(Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Sydney, Australia-based Iain Wilson of the FOTW blog. From Sunday, Oct. 23, at 7 p.m. Eastern through Halloween, Wilson will host a ‘pop-up’ radio show dedicated to playing horror disco. On Halloween Sydney time, he will be live. )
Stranger Things is helping to prove it — that the years between 1978 and 1983 were some of the best years ever for the horror genre. In a roughly five-year period, everything went nuts. You had Alien, Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, American Werewolf in London, The Fog, The Thing, Creepshow, Dead Zone, Scanners, Videodrome — not to mention all the books from the likes of Stephen King and others. Horror also had its own special shelf with a capital ‘H’ in these weird new rental shops opening up in suburbs all around the world.
Music that coincided with this time period was disco. Even though by the early 1980s it had peaked and was on its way out in the U.S., disco was still going strong in Europe in countries like Italy, where musicians had found a way to keep making it by using relatively cheap synthesizers.
Here are ten tracks that showcase best where horror and disco meet in places around the world.
1. Andy Forray – “Drac’s Back” (1979)
Horror theorists have often linked vampires to fear regarding sexual intimacy and blood-borne diseases, but this novelty disco song by New Yorker Andy Forray manages to take it a step further. The Count is a haunter of discotheques, alluding through his misdeeds to the darker aspects of nightclub culture — but without making the song too dark.
The song’s lyrics also make great use of one of the more unique verbs of the English language — to ‘vampirize’, which according to Google’s Ngram has been around since the 1890s. It’s got a special boost over the last 30 years.
2. Captain Zorro – “The Phantasm Theme (Disco Version)” (1979)
The original Phantasm soundtrack, composed by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave, was heavily influenced by the Tubular Bells theme from The Exorcist (as was everyone else!).
But in 1979, disco fever was at its peak, and everyone from Bruce Lee to Disney were getting the disco treatment. And so someone called Captain Zorro reworked this wonderful Phantasm theme for the nightclubs, turning its drones and spooky twangs into dance-beats, and a nice female chorus line.
Now a minor collector’s item, the 12-inch release was perhaps the first instance of blood-spattered vinyl being used as a nifty marketing campaign for horror. Who would’ve thought?
3. Claudio Simonetti and Goblin – “Tenebrae (Main Title)” (1982)
All of this — this list, my Halloween show, an ongoing obsession with Italo disco — can be traced back to this one particular theme, which I listened to heavily as a teenager, a side-affliction of being a horror-movie fan.
The now well-known prog-rock group Goblin became most famous in Italy for scoring Profondo Rosso in 1974. Their haunting title theme spent 14-weeks at Number 1 on the Italian Charts (saying something about Italians and horror.) For the English-speaking world, it is their legendary Suspiria soundtrack that has become their defining work.
However, not so well-known is the fact that keyboardist and founding member Claudio Simonetti had a break from the band in the late 70s, launching into the world of disco production.
Taking his cue from Giorgio Moroder, Simonetti’s name ended up behind a plethora of Italian disco hits: Easy Going’s “Fear,” “Walkman” by Kasso, and Vivien Vee’s “Remember,” which made its way onto The Warriors soundtrack in the U.S.
When Simonetti returned to film composing in the early 80s, he had behind him this arsenal of production techniques that he pulled out all the stops for on for his brilliant Tenebrae soundtrack. A secondary theme, “Flashing” is also worth checking out. Though it’s not so good for dancing to, it has a ferocious build-up and climax.
4. The Creatures – “Believe in Yourself” (1983)
The Creatures get a lot of kudos within the Italo disco scene. They were a band in the style of Parliament who would all dress up in wild costumes, performing at the very famous L’Altromondo Studios Discotheque in Rimini in Northern Italy.
They also appeared in the one — and only, as far as I know — Italo disco movie Jocks in 1984. (Not to be confused with the American sex comedy of the same name. The name probably refers to disc jockeys, rather than jock-straps!)
5. Kano – “Ikeya Seki” (1983)
This is a very powerful instrumental track by Kano, an Italo disco group made up of Stefano Pulga, Luciano Ninzatti, and Matteo Bonsanto. Kano undoubtedly made some of the best Italo tracks of their time, some of which had a fundamental influence on Detroit Techno and Chicago House.
Their style and sound was partly influenced by The Alan Parson’s Project. “Ikeya Seki” also happened to be the name of a comet that passed through the skies in the 1960s, which is something that the producers must have witnessed as kids, the same way my generation saw Haley’s Comet in the late 80s.
In my mind, this is the perfect horror disco track — one that I became obsessed with a number of years ago. And if it sounds familiar to you, then there is a reason for this: It was sampled by Kavinsky on his track “Grand Canyon.”
6. Klapto – “Queen of the Night” (1984)
This is a much more mellow track and a good example of the kind of Italo disco that was influenced by new wave.
I don’t know much about this group, but as a background to the song, the “Queen of the Night” was a character from Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute.
7. Harry Manfredini – “Friday the 13th, Part 3 Theme” (1983)
As I mentioned, disco in the U.S. was on its way out by 1982, opening up some room for newer genres like electro-funk, rap, and new wave synth-pop.
However, Friday the 13th composer Harry Manfredini, the man responsible for “ki ki ki ma ma ma”, still managed to kick a final, supremely-winning goal for our much loved, but very small, genre of horror disco.
This is perhaps one of the genre’s best tracks, with a squelchy bassline that is as funky as hell.
8. Rockwell – “Someone’s Watching Me” (1984)
Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” was the “Monster Mash” of its time — everybody loved it, and it opened the floodgate for many other horror-related songs, like this one by Rockwell. (Editor’s Note: Jackson sings on the chorus of “Somebody’s Watching Me.”)
However, I’d never heard of this song until recently — even though I grew up when this came out. What I remember from this time, more than anything, was “Torture” by the Jackson Five. I vividly remember seeing it come on on Video Hits just before I was about to go on holidays with my family, and there was a scene where someone stuck their hand into a giant eyeball and pulled out handfuls of goo.
My parents had to yell out for me to turn off the TV and come and get in the car to go. And off I went, wondering for many years after about what the hell I had just seen.
9. Pink Fink – “Fear the Night” (2014)
By the end of the 1980s, that carefully polished sound of pop had stagnated and would be smashed to smithereens in the following years by Seattle grunge.
Dance music had sunk back underground, where it belonged, to regroup as the computer-controlled trance and techno of the coming rave scene. And like the horror genre itself, our horror disco thread seemed to disappear for most of the 90s.
However, in the early 2000s, the birth of electroclash refound that thread, helping to restore an interest in all of these old and forgotten genres: punk-funk, new wave, Italo, dark beat. As the decade wore on, synthesizers came back into fashion, first with the ubiquitous red Nord synthesizer, and then with modular synths that you could put together yourself.
Now we reach our present moment, when people like John Carpenter and Alan Howarth are doing the rounds as live performers; synthwave is being discussed online in relation to Stranger Things; and a number of curious souls are wondering just where the hell all this came from.
There has also been a number of record labels that specialize in the horror disco sound, notably Giallo Disco Records, Amsterdam’s Bordello A Parigi, and Disko Obscura from spooky New Orleans, from which our track above comes.
The future seems bright for dark disco music.
10. Supernature – Cerrone (1977)
And now, for our final track in our Top 10, let’s go back to where it all started: a proto-horror disco track if ever there was one, with Frenchman Cerrone bringing us the chills in a suave skivvy!
“Once upon a time science opened up the door/
We would feed the hungry fields till they couldn’t eat no more/
But the potions that we made touched the creatures down below, oh/
And they grew up in the way that we’d never seen before.”
The lyrics say it all.
And that’s it. I hope you all get a chance to tune in to FOTW’s pop-up Halloween radio station. We’ll be playing all of these classics, and much much more, with a live broadcast on Halloween night.
Happy Halloween! 🎃