you have to find not only one musical idea that captures you but also some sound idea. These days I was listening to the music of A Nightmare on Elm Street — because I think in the next concert I will do a little piece for Wes Craven — and I realized that in every score you must find a sound, a voice, maybe not perfect but it can give you some emotion. The Mellotron was one of my first friends to help me in this.

Was there any other instruments that you feel that your sound is indebted to and did your setup change frequently from soundtrack to soundtrack?
I think that a musician that was born when I was born and has lived the life I have lived has the obligation to follow the day by day. You have to be at the point of where you live. I think that music technology has given us a great help to grow. Now, I am 64 — like the Beatles say, [sings] “When I am sixty-four,” now I am—but still in this direction I have 14 years. What is the consequence of this? You can have a younger keyboard player and discuss with them sounds, or you can close yourself with the last idea in your studio trying to find a new idea. If you have it inside, with everything you can find you can make music.

What score do you look back most fondly on?
I always say that it is like talking about your children, there is never a favorite child. I can tell you that maybe it would be one of Fulci’s less loved or less understood—because it is difficult to understand. Manhattan Baby. Maybe its because I love the Egyptian situation and Egyptian art. It’s so incredible to see what they did. When I hear the theme [hums main theme], it still gives me some sensation. But I can also tell you that when I see the shark and hear [mimics beat from Zombie Flesh Eaters score]. They are all children and I love them all in the same way.

Are there any of your soundtracks that you wish were more acclaimed by fans and what do you think is your best work outside of your collaboration with Fulci?
Lucio for me was really like a family person because he left me this incredible interest. I am so grateful to him and our friendship. But there is something quite curious, that many of my great fans — people that know my professional life quite well — ask me about. For example, in Italy I am quite known for a couple of comedies, one is called Fantozzi. Every now and then someone from London or some American friends ask me to do something from this or that.

What is your opinion of modern film music?
Time passes and everything changes. For example, nowadays the scoring for TV series is getting better always. You can follow a TV series, and have the sensation to follow it like a long movie because they are incredible sometimes. In Italy, we always tried to find a theme. US cinema was like a lyric opera. From the beginning to the end, you have the music that accompanies it completely. I think that something is changing in that direction because young composers are less symphonic and more sound designers, but very interesting.

What is in store with you following your run of US Frizzi 2 Fulci shows? Is this a project you plan on keeping going?
We started this adventure many, many years ago. It took 8 or 9 years to start. I think that the big artistic problem was this one: I wrote many different things. Some really rock prog and then, with The Beyond, some really orchestral. So the difficulty was putting everything together with a unique group. This was difficult but also fun because it was entering into contact with a Fabio. From 30 years ago and looking into my ideas, understanding why I had chosen one way or another way. My band is incredible. I have really great musicians with me. I think and I hope that in every little thing in the concert you can always find the Lucio idea and my soul, my idea of music. Sure, I want to bring ahead this Frizzi 2 Fulci because it is an incredible experience. I had been in recording studios for 35 or 40 years and then I came back for this project and I felt the heart of people that are in front of me. It’s really incredible. The first time in London was one of the most incredible in my life.

Would you like to continue scoring horror films? I’m sure there are a lot of young directors that would love to work with you.
Yes, this was one of the most beautiful things to do in the last few years. You know, Lucio was, for sure, a great artist and one of the things he did well was that he gave many young people the love for cinema and the love for making cinema. So every now and then I have friends who ask me to work with them, not only because I was a good cooperator and friend of Fulci, but because I can bring with me some part of the old, good cinema of that time. Luigi Cozzi has also asked me to score his next movie. So, I think in January or February we will be ready with this very incredible and strange project and I am very happy with this. I can tell you another thing that I am very proud of. There is an American company of video games who asked me to write the music for an important project. I will be really happy to enter into this field because I am also a player. I have a little child of 10, so many times we are playing together and entering this field would be really incredible.

Fabio Frizzi will be performing with his band, Frizzi 2 Fulci, for two special shows courtesy of Mondo, Death Waltz Recording Company, & Beyond Fest. The first show will be in Austin on October 2nd, 2015 followed by an appearance in LA for Beyond Fest on October 4th, followed by a screening of The Beyond from a “rarely seen 35mm print.”

Joe Yanick is on Twitter.