John Harrison: Music for the Walking Dead

An Interview with John Harrison by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in CinemaScore #13/14, 1985
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher, Randall D. Larson

john_harrisonJohn Harrison’s collaboration with director George Romero continues with the release of the third segment in Romero’s loosely connected zombie films, DAY OF THE DEAD. Harrison had previously composed the effective music for Romero’s CREEPSHOW [see lp review, CS #11/12, p.56] and also acted as first assistant director on the film. Harrison, who has had no formal musical training, performed in a variety of rock bands (including bass player for guitarist Roy Buchanon) while studying acting in college. He graduated from Carnegie Melon University with a Masters degree in film and television. A long time friend of George Romero, Harrison became the first A.D. or CREEPSHOW; Romero intended to score the movie with old scores from the Capitol music library, as he had with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Eventually, however, Romero recognized the need for a consistent score, and Harrison offered to compose some themes that would link the library cues. Ultimately, Harrison wound up composing nearly all of the score, and the result was a highly effective, predominantly electronic score. Interviewed in June, 1985, shortly after completing the music for DAY OF THE DEAD, Harrison described his work on the film.

At what point during production were you brought into the picture?
Unlike CREEPSHOW, I actually didn’t begin to do any work on it until the production was completely wrapped. George [Romero] and I had discussed a kind of approach during production, and even before production when another script was contemplated. That script involved a much more tropical setting, in the Caribbean, and I had discussed with George the idea of using more Caribbean type themes in the score. When we ended up shooting an abbreviated version of that script, we tried to maintain that same spirit because, essentially, the setting hadn’t changed, it just wasn’t as much exposed, and so we had some verbal conversations about what we might do. But I didn’t really start to work on it in earnest until we finished shooting.

How would you describe the music that you did write for the film?
Again, very different from CREEPSHOW. We made a conscious effort to go for a very contemporary sound with this one. When you see the film, it has a very haunting setting, very eerie, very frightening actually. It’s set in this deep cavern underneath this tropical setting above ground, so rather than take a kind of traditional classic horror approach, we tried to soften some of the horror with a more melodic kind of score. It has its moments of outright scares and eeriness, but it’s more melodic and less abrasive than one might expect, and yet at the same time it has a very contemporary feel. There is a lot of rhythmic stuff going on, it has a very kind of “today” sound. That’s the only way I can describe it.

I notice that CREEPSHOW used a lot of themes in addition to an overall Herrmannesque kind of atmosphere. Are you using themes in DAY OF THE DEAD for different characters, or are you going more for atmospheric underscoring?
While there are a lot of atmospherics, there are very definitely themes that are repetitive and restated. They are to some degree associated with characters although I wouldn’t really describe it as ala’ Peter and the Wolf, where each character has a voice. But there are recurring themes throughout, stated in different ways, that are associated with different moods that recur, different characters that recur, different actual themes within the script itself that recur.

The first DEAD film contained a variety of library music from the Capitol Records library, while DAWN OF THE DEAD used a loud rock score by the Italian group, Goblin. How would you compare the score you have written with the previous ones, especially inasmuch as this film is a sequel to the other two.
George has never maintained really that any of the films are sequentially related, so to that extent the music has never really had to honor that. Economics dictated the first score: library music. The second score was actually cut with library music and when one of the executive producers, Dario Argento, became involved, he rescored it in Italy with people that he had over there, and to that extent DAWN OF THE DEAD is a hybrid of both library music and his rock score. DAY OF THE DEAD was never contemplated as anything but an original completely tailor-made score for the film. So to that extent it doesn’t have any relationship to the previous two; and nor does the film, really.

Your background seems to be in rock music and synthesizers, a trait put to very good use in CREEPSHOW. Will DAY OF THE DEAD also be electronic in nature, and what kind of synthesizers or instruments were used in this score?
They were pretty much the same, but there are more. The CREEPSHOW score, again by virtue of economics and timing, was done with my synthesizer, the Prophet 5, and pianos and so forth. On DAY OF THE DEAD I used that again, with additional programs that were built into it, also Lynn drum machines, and a synthesizer called a Kurzweill, which is not so much a synthesizer as it is a digital processor, which is where most of those things are going these days–emulators, Kurzweills, Fairlights, Synclaviers, all of these things, are keyboards but they are also computers, they sample real sounds, and while I used my Prophet extensively throughout this score, I also used the Kurzweill, especially for piano and string treatments, because it has marvelous sound. I used a Lynn drum machine, which is also a digital processor, the drums in that machine are actually real sounds. This time I was also able to use a guitarist and a percussionist on several select occasions, really fine players. It is the same as CREEPSHOW in the sense that I composed it and performed it with synthesizers, but it has a very different sound. There are moments when it’s clearly synthesizer music, but not synthesizer music in terms of what is usually associated with “synthesizer music.” I’ve never looked at it as being synthesizer music, I’ve used the synthesizers to approximate real orchestrations. There are occasions where I have used synthesizer strictly for the sounds that it can make, but in both CREEPSHOW and day of the dead my approach has been to approximate real orchestrations as opposed to just coming up with electronic sounds.

I take it there’s a lot of music in the film?
Yeah, George is fond of calling it a kind of rock opera, a horror rock opera. It’s almost wall-to-wall music.

Would you describe in a little more detail some of the music and what elements of the film you chose to emphasize musically?
I started generalizing and I created a ten-minute sketch which I sent to George for his approval. Within that sketch were themes that I wanted to expand upon in various re-voicings throughout the film. There is a theme that opens the film contained within our other elements that will then be restated throughout the rest of the film. The themes are used in different arrangements to heighten the moods, whether the mood is violent or sensitive, active or passive, and that’s pretty much the approach I took throughout the whole movie. It’s a pretty integrated score. The themes occur and restate a number of times.

How closely did you work with George Romero is deciding the style of music and its placement?
Very. George is a wonderful director to work with in that regard, he has a extraordinary musical sense to begin with. He’s a very fine music editor, and he also believes very strongly in the value of movie music. He considers it to be as much a story element as anything else, and to that extent it’s a great experience to work with him as a composer because he truly appreciates it and wants to be directly involved in it. So we had discussions, after I sent him a sketch, of what might go well, and on both films I’ve scored for him I’ve actually temp-scored the entire movie first, with my recording equipment and my synthesizers, approximating what will be the final score. I’d take that temp score, lay it up with George, and we’d watch how it works, making adjustments as we go, before I ever went into the studio to record my final version which you’ll hear in the film. That’s a rather unusual set of circumstances, I’m told, because most directors don’t have the time or inclination to spend that much on a score with the composer directly, but George does, and it’s a marvelous experience.

Much of the film apparently is satirical in nature. Is this quality going to affect any of the music, in terms of satirical kinds of music?
Well, I’m not sure I would characterize the film as satirical. It’s not satirical in the way DAWN OF THE DEAD was. It’s a much more grim vision. There are elements of humor in it and the music will reflect that.

In addition to composing you’re also active in directing, such as on CREEPSHOW and with TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE. Which of these areas do you prefer doing, and how does that experience in direction benefit your work as a composer?
I’ve been pretty fortunate that way, Randall, because my background has been varied. I really consider each of these elements a part of a whole, and they do interact and they do influence one another. The directing experience gives me a real good handle on how music can affect how the story is being told visually. By the same token, the knowledge of using the music to enhance the elements of the story helps me when I’ve directing, in terms of how to tell the story visually. I guess the best way to describe it is, in either case, I approach the project with an integrated vision, as opposed to just thinking of the music or just thinking of the direction. I think as a whole, and to that extent the two backgrounds are constantly interacting.

What do you see for your future, as far as what areas of film making you’d like to get into?
I’ve been pursuing the directing, because that has always been what I wanted to do. It’s the one way that I can integrate everything that I have been trained to do, everything that I’ve wanted to do, under one roof, as it were. Filmmaking is a very collaborative experience, and that’s why I like it. I want to pursue directing so that I can collaborate with other artists and pull together a project under one vision. I don’t want to abandon composition, because that’s a big part of my life too, and when the opportunities are worthwhile, as they usually are with George, I’m going to jump on them.

With your background as a rock guitarist and some of these things, what kind of training did you give yourself to prepare for the needs to compose to a film rather than recording or live performing?
I never had a formal musical training at all, either in concert or in film scoring, so most of my education, has taken place through osmosis; just watching a lot, listening a lot, trying to figure out what it is that appeals to me and what makes things work. Listening to the great film composers, the Goldsmiths, the Herrmanns, the Norths. That’s really the education, studying the masters and listening to what they have done and how it works with the picture. Moreso that than listening just to the music, incidentally, because the music by itself, while usually wonderful, was never meant to stand on its own, so you have to watch it with the picture to see how it works. Most of that is self-taught. I did perform for a number of years, which in a very kind of curious roundabout way also affects what I do, because when you stand in front of an audience and perform, you know what moves them and what doesn’t. To some extent you have to translate that knowledge into what will happen to an audience sitting in a theatre watching the movie.

Both CREEPSHOW and DAY OF THE DEAD are rather strong horror films. Do you enjoy scoring these types of films, or would you like to score other types as well?
As I said before, a project has to be really special to me for me to want to indulge the time and the pain that it takes to really do a good job on the score, and so while I would not rule out any kind of film, whether it’s a naturalistic type film whether it’s an action-adventure, whether it’s a horror film, I particularly enjoy films of fantasy because they allow you to stretch a lot, I mean, you’re dealing with story and visuals that are often freer, and that extends to the music as well. But when you hear the DAY OF THE DEAD score I think you’ll notice that it really isn’t a traditional horror score, either. I’d like to be able to score films that aren’t necessarily of the fantasy genre. Each project is different.

Are there are any plans for a soundtrack album of the music?
Yes, we’re currently working on that now. That’s an interesting story. Saturn Records is currently scheduled to release the album with the release of the film. We took a different approach than we did with CREEPSHOW, and this is a departure for me. The record company wanted to take a very commercial approach to the soundtrack to generate radio airplay, and they have taken elements of my themes and have created from those themes several songs which will be on the album, one of which is at the end of the movie, over the credits. Another is kind of a dance number called “The Dead Walk,” it’s pretty good. So the soundtrack album will be a collection of several songs, that will have been written from my material. I was not directly involved in the album, except to the extent that they used my music, and reorchestrated it. There will also be one or two cuts from the more active parts of the score which I have restructured into three to four minute excerpts. Then on side two will be a single suite, about twenty minutes long, of the entire score, which will pretty much mirror the story line of the film; it’ll start at the beginning and it’ll go through the story in terms of where the score occurred and finish up at the end. We took a little bit of a chance on this, and I feel it’s a bit of a risk, number one because we didn’t do a traditional horror score, number two we’re taking a rather commercial approach to the soundtrack album, but the reaction to it so far has been pretty strong. I’ve been pretty gratified by it, but I’ve also been a little nervous about it because it’s a departure, and I hope it turns out well. I’m excited.

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