It's finally October, and we're getting close to our spookiest holiday, inspiring a lot of people to watch old horror films to get into the spirit of things. The late '70s and 1980s are rightfully considered to be a certain kind of "golden age" for scary movies, but those decades also had distinctive musical trends, and a large number of horror flicks from the era have songs featured in them. Not instrumental scores; almost all of them had those too, but instead, songs either played by a band in the film, or with lyrics written especially for it. Here are a few of those..."gems."
10. "The Only One"
Film: Slaughterhouse Rock
This 1988 film isn't considered a "classic" by many people, but it was one of those videotapes that always seemed to be sitting on video-store shelves, staring out balefully, trying to lure someone in to watch it. The plot involves a group of teens who are trying to help a friend experiencing terrifying nightmares about monsters and Alcatraz. Frankly, this is one of those derivative and crappy late-'80s horror films that are only good watched with a group of half-drunk friends. Still, it does feature pop star and sometime actress Toni Basil as a helpful ghost who used to be a singer in a rock band. The film's soundtrack also includes "The Only One," a tune written by her and Devo, who also wrote most of the rest of the film's score.
9. Various Songs by "Crime"
Film: Terror Train
Terror Train (1980) is notable mostly for its novel setting — an actual moving train, filled with a fraternity celebrating a New Year's costume party on board — and for being one of the handful of slasher films starring Jamie Lee Curtis in the lead. For the most part, Terror Train isn't all that interesting; it's not especially gory, even for the time, it doesn't have a whole lot of nudity or other cheap thrills, and it's pretty obvious from the opening scene who the likely killer is (although in fairness, the movie does have an effective twist in regards to that). Terror Train is mostly a by-the-numbers horror movie, but it's fun for hardcore fans of the slasher genre, especially those who like Jamie Lee Curtis.
The party train features performances by a slightly sinister magician played by none other than David Copperfield, and by a mellow rock band called "Crime," seen plodding through several songs during the film. I'm always curious when I see bands in movies, so I spent some time trying to research Crime, and not much information is out there. Were they a real band of some kind? Maybe local to Montreal, where most of the film was shot? Or was Crime just an invention for the film? They certainly aren't the early punk band of the same name, so this group's contribution to music history may be limited to Terror Train and shrouded in mystery.
8. Various Disco Ripoffs
Film: Prom Night
Prom Night was released the same year as Terror Train, giving scream-queen Jamie Lee Curtis a lot of screen time running from masked killers. She must have enjoyed working in Canada, because like Terror Train, this movie was one of the many "American" horror films actually made in the Great White North. Prom Night is another cookie-cutter slasher movie, following the basic "tragedy at the beginning, murderer seeking vengeance against a group of teens a few years later" formula that was popular in these types of films. Being as Prom Night was set at the titular high-school dance, and was filmed in 1979, there's a whole bunch of disco music and silly-looking dancing later in the film. Originally, the actors in those scenes were boogieing away to popular songs by artists like Donna Summer and Pat Benatar, but the rights to secure those tunes for use in the film were outside the production budget. Instead, the composer hired for the movie was instructed to write copycat versions of those songs. He did, resulting in a $10 million copyright lawsuit that was eventually settled for $50,000. So when you're watching Prom Night, and the terrible music begins to play, remember that sneaky disco thievery cost somebody a lot of money.
7. "Come to Me"
Film: Fright Night
This classic 1985 vampire film is memorable for its over-the-top special effects and strong performances and a score by Brad Fiedel, who had recently done the music for The Terminator. Before her stint as Marcy on Married With Children, Amanda Bearse played love interest Amy Peterson, who is seduced by über-vampire Jerry Dandrige at a dance club while a song called "Come to Me" plays. DJ and local '80s horror-film music expert Robert Ehlinger explains:
The song appears again with lyrics added by Brad himself in a special-edition soundtrack release. By the time Part 2 came around, the producers asked Brad to do the second soundtrack. "Come to Me" reappears with lyrics from a female singer this time. Since then it's been covered countless times by many different artists, but the highlight covers are from Anthony Jones and in 2013 by a new-age electronic band called Perturbator.
Thus proving a good seduction song is hard to keep down.
6. "Gangsters of Rock"
Film: Graduation Day
In 1981, slasher movies were in full swing, and anyone with a movie camera and a few gallons of fake blood could churn out a bad horror film and make money. One of the more uninspired films of the genre was Graduation Day; its gore effects weren't very good, and it's not particularly scary, so that leaves it feeling pointless. One thing that it's notable for is the music. The film's opening features a goofy instrumental track titled "The Winner," but what really makes this list is a dance scene in which "Felony" plays a song called "Gangsters of Rock." It's corny as hell, especially when one character busts out some terrible disco moves. Felony was a real band, with slight links to Iggy and The Stooges, but by 1981, being in a crappy slasher movie must have sounded good to them.
5. "Sitting Here at Midnight"
Phantasm was released in 1979, and writer/director Don Coscarelli's cult film is one of the period's most creative and interesting. The plot goes places that most horror films of the time never ventured close to, and it's littered with uneasy and surreal moments. One interesting (but non-scary) scene occurs early in the film when ice-cream-truck-driving Reggie (Reggie Bannister) joins his friend, Jody (Bill Thornbury), for an impromptu mellow jam of "Sitting Here at Midnight." It's a real musical moment that seems to be there simply because the actors were really musicians, and it showed the characters' bond with one another. It's a cool moment in a creepy film.
4. "The Ballad of Harry Warden"
Film: My Bloody Valentine
The Canadians were responsible for some of the 1980s' most vicious horror films, and few are more relentless than 1981's My Bloody Valentine. Along with the standard score, the film features a melancholy-sounding folk song titled "The Ballad of Harry Warden" (named after the murderous miner in the film) that plays during the end credits. Supposedly, the movie's producers were hoping to release it on vinyl, shooting for a hit record somehow, but I'm pretty sure that never happened. For some reason the tune has always reminded me of Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald"; I'm not sure that's a good thing.
3. "Fall Break"
Film: The Mutilator
The Mutilator (1985) was a late entry for the slasher-movie craze, but the independently produced film is so uncompromisingly gory and vicious that it has an enormous cult following now. It's hard to reconcile the movie, which features bodies sliced in two, people gutted by boat engines, graphic beheadings and other extreme mayhem, with the goofy-sounding theme song, called "Fall Break," also the film's original title. The bouncy tune sounds like it would be more fitting for a lighthearted early-'80s sitcom like Bosom Buddies than a hyper-violent slasher movie. Just compare that song with the violent death scenes from the movie, and see if it seems appropriate. (Warning: The following video contains graphic violence and nudity.)
2. "Don't Fear the Reaper"
In 1978, the American slasher film was off and running when John Carpenter and Debra Hill unleashed their iconic movie about babysitters being stalked by a nearly unstoppable masked killer named Michael Myers. Horror-movie bad guys would never be the same. Unlike a lot of the copycat films that were made to exploit its success, Halloween is a good movie by almost any standard, and still creepy viewing almost 40 years later. One of the elements of the film that has always gotten a lot of attention is John Carpenter's über-spooky and atmospheric score, and for good reason — it's great, and went on to influence the music written for many other slasher films to come. But Carpenter's music wasn't alone in Halloween, because Blue Öyster Cult's 1976 hit "Don't Fear the Reaper" is in the movie too. Does Halloween need more cowbell? No, its soundtrack is perfect with a little help from BÖC.
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Film: The Return of the Living Dead
In 1985, one of the best American zombie films not written and directed by George Romero was released, popularizing the eating of brains by fast-moving, carnivorous undead hordes. The Return of the Living Dead has a lot of tongue-in-cheek black humor, but it's also one of the most nihilistic and bleak zombie films of all time. There's no happy ending for anyone; no escape in a helicopter to some safe place. It's all a lot of fun to watch, though, and has a hefty dose of punk-rock culture, or at least some simulation of it with colorful punker characters like "Trash" and "Suicide." The movie also has good music, with a very '80s-sounding instrumental score coming secondary to one hell of a soundtrack featuring music by Roky Erickson, The Damned, The Cramps and several other edgy bands. The song that's most associated with the film is a version of "Partytime" by deathrock legends 45 Grave. It's a perfect musical accompaniment to the flesh-ripping mayhem appearing onscreen, and a high point for punk-rock horror film combos.
Special thanks to Robert Ehlinger for his contributions to this article.