You began composing in your early 20s. How did you get your start in film?
Fabio Frizzi: My dad was in that industry – he was called Fulvio, and he was the commercial director of a film distribution company [Cineriz]. When I finished my basic schooling I began university — my dad wanted me to be a lawyer — but my interest was in music. One day I met Carlo Bixio, a music publisher who knew that I was already involved in the business and maybe it would be easy to help me. At the time he was he was trying to find many younger ‘eventual’ composers, so there was me, Claudio Simonetti, his band and others often all together in his office.
And is that how your trio Bixio, Frizzi & Tempera was born?
Fabio Frizzi: On my early work, he would pair me up with his brother [Franco Bixio] and Vincenzo Tempera, who would help me because he knew I couldn’t do too many things at once. So I worked on Amore Libero [Free Love] and then Fantozzi. On the latter, I wrote the music but Vincenzo helped me to conduct and Franco helped me with the editing. After that, Carlo called me and said, “Why don’t we try to do a group?” And I thought, why not?
So we had the five years of marriage. It was very intense, but I have so many beautiful memories of that time. At the time in Italy there were almost 250 movies released every year, but not everything was great. Sometimes we knew that we were not working on very important projects – they were B-movies. But our passion for the job was so high we’d always do the best work we possibly could.
Italian cinema has produced some incredible composers: you, Claudio Simonetti, Stelvio Cipriani, Ennio Morricone and many more. Was there friendly competition between you?
Fabio Frizzi: We had good relationships, but maybe without telling one another. As a kid I was in love with Morricone’s music, and when I started working with Carlo Bixio I knew the maestro was working in his studios. One day I asked if I could see him recording and Morricone said yes, which was incredible because he has a bad reputation! So for one year I got to sit in with his orchestra, this is something that imprints on you. Then I remember when I was working on my first movie, Amore libero – Free Love (1974) Ennio met me at the studio and said, “You cannot come and sit in on the sessions,” and that was that.
If I am not mistaken, your second feature length work was with Ferdinando Baldi (Carambola’s Philosophy: In the Right Pocket (1975), who by ’74 was a fairly accomplished director in Italy. What was it like working with Baldi?
Fabio Frizzi: 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. You know, it was fun to work with him on this typical Italian Western, the Spaghetti Western.
How did your long association with Lucio Fulci begin?
Fabio Frizzi: Carlo, the publisher of our trio, calls me to say we must go to see a new movie. It’s a western called I quattro dell’Apocalisse/Four of the Apocalypse (1975), a great movie with great actors. But the music was incomplete, and every single scene was soundtracked by Bob Dylan’s ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’. This is absolutely normal. Every director needs something to work from when editing. But as a composer, you know he’ll be convinced that he must have something similar. And you are stuck – you cannot have real ideas, so you say to yourself, “He wants it to be like Bob Dylan – dio mio, we are lost!” I mean, he is a genius so what can you do against that? In the end, we did an LP which Lucio was very happy with, and from there our story began. That album is something I’m very proud of, and many people love the acoustic songs from I quattro dell’Apocalisse/Four of the Apocalypse when we perform live.
You did another Western with Fulci, Sella d’argento/Silver Saddle (1978).
Fabio Frizzi: Yes, and that was one of the few movies where I was close friends with an actor: Giuliano Gemma. The first movie in which Giuliano had a leading role was Un dollaro bucato [One Silver Dollar), which my father produced, and we had kept in touch since then. I remember that at my first wedding, the only guest who was from the entertainment business, besides my father, was Giuliano, so I was very happy to meet him again on the Silver Saddle set. I did The Psychic with Lucio in 1977; that was a movie on which he had great expectations. He was sure he could prove he was a class-A filmmaker with that. Today, we all know he was a great director-all around the world, people talk much more about Fulci than about Fellini—but in those years he wasn’t so sure about himself. Like all artists, he wanted to demonstrate that he was a great director, and therefore he put together an amazing international cast, including one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen in my life, Jennifer O’Neill. Then there were Marc Porel, Gabriele Ferzetti and other great actors. Dardano Sacchetti and Roberto Gianviti wrote the script, which in my opinion is not a horror story. I also don’t consider the beautiful Deep Red a horror film, but a giallo with hints of it, and I consider The Psychic a psychological giallo. Back to my involvement with it: Lucio, who was happy about our previous work together, called us back, and we focused on the watch that reveals that someone has been buried alive behind a wall. Franco, Vince and I always shared duties, and I was the one who had to write that seven-note tune [the film’s Italian title Sette note in nero translates to Seven Black Notes]. It wasn’t easy; that was the year of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and its brilliant theme was still in audiences’ minds. The original idea was to play it on a real music box; we even called Switzerland to have it built and thought about giving it to an audience member at the premiere, but that was too expensive and would have taken too much time. In the end, we decided to record it using a celesta, which reproduces the notes of a carillon. We also wrote a beautiful song that Linda Lee sang. It’s a good movie, but it didn’t give Lucio the self confidence he needed, and in fact he was a bit disappointed by the box-office results.
Then you did another non-horror movie with him…
Fabio Frizzi: Yes, Contraband (1980), a co-production with France, starring Fabio Testi and Marcel Bozzuffi. Although it’s a crime film, in the Fulci tradition it’s an ultraviolent movie. It has a couple of main themes I like very much: the car chases and the death tune. As many scenes were filmed in Rome, I often visited the set. I remember an incident that occurred while filming a woman’s face being burned off with a blowtorch: Unfortunately, the rubber cover didn’t fully protect her face, and she got burned for real. But beyond that, Lucio was quite happy with the movie.
On Zombie (1979) you capture a truly diverse selection of sounds. What kind of music influenced your choices on that score?
Fabio Frizzi: One example I can give is the scene with the splinter and the eye, the inspiration for which came from the Beatles track ‘A Day in the Life’. The start of the second part of that song – “woke up, fell out of bed” – has a strong piano and bass, and then in the end there is an orchestral struggle with piano and bass in the background, “bom-bom-bom-bom”. If you’ve ever played or written music, you’ll know you start with an idea, fill it with other ideas and moment by moment it changes into something original, so I started from that and built on it. You see, there is a secret when you steal something!
And what was it like working with [Italian synth legend and onetime member of Goblin] Maurizio Guarini on Zombie?
Fabio Frizzi: Maurizio is not only a good keyboard player but a great mind. He brought everything he had, including new keyboards like the Yamaha CP-80 and the CS-80. They were incredible because musically you could do anything with them, although they were so heavy that two people would struggle to carry them into the studio.
That film was a complete change of pace for Fulci. Was it a challenge to create the music?
Fabio Frizzi: It’s one of his movies I love the most. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to go to the Caribbean location, but I was given the script and got to watch most of the dailies. It was certainly a big challenge for me, as it was an important picture and I didn’t have Franco and Vince to support me. Luckily, I had great help from my musicians, particularly percussionist Adriano Giordanella; all the themes for the island where the story takes place wouldn’t have worked so well without him. He added this sort of dark Caribbean atmosphere to the score. Maurizio Guarini’s keyboards were another invaluable aid.
We recorded the soundtrack in a new studio founded by former Ennio Morricone assistant Bruno Nicolai. Part of the soundtrack is a Caribbean theme, a meringue, and we called in a drummer from Naples, Tony Cicco, to help us on that. He was in a band produced by famous Italian songwriter Lucio Battisti called Formula 3. We went out for lunch, and Tony probably drank a bit too much, so when we got back to the studio, he kept making jokes and titled that piece “Big Zombie Meringue.” We laughed all day. For the infamous eye scene, I took inspiration from the Beatles song “A Day in the Life,” with the violin crescendo. I believe I took a completely new approach to film music on Zombie and came up with new solutions; Lucio appreciated that, and our friendship was reinforced.
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?
Fabio Frizzi: 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.
Did his work ethic push you make your best work, simply because he was so hard?
Fabio Frizzi: 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.
With City of the Living Dead, you established yourself as a horror-film composer. What do you remember about that movie?
Fabio Frizzi: Having already done Zombie, I was much more relaxed. Among the three movies I did with Lucio about the living dead, that’s certainly the one with the most linear and classic story, but you can still recognize his absolutely unmistakable style. I wrote a lot of music for that, and the main theme is somewhat similar to the one I did for Zombie. The biggest fight I had with Lucio was during that movie, when we were remixing the soundtrack. For the main titles, when the camera is wandering around the cemetery, since it’s set in the morning light, I wrote a theme that had a dreamlike tone, and then when the priest appears, the music became darker and more dramatic. We had mixed everything with the 35mm reels and were ready to screen the film for Lucio with sound and music. We were all sitting together, and after three minutes he jumped up on his seat and shouted, “Stop, stop! Who put this shitty music on my movie?”
I felt like committing suicide, and tried to explain my point of view on that piece. He didn’t even listen to me; he wanted creepier music for that scene. Luckily, I had written a lot of different themes, so we used the music you know and everything was OK. But for a few minutes, I thought my career was coming to an abrupt end. The music I originally conceived for the main credits, although not in the movie, has since been added to the soundtrack album.
What was your reaction when you saw those outrageous scenes of the girl vomiting her intestines in City? How did you approach the music for scenes like that?
Fabio Frizzi: When you “live” the film from the beginning, you see the scenes thousands of times, so you somehow “get friendly with them. So it’s no problem writing a take, having a sync on a terrible situation. As I always say to my pupils: “The only thing that matters is to see the camera,” by which I mean, where the camera should be on the stage. You can face every scene like this!
And then you completed that undead trilogy with The Beyond.
Fabio Frizzi: I consider The Beyond the best film Lucio and I did together, probably as a result of that problem we had on City of the Living Dead. I worked hard on the Beyond soundtrack, trying different things, as I didn’t want to disappoint him. I asked the help of conductor Giacomo Dell’Orso, and mentioned including a chorus in one of the themes.
The following day, Giacomo brought me a Latin hymn titled “Dies Irae,” written in the 13th century by Italian friar Tommaso da Celano, describing Judgment Day. He told me to choose some lines from it for the chorus to sing. “Cum resurget creatura,” a phrase about resurrection, was perfect, as we were dealing with zombies, and “Quantus tremor est futurus,” “How much terror will be coming”—I couldn’t ask for a better line. I had already written the music, and the final result was fully satisfying for both me and Lucio. I think The Beyond is a true masterpiece; you can watch it 100 times and always find something new. It’s a movie that makes you think.
For The Beyond, you created some of your best work: the piano cues, the “Voices from the Void” track. That one reminds me somewhat of the less effective cues in Phantasm. Was there any influence there?
Fabio Frizzi: Sure, but not directly…I mean, who knows? Writing is a free moment of expression, so you could follow in a “mistake” unwillingly. But no, in this case I can tell you that, even after all this time, I feel that was something that came out from deep inside me. Before I wrote Emily’s theme for The Beyond, I went on the set when they were about to shoot the scene with her and the dog, and there was an untuned piano there. Lucio said, “Let’s try to create music that connects this backdrop with her character.” I got to meet the actress [Cinzia Monreale), a very beautiful girl, and we went to have lunch and she told me she had been suffering with the contact lenses she had to wear; when she took them out, her eyes were all red. I assimilated all those things, and when I sat down at the piano, all those emotions came out. To do this job, I believe you have to be a very sensitive person, and when you write music for images and stories that are not yours, somehow you make them yours, and give them pieces of your soul.
The following year, you did Fulci’s Manhattan Baby, this time without the undead.
Fabio Frizzi: After The Beyond, which was the peak of Fulci’s career, he began a slow decline. I like Manhattan Baby; the plot makes no sense, but I was intrigued by the story beginning in Egypt. Even though I’ve never been there, I have always been fascinated with the pharaohs, the pyramids and all that stuff. So writing the main theme was a sort of putting my love for ancient Egypt into music. I’m also happy with the tune for the alarm-clock scene; it reminds me of a sorcerer and his cauldron.
You then took a break before working with Fulci again…
Fabio Frizzi: Yes, but I kept doing genre films. I scored The Scorpion With Two Tails for Sergio Martino, Blastfighter and Devilfish [a.k.a. Monster Shark], both directed by Lamberto Bava under the pseudonym John Old Jr., where I also used aliases: Andrew Barrymore and Antony Barrymore, respectively. I then wrote the music for some Sergio Corbucci pictures. For a few years, Lucio and I didn’t see each other; Italy’s cinema was entering a crisis period, and fewer movies were being produced. But in 1990, I received a phone call from him, we had dinner together and he said, “Listen, I’m filming a new movie, it’s low-budget and I don’t have a music editor, and I need a soundtrack!”
I didn’t have a problem with that, so I started working on A Cat in the Brain. He gave me the screenplay, and after reading it I realized it wasn’t on the same quality level of his previous movies, but I understood that times were changing and filmmakers were being given less and less money. I did feel the title was very strong and evocative, and it gave me food for thought. I tried to imagine the kind of devastation it suggested, and came up with a theme that sounded a bit messed up. The Cat in the Brain soundtrack is all electronic, with the exception of the guitar playing by Marco Rinalduzzi. I didn’t have an orchestra, as the budget wouldn’t allow it, but despite that, it’s very effective. We both were very satisfied with the final result.
That was the last movie you did with Fulci?
Fabio Frizzi: Yes, unfortunately. After that, we never met again, and I was very sad when I was told of his death. Lucio Fulci has been a very important person in my life, and our relationship helped me grow as a musician. I owe him so much, and I’m happy with my work for him. Lucio taught me a lot, even though he may have been harsh at times. I would certainly not have achieved the level I did in my career without him. I have a music school, and every time I explain to my students what this job means, I always recall the time I spent with Lucio, and the lessons I learned from him.
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.
Fabio Frizzi: 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.
You have described Lucio in past interviews as having a difficult temperament — how did he challenge you musically?
Fabio Frizzi: Lucio had a dual personality. One was sweet and very friendly, but the other side — the professional side — was demanding. Lucio and I shared the same idea towards work: you must have good collaborators, and if you have this you have your problems that are fixed. He was the father and the group of people who worked around him were a bit like his children — we had to do what dad wanted. As a director, he had clear ideas, and in terms of the music he wasn’t the kind of person to give you a reference point. Instead, he worked in adjectives. I remember once he told me he wanted a scene to have ‘transparent music’. I wrote it in my notes and afterwards thought, what does this mean? But of course, you couldn’t ask him!
What do you feel you learned from Fulci over the course of your collaboration?
Fabio Frizzi: Lucio helped me figure out the differences between writing songs and writing music for movies or television. I have written six guitar preludes, for example, and took inspiration for those from my memories and emotions, but when Fulci called and asked me to write the soundtrack for, say, The Beyond, things were different. Nevertheless, when you work on a film, your personal feelings act as a sort of filter for what the director wants, so you bring in your own personality. Usually, when you think about scoring a dramatic sequence in a horror movie, the first things that come to mind are a lot of unpleasant, frightening sounds. Some of my friends and fans have noticed, however, that for these scenes, I often write themes that are almost romantic. I am very instinctive when I compose for a film; I look carefully at the story and the characters, then put aside everything for a while, and then it’s as if the music writes itself. It’s a representation of the psychological impressions the characters leave on me.
Your use of the Mellotron, Moog, Jupiter-8 and Prophet 5 create some unnerving soundscapes. What drew you to using synthesizers in the first place?
Fabio Frizzi: Sometimes you are born at the right moment. When I was young, keyboards were coming out one after the other. And the fight between Moog and Yamaha was so beautiful because there was always something new. So it was year-after-year of discovery, and when you have to create music and have ideas, this versatility helps so much.
So do you ever go back to this heavy analogue equipment or have you made the transition to computers?
Fabio Frizzi: We use a Korg when we perform and it has many possibilities. For example, we can make it sound like a Mellotron… but it’s not quite the same! On an original machine you could play with an oscillator and change something very slight and it would sound perfect. When we perform we’re like a symphonic orchestra, and my belief is to use nothing pre-recorded because I think that it’s better to make mistakes and to be real. It is the way I am in my life; I may not be that beautiful, but I am myself.
What score do you look back most fondly on?
Fabio Frizzi: 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.
Amore libero – Free Love (1974)
Carambola’s Philosophy: In the Right Pocket (1975)
Dracula in the Provinces (1975)
Four of the Apocalypse (1975)
Go Gorilla Go (1975)
Get Mean (1975)
The Loves and Times of Scaramouche (1976)
Blue Belle (1976)
Il secondo tragico Fantozzi (1976)
Febbre da cavallo (1976)
Sette note in nero aka The Psychic (1977)
Silver Saddle (1978)
Cindy’s Love Games (1979)
Zombi 2 (1979)
City of the Living Dead (1980)
The Beyond (1981)
Vieni avanti cretino (1982)
Manhattan Baby (1982)
Scorpion with Two Tails (1982)
La gorilla (1982)
Delitto in Formula Uno (1984)
Devil Fish (1984)
Cop in Drag (1984)
Cat in the Brain (1990)
Fantozzi 2000 – La clonazione (1999)
Febbre da cavallo – La mandrakata (2002)
House of Forbidden Secrets (2012)
The Cold Eyes of Death (2013)
Violets Bloom at an Empty Grave (2014)
Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (2018)