The use of music in zombies films has progressed from the needle-drop stock tracks used by genre pioneer & founder George A. Romero in the original Night of the Living Dead (1968) to the prog-rock sounds of Goblin for Dawn of the Dead (1978). There was also Fabio Frizzi’s disco Muzak for Lucio Fulci’s Zombi (1979) and John Murphy’s grim electronica for Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), but with the succinctly titled The Dead [M], directors Jonathan and Howard J. Ford broadened the musical options with Imran Ahamd’s percussive and often elegaic score.
Mining his own interests in Indian and African instruments and harmonics, Ahmad’s music brings new life to a genre that’s been restricted by too many familiar sounds, although the film’s West African setting seemed to beckon a new instrumental palette.
Mark R. Hasan: How did you get into film scoring?
Imran Ahmad: I’ve always been passionate about music, and I think most composers are musicians first. I started off playing in bands, and I had a lot of Indian music influence within me from my parents. When I was growing up in the eighties I was listening to a lot of popular and classical Indian music, and also listening to the cool, contemporary music that was happening in England at the time. I had a very broad spectrum of musical exposures, and it just got me interested in music, especially the differences between Eastern and Western music.
Then I started paying attention to music in film scores. The first film I went to see was Return of the Jedi (I was about 4 years old or something) and I was just blown away by that; somehow, it kind of seeped into my subconscious, and years later I realized how music in films was so different to songs, and how the music evolved based on the narrative of the film. I just found that very exciting and very interesting.
Later on I learned that filmmaking is very much a collaborative endeavor. It’s not just you writing music from your own point of view; it’s actually collaborative, in the sense of what is needed for the film. Then I just started to get out there and meet directors for documentaries and short films.
MRH: For many composers, shorts and documentaries offer a great training ground, because you get thrown at all these different topics and subjects in different situations.
IA: Yes, absolutely. It was an invaluable experience, and I worked with some very good directors and learned a lot on those films. I think that’s what cultivated my moving to scoring for feature-length films – there was a broad range of topics. I also got to learn the whole filmmaking process pretty much from beginning to end; as the teams were very, very small, I had access to talk to the actors, production crew and the post-production crew (like the people doing the sound and the editing). I learned music is just one aspect of the whole picture.
MRH: How did you get involved with the Ford brothers (Howard and John) and The Dead?
IA: I met Howard in London probably about 3 years ago at a media event, and we started talking about what we were doing, and he said that he was just going into post-production of The Dead.
He told me a little bit about it – he’s an incredible enthusiastic person, and an amazing guy – and I told him what I do and said ‘I’d love to send you my show reel.’ He sent me a link to the initial trailer they’d put up on YouTube, and when I saw it I was just completely blown away. I love watching zombie movies, but this was something different. It was set in West Africa (particularly in Burkina Faso), it’s mainly in the outback (the barren wilderness in daylight), and they shot it on 35mm film.
I was very excited by it and I immediately wrote some music which, in my mind, encapsulated what I was feeling. I came up with a very adventurous sounding demo which I sent to him a couple of days later, and he and Jon loved it. I met up with them subsequently to talk further about my ideas for the score, which they really liked, because I was coming from more of a spiritual point of view, as opposed to just doing something which is ‘horror for zombie movies’. It was more than that because the film (to me) was more of a journey movie than a zombie horde attacking people.
MRH: I was completely blown away by the visuals. The use of colour is breathtaking.
AI: The shots of the vistas and the landscapes are so beautiful. It’s incredible the job they did. They went to a ‘lawless’ Burkina Faso. I don’t know if you know much about the horror stories.
MRH: The making-of featurette on the Blu-ray detailed some of the craziness. Years ago, a friend traveled to visit family in Tanzania, and at one point he had to take a bus, and he was puzzled by several passengers who had large cases of food and canned goods under their seats. Then each time they stopped at a border crossing, guards would come in, and they were given food or cash bribes, and by the time the bus had reached its end destination, everything people had been sitting on or above was gone!
AI: Really? I’m not surprised. [The Fords and the production team] were held up at gunpoint and they were mugged all the time; they were like a walking cash machine. There are lots of stories – they even had a decoy that sent one unit in one direction, knowing that people would go after them that way, and they would go somewhere else! He’s just come out with an eBook called Surviving The Dead, and it’s his memoirs from shooting The Dead which makes a really interesting read.
MRH: You mentioned that for yourself there were both the visuals and a journey story going on in The Dead. Everything’s been stripped down to just these two characters going from point A to point B, and I think the first hour is some of the most intense stuff I’ve seen in a while, because the sense of danger is so unrelenting.
IA: It’s almost like a neo-realistic take on what it would actually be like. For me, I felt there’s so much nature where they shot the film, and it’s the elements that have kind of turned against them. It’s not just the zombies; there’s the sun, which is forever burdening them; and there’s mental and physical exhaustion that they’re going through. The zombies might be the least thing that kills them, so from that point of view I thought it was very much a journey story, and how the two main characters are trying to hold onto something. They have their respective families to get back to; it’s really what keeps them on the move.
I really wanted to musically bring an earthiness into the score, as if these sounds were kind of coming of from Nature itself – from the environment and the climate, which is why it has a lot of percussion and vocals; they’re the two most primal instruments known to humankind.
MRH: I think the vocal parts are also tied to the characters’ humanism, whereas there’s this industrial sound that is more typical for the zombies, which makes for a great contrast.
AI: I was definitely trying to strike a balance between them. The Ford brothers were very keen to convey this fragile sense of hope the characters had in this post-apocalyptic world now filled with zombies.
For the vocals, I worked with a singer called Saba Tewelde – she’s a friend of mine, and she’s originally from East Africa – her voice was what I felt could represent Nature. She’s got this amazing vocal dichotomy where the higher registers are very beautiful and ethereal, and the low ones are sorrowful and foreboding, and I thought that’s kind of a nice way of representing the Nature – almost trying to recreate harmony because of what’s going on in the world. The vocals just stay with the characters the whole time; they never leave them alone, especially Lieutenant Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman).
One of the points I wanted to make is that these characters don’t enjoy killing the zombies. Sergeant Dembele (Prince David Oseia) is hacking away at them, but he doesn’t enjoy it at all; these are his people. It’s not meant to be gratuitous violence in that sense, if you know what I mean. It’s a very human take on a zombie movie.
And then for the actual friendship and hope-side-of-things, I worked with a musician called Jally Kebba Susso who’s from Gambia, and he plays a stringed instrument called the kora. It’s an ancient West African instrument – very beautiful sounding – and I thought that, coupled with his voice, would almost represent their internal feelings which weren’t being spoken outwardly. It was amazing just to work with him alone; he’s the 75th generation of kora players from that part of the world. A lot of history there.
MRH: I love the richness of the percussion which sounds like a blending of Indian and African. How did you select the specific instruments, and figure out how to blend them so well?
IA: There isn’t actually any Indian percussion in there. It’s all African and North African, and the darbuka was played live by a percussionist friend of mine, because it’s just got this amazing sound. It’s rhythmic and it’s used in a couple of scenes, most notably where he’s fixing the car and trying to get away from the village. It was just a case of experimenting and seeing what worked and what didn’t work.
The new thing I introduced in The Dead was the Indian flute. Most of the flutes in the film are played on an Indian flute in an Indian scale, and form my point of view. I suppose it’s something from my inherent culture, but it was something that still conveyed those universal feelings. For me that was quite an interesting instrument to use in the context of being in Africa, and I think it still works.
MRH: For myself, one of the most impressive cues is the “End Credits,” because at one point there’s this rippling mass of percussion.
IA: Thanks very much. I really appreciate that. I really enjoyed composing that. It was very much like a dance track. Again, I just experimented. I kind of visualized it. I knew how I wanted it to sound and I knew Saba’s vocals would be riding over it. Then I got Sass Hoory the percussionist down, and we just tried a few things out. There was a blend of sampled African instruments in there and the live darbuka, but I really wanted to get that kind of adventurous feeling.
MRH: When you’re recording or when your composing the music, is there any kind of forethought you have to put into it when you’re doing a 5.1 mix compared to a stereo mix?
AI: It is a question I ask right at the beginning, but for this film they were all stereo stems, and their placement were then utilized in the final 5.1 sound mix.
MRH: I think this is your most high-profile film. What other genres would you like to tackle?
IA: The great thing about being a musician, and the great thing about working on film scores, is that you have the potential of working in different genres and working with different musicians, and I always find I’m learning something about myself, and those around me, and through the musicians I work with.
I would love to do something epic and adventurous, like a Clash of the Titans kind of thing, and try and do something unique and different with that. My next film – Transfer at Aachen – will be a thriller, so that will be something of a new challenge as well.
KQEK.com would like to thank Imran Ahmad for discussing his latest score, and Mikael Carlsson at MovieScore Media for facilitating this interview.
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This interview © 2012 by Mark R. Hasan