The Score: Robert Carli on Survival of the Dead

Survival of the Dead (2009)

Joining the ranks of Italian prog rockers Goblin and film composers Norman Orenstein, Reinhold Heil & Johnny Klimek, John Harrison, and a battalion of library music composers whose work has accompanied the walking dead in their nights, dawns, days, lands, and diaries of the dead as brought to shambling life by George A. Romero, is Canadian Robert Carli. His music has become part of a horror film legacy that runs from 1968’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to Romero’s sixth zombie epic, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, now in theaters, underscoring the definitive cinematic zombie myth that Romero has defined and perpetuated for over 40 years with his own definitive presence and a visceral aesthetic.

Romero’s seminal NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was compiled from library music in the vast holdings of Capitol Records – cues culled from compositions that had graced all manner of low-budget horror movies of the late ‘50s and early ’60s. DAWN OF THE DEAD would have gone the same way had not producer Dario Argento suggested Italian rock band Goblin, who had recently scored Argento’s SUSPIRIA; Romero mixed Goblin’s original music with his beloved library tracks. CREEPSHOW composer John Harrison proved the value of his original score on DAY OF THE DEAD, replacing many of the library tracks Romero had selected in favor of his electronic music. When Romero revisited his shuffling dead things in LAND OF THE DEAD and DIARY OF THE DEAD, he’d become accustomed by then to fully original scores, and had these new films composed by Heil & Klimek (known for their work with Tom Tykwer on RUN, LOLA, RUN, etc) and Norman Orenstein (whose long history in B-moving scoring included sequel scores like AMERICAN PSYCHO 2 and STIR OF ECHOES 2: THE HOMECOMING), respectively.

Robert Carli IMG_0678Thus it came that Robert Carli was brought in to compose Romero’s latest flesh-munchers epic, SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, which was filmed up in his territory, in and around Toronto, Canada. The producers had approached several composers and invited them to score three scenes as a demo. “The direction we were given is that George wanted an orchestral horror score, somewhat vague, but I think fitting for the exercise,” Carli recalled. He got the gig.

Since he began scoring films in 1999, Carli has composed some fifty film and television productions, including the popular Canadian detective series THE MURDOCH MYSTERIES. Carli studied at the University of Toronto, graduating with a degree in composition, after which he began performing as saxophonist with The Toronto Symphony, The National Ballet of Canada, and The Esprit Orchestra. He has toured with rock bands and jazz groups across North America and throughout Europe, and he teaches saxophone at the University of Toronto, while continuing to perform with classical and contemporary music ensembles.

Fueding families underly the tension in SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD.
Fueding families underly the tension in SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD.

Carli worked closely with Romero and editor Michael Doherty on spotting SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD and determining the best placement of music. “My impressions were informed by some direction that George had given me in advance of the spotting,” Carli said. “He was interested in a traditional orchestral score, and Michael had suggested I employ various character themes and motives throughout the score. Also, there is a narrative arch in the film that touches on family (and its possible devolution), so I wanted to come up music that would somehow touch that.”

Early in the process Carli created a number of different themes and sonic textures which he pitched to George. These included a military theme, a “walking dead” theme, the island theme, a family theme etc. “I should note that I didn’t use ‘character themes’ so much,” Carli said. “Rather I used what you might call ‘situational’ themes. While George’s films often use rich characters, I believe that it is the environments and situations in which these characters are used that speak to his style of film making. For example, there are antagonists, but often they are a group of people, rather than an individual.”

Carli said that his biggest challenge in scoring SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD was simply a matter of time. “Like most films, it comes down to time,” he said. “I had very little time to complete the score, but I don’t really mind working in those parameters. It’s nice to have a looming deadline. Also, there was the challenge of trying to create a big orchestral score without a big orchestral budget.”

Survival of the Dead (2009)

The budget demanded few real instruments and most of the score was crafted out of synths and orchestral sampled worked out in the computer. Carli had offered suggestions to Romero about instrumentation to be used. “I wanted to feature the bassoon prominently in the family theme,” he said. “It has a wanton forlorn quality in the upper register that I thought could work. I also had sampled a number of ‘metal’ tools and pieces from a friend of mine who is a metal sculptor, and I thought they would add an interesting dimension to the score. Also, you can hear the saw from time to time in the score, which I’ve always loved and I tend to use a lot, since it can be simultaneously eerie and warm and melodic.”

Carli put together the music using orchestral samples, manipulated on the keyboard and mixed to sound convincingly realistic, sweetened with a handful of live musicians. “On SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, we used 3 or 4 fiddles, bassoon, clarinet, sax, bass clarinet, baritone sax, saw, soprano sax and piano as the live components,” Carli said. “I guess the secret is trying to get the fake instruments do what they do well, and get the real instruments to do what they do well. The next result can be a decent compromise in many cases.”

His experience among the living dead was favorable, and Carli enjoyed taking a journey into the further reaches of what horror music can accomplish. “I did score a psychological thriller called CORD (2000, aka HIDE AND SEEK) that starred Darryl Hanna and Vincent Gallo,” Carli recalled. “It was pretty dark. But generally, I haven’t scored too many thrillers. I loved doing SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, and I hope to do more.”

Carli enjoyed working with director George A. Romero.
Carli enjoyed working with director George A. Romero.

Carli also enjoyed his working rapport with legendary zombiemeister Romero. “It was a great opportunity to work with George,” he said. “It’s curious to meet such a warm and friendly person, and then look at the body of his work, which is anything but warm and friendly. A bit of a disconnect there, but I guess you can attribute that to the magic of film making; the reality on screen really is imagined, and not real at all.”

Carli is now currently scoring Cartoon Network’s first live-action series, UNNATURAL HISTORY (2010), produced by Warner Bros. This youth-oriented adventure series includes a number of fantasy and sci-fi permutations which will give Carli plenty of musical opportunities.


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