The Score: Norman Orenstein’s Diary of the Dead

By Randall D. Larson

George Romero’s celebrated Dead series has taken as much of a musical evolution as it has a cinematic one. From the classic black-and-white original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, with its snippets of tracks culled from music libraries that provided a surprisingly organic musical accompaniment, to the heavy rock beats and pervasive synthetic atmospheres of DAWN OF THE DEAD (composed by the Italian rock band Goblin) and DAY OF THE DEAD (scored by composer and now director John Harrison), through the compelling synthetic sound design of composers Reinhold Heil (RUN LOLA RUN) and Johnny Klimek in LAND OF THE DEAD, Romero’s wicked soundscape has risen and fallen with his reanimated brain-munching cadavers. The latest Romero zombie epic, DIARY OF THE DEAD, recently released on DVD, revisits the franchise with a fresh viewpoint. DIARY delineates the struggle between living and dead with a gaunt fistful of self-referential satire by depicting the story, CLOVERFIELD and/or BLAIR WITCH style, mostly through the cameras of a group of young film students who while filming a horror movie come face to sloughing face with real zombies.

Musically, DIARY features a tonality both similar and unique, drawing from the kind of spooky atmospheric ambiances of the previous films and extending them into a new range and pallet courtesy of composer Norman Orenstein. The Toronto-based composer started out as a guitar player, in blues, rock, and R&B bands in the 1970s. During the 1980’s he co-founded a rock-and-soul band called Alta Moda which led to a deal with Epic Records, but about the same time he began writing music for television commercials. When Alta Moda appeared in an independent 1984 coming-of-age film called UNFINISHED BUSINESS, Orenstein was then asked to collaborate with Patricia Cullen on the film’s score. He got the bug, and soon thereafter made film music his chosen career.

Orenstein’s film music has meandered through the action film genre for the last fifteen years or so. Initially noted for his potent ambient scores for ROBOCOP: PRIME DIRECTIVES and CUBE 2: HYPERCUBE, last year Orenstein composed the music for A STIR OF ECHOES 2: THE HOMECOMING (a sequel loosely based on David Koepp’s 1999 ghost film) in which an Iraq veteran returns home to encounter haunting visions of the dead.

matrimony.jpgHe also composed music for MATRIMONY, a Hong Kong ghost film about a newly married woman confronting the unforgiving presence of her husband’s former betrothed. Orenstein was initially brought into this project to score the film’s promotional trailer during the post-production phase. “The director was interested in using elements from that trailer music in the actual score of the film and from what I have seen and heard, they made excellent use of the various motifs, hits and ambient pads (extracted from the trailer),” Orenstein said. “Despite the fact that the dialog was in Chinese, the trailer really had a fantastic look and feel and I was hooked. I learned that the story, a ghost love horror story, had to conform to certain rules laid down by the government of China. So because of a sensitivity to ghost stories, the script writers had to come up with some clever devices that I won’t give away. Anyway, I was then asked to score some scenes as well.”

Orenstein composed and recorded the new music in his Toronto studio and delivered the music both digitally via ftp files as well as some elements by international courier. “The post production team in China seemed to be quite savvy, a top notch group.”

Orenstein’s scores for STIR OF ECHOES 2 and MATRIMONY gave him a strong grounding in moody horror music that served him well when he came to score DIARY OF THE DEAD. These scores all managed to exude a persuasive sonic atmosphere of claustrophobia, helping to isolate the listener/viewer and heightening the suspense and scariness of the films. “I take my direction from what I am seeing on the screen,” said Orenstein. “There are so many great horror scores and I have learned from them, but I try to connect with the picture and give each film an original musical identity.”

Orenstein came to the attention of George Romero and his co-producer, Peter Grunwald, through a recommendation of their editor, Michael Doherty. “My initial discussions regarding the score were with Peter Grunwald, who as well as being a key business component in the project, was artistically entwined as well,” Orenstein said. “George actually gave me a lot of room to work on my own. They both understood that the music was essential to the film but not as a primary feature, that it was not to be the typical horror movie score. When George made his comments on the work in progress, the comments were incredibly succinct. I remember one instance where he said the cue was ‘too complex,’ and I knew exactly what he meant. Sometimes too much talk can actually cloud the point.”

Orenstein’s music for DIARY OF THE DEAD opens with a muted, beaten rhythm that really seems to speak of the massed and marching dead – while perhaps also reflecting their vacant heartbeats – while a plaintive and somewhat mournful woodwind figure intones somberly over a windy rush of synth tonalities.

DIARY’s producers did not want the film “scored” traditionally, nor did they want it to sound as though the music was all “library music” edited in by the student filmmakers. “I really went on feel, sort of going down the middle,” said the composer. “As the score took shape, and was working for everyone, it became easier to just keep that vibe and let it be its own thing.”

The student film crew, caught up in the zombie apocalypse of DIARY OF THE DEAD.

Orenstein’s synth chords shuffle along with the slow cadence of the wandering dead, while more severe musical moments emphasize their famished rage and violence. Elsewhere a melancholic piano motif resonates amidst a harmonic haze of synth textures, and sirenlike wails echo through city walls above a pattern of rumbling electronic clusters and melodic phrasings.

“There is one cue used while the student filmmakers are shooting a scene for their ‘mummy’ movie, and that cue is like traditional old school horror music,” Orenstein said. “It reappears later in the film where action mimics that scene. The bulk of the score is horror type ambience with those strings and metallic bumps I have been taking about. There are montages and monologs where the music takes on more melodic and structured form.”

The score is brimful of eerie tonalities, percussive crashes, and sinewy strands of melody and harmony, while building a constant atmosphere of discomfort appropriate to the story’s necessary ambiance. Many of the sounds in DIARY OF THE DEAD’s score are in fact found sounds – natural sounds recorded and then processes and treated electronically to become part of Orenstein’s musical texture. “I’ve always liked creating sounds,” he said. “I have some good microphones and I use them to record various instruments and objects. Some sounds that are percussive in nature are created by hitting objects with various mallets or sticks, etc. Sustaining sounds can be created by using bows, mallets, or electric motors – even magnetism. I also use an old square piano as a resonator and for prepared piano effects, and guitars and other instruments as well.”

Orenstein used these created sounds in DIARY OF THE DEAD in conjunction with orchestral instruments and then embellished both through digital audio manipulation. “The sound design type elements are used to create ambient backgrounds and for specific events while the traditional pitched instruments really provide the emotional power or environment,” Orenstein said.

While DIARY OF THE DEAD is very much horror film – and very much a Romero horror film – Orenstein avoided traditional “scary music” in order to maintain more of an overall atmosphere that was in keeping with the way Romero was telling the story. “While there are ‘scare moments’ that need to be hit musically, there is a tone to this film and I tried to play on that tone,” he said. “I let the dialog and voice-over be king. So most of the score, I would say, is fairly understated, fading in and out as part of that environmental background. Sometimes there is a reflective tone for survival and loss of control, other times more traditional setup and payoff. The ‘media montages’ have incoherent blips and kinetic streams of noises which is an obvious play on the massive amounts of information being communicated. I think that the mix of mutated electric guitar, synthetic and organic sound along with orchestral instrumentation sits well with the ideas George has on technology and humanity mixing and possibly spinning out of control.”

Orenstein recognizes and relies upon his own effective techniques to benefit a horror film, musically. At the same time to understands the need to invest his or her own voice into music designed to be, essentially, discomforting and uneasy. “There are certain conventions that are used, and they work,” he noted. “As the high strings crawl or the dissonance builds, the audience is somewhat educated to respond. It is a good thing that not all filmmakers are the same, so the contributing music is not always used with the same sensibilities. Sometimes the absence of music may be scarier to an audience, and then that silence gives the composer a great opportunity to strike (when moment demands). I find it actually easier to compose cues calling for discomfort and fear than music that taps more complex emotions.”


Horror film music has obviously come a long way since the Gothic symphonic filigrees and cadences of the horror films of the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, and Romero’s revitalization of the zombie genre, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, both paid homage to those classic scores and revitalized them by compiling a score made up of elements of them – resurrecting them from the dead, so to speak. As technology continues to develop and this legacy of music for scary movies evolves around the next corner, Orenstein expects styles, needs, and techniques to continue to shift. “Composers have access to a digital array of sound,” noted Orenstein. “Music manipulation tools and the palette that provides will evolve and expand. There are only 12 notes and those in between tones will be continue to be mined. The lines between music and sound design will continue to be blurred. In the end, it will always be the pitched compositions and melodies that carry the emotional muscle. I think that musical styles will shift in tandem with the style and substance of the films filmmakers create.”

DIARY OF THE DEAD, by depicting young filmmakers shooting a horror movie, seems to be almost a self-conscious commentary on Romero’s filmmaking process itself, a nuance of the film that wasn’t lost on Orenstein. “George has wrapped or maybe clustered together the ideas of filmmaking and the media, and truth and lies in this technological age,” he said. “I think he is fascinated with the proliferation of video cameras, cell phone cameras, and the Myspace, Youtube generation, and the thought that while it is easier to communicate messages and images it is also easier to distort and falsify. This is all within a Romero zombie film about film students shooting zombies while making a mummy movie and posting their film bytes on the internet. I love it.”

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About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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