35 Greatest Horror Soundtracks: Modern Gatekeepers Choose – Rolling Stone
Home Music Music Lists

35 Greatest Horror Soundtracks: Modern Masters, Gatekeepers Choose

Composers, reissue-labels and synth-savvy musicians pick best in fright

Beyond being dark and diverse mood-setters for thriller nights, horror film soundtracks have quietly changed the world like a virus. They’ve established and maintained a teeming culture around analog synthesizers, provided generations with dissonant gateways into the heady worlds of 20th century composition and musique concrète and influenced bands like Portishead, Boards of Canada and Animal Collective. More recently, they’ve become objets d’art thanks to a slew of reissue labels repressing them on colorful vinyl underneath eye-popping sleeve designs. To celebrate the renewed interest, we’ve compiled the 35 greatest soundtracks of all time as chosen by an esteemed panel of 14 reissue record label owners and indebted musicians.

The Panel:

Geoff Barrow (Portishead; Invada Records)
Kevin Bergeron (Waxwork Records)
Kyle Dixon, Mark Donica, Adam Jones and Michael Stein (Survive; Stranger Things)
Ryan Graveface (Black Moth Super Rainbow, Casket Girls; Terror Vision Records and Video)
Spencer Hickman (Death Waltz Recording Company & Mondo)
Steve Moore (Zombi; composer, The Guest)
Mike Patton (Faith No More, Fantômas; composer, The Place Beyond the Pines)
Sebastiaan Putseys (One Way Static Records)
Jeremy Schmidt (Black Mountain, Sinoia Caves; composer, Beyond the Black Rainbow)
Jonathan Snipes (Clipping.; composer Room 237, Rebirth)
Adrian Younge (composer, Luke Cage, Black Dynamite)


‘Xtro’ (Harry Bromley Davenport, 1983)

Director Harry Bromley Davenport once described his 1983 sci-fi shocker Xtro as "an extraordinary mess," an assessment that the film's many critics would probably view as immodestly generous. Far more coherent than the film itself is its soundtrack, which was also penned and recorded by Bromley Davenport. Whether motivated by budgetary constraints, an admiration for John Carpenter's soundtrack work or both, Bromley Davenport – a trained classical pianist – went the minimalist analog synth route, mixing haunting melodies with whirring electronic effects and woozy waltzes. Soundtrack collectors and synth freaks alike willingly fork over big bucks for copies of the original.


‘Zombi 2’ (Fabio Frizzi, 1979)

This sort-of sequel to the Italian release of Dawn of the Dead includes what may be the most memorable theme song from synth-horror master and frequent Lucio Fulci collaborator Fabio Frizzi – a dark electronic plod that makes Goblin seem light-hearted. But the soundtrack also spins in wild directions: noisy electronic gulps, goofy exotica, muffled disco, Reich-ian marimba, lots of frantic drumming and Mellotron moans that he calls "sound of the dead." "Lucio had a special relationship with music," Frizzi says in the liner notes to the Death Waltz/Mondo reissue. "He had a clear idea of what he wanted and a great way of walking me through it, something that every director should be able to do. He would explain to me what he wanted, telling me scene by scene how the music was going to support the picture. It was with Zombi 2 that I enjoyed a more direct and exclusive relationship with Lucio for the first time."


‘C.H.U.D.’ (Martin Cooper and David Hughes, 1984)

Composed by Martin Cooper (the keyboardist from hit-making New Wave romantics Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark) and David Hughes (an ex-keyboardist from the same), the C.H.U.D. soundtrack teams its titular Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers with claustrophobic synth sounds that are dreamy, ominous and occasionally a little like Art of Noise. The pair spent time in the early Eighties cooking up synth instrumentals and soon filled Warner Bros.' need for synth soundtrack work in the post-Chariots of Fire landscape. Recorded with an Emulator sampler "borrowed" from OMD and a Roland SH1, the sound was home-brewed. "David and I told [producer Andrew Bonime] we had to record the film in Liverpool with our own equipment, so the poor fella had to endure a number of trips out to the rough areas of the city suburbs, as the studio was situated on the fringes of a notorious housing estate," said Cooper in the liner notes to the Waxwork release. "We were also working the night shift as New Order were usually there in the day working on some of their classics."


‘Nightmare City’ (Stelvio Cipriani, 1980)

Nothing about Umberto Lenzi's Nightmare City makes much sense, from the lack of a consistent logic (its "zombies" run, wield weapons and sometimes look pretty normal), to its absurd story (men and women are exposed to radiation on an airplane and come out ready to kill) to its tendency to take the scenic route towards plot. Italian composer Stelvio Cipriani, also responsible for the eerie lounge jazz of Mario Bava's Bay of Blood, offers up a score as schizophrenic as the film, including Dracula disco ("Metropolis"), sad-boy beach balladry ("Solitude") and on highlight, "Sustain," a back-and-forth between coked-out synths and saxophone that sounds like a Mike Post TV theme


‘Near Dark’ (Tangerine Dream, 1987)

Few synthesizer artists picked up Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" gauntlet to reimagine the Hollywood score with the gusto of Tangerine Dream, starting with William Friedkin's 1977 thriller Sorcerer, hitting deep stride on the classic 1981 soundtrack to Michael Mann's Thief, and likely best recognized for the non-Bob Seger music of Tom Cruise's debut, Risky Business. Edgar Froese, Christopher Franke and a long list of sidemen created the period film noir soundscape – sexy and moody, energetic but deeply controlled, contemporary yet instantly classic. The score to this Kathryn Bigelow-directed teenage vampire flick that had the commercial misfortune to be released in the slipstream of the inferior The Lost Boys, came at the end of their Eighties high-point (Franke quit soon thereafter). Near Dark is moody, digital, synth-heavy (though hardly exclusive) music, a diverse set of compositions that serve the scenes while also establishing their own personalities. A good-time track that sounds like an instrumental from Glen Frey's Miami Vice period ("Caleb's Blues") exists near a thorny piece of treated-guitar-plus-sequencer film music ("Rain in the Third House") and a brooding, lightly techno-fied piece of Carpenter-like ambiance ("Resurrection 1"). 


‘Hellraiser’ (Christopher Young, 1987)

Though he'd already done the soundtracks for such Eighties slasher fare as The Dorm That Dripped Blood, Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge and Trick or Treat, Christopher Young firmly established himself as a top-shelf horror composer in 1987 with his symphonic score for Clive Barker's directorial debut. Barker had originally engaged British industrial experimentalists Coil to do the film's soundtrack, but Young stepped in when the duo's work was deemed too edgy by the film's backers. Loaded with sinister strings, foreboding brass, heavily echoed grand piano and unexpected stabs of dissonance, Young's atmospheric score slowly builds in tone from darkly romantic fantasy to claustrophobic nightmare – then concludes by returning to its dreamy beginnings.


‘Chopping Mall’ (Chuck Cirino, 1986)

Though the Eighties were bleeding with no-budget synth scores to B-movies, Chuck Cirino's jittery, propulsive neon soundtrack to a robot-led mall massacre stands exploding-head and shoulders over most. "I scored Chopping Mall in the basement of Shadoe Stevens' DJ recording studio," says Cirino in the liner notes to the Waxwork release. "At the time I was working for Shadoe directing the Federated Group TV commercials. So, when [director] Jim Wynorski asked me to score Chopping Mall, I took three weeks off from directing and plowed forward recording robot music." 


‘Beyond the Black Rainbow’ (Sinoia Caves, 2010)

For the sci-fi thriller set in 1983, Sinoia Caves, the solo project of Black Mountain keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt, reverently reaches back to the era's icons: It's a sleek, spare and spacey affair deeply influenced by John Carpenter, Giorgio Moroder and Tangerine Dream. Recorded primarily with analog synths (as well as a Mellotron, which features prominently on the soundtrack's "flashback" piece, the majestic, Pink Floyd-ian "1966 – Let the New Age of Enlightenment Begin"), Schmidt's compositions are filled with both the thrilling promise of future and the ominous threat of science. "Technically speaking, the entire BTBR enterprise probably could have been identically conceived in the year that it actually takes place, in 1983," Schmidt told Noisey. "I was using old analogue synthesizer gear that dates from right around then. … These tend to be the voices that simply won't vacate my psyche, whether they were, in fact, apropos to the endeavor or otherwise!"


‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell, 1974)

Grimy, outlaw country music spliced with gnarly musique concrète, the score or really, the soundscape to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre sits up there with Eraserhead as a rare moment where music, sound effects and other diagetic sound become indistinguishable. Metal scrapes howl like a free-jazz sax solo, rhythmic snaps and crackles recall fevered percussion and whirls of sounds caked with effects are redolent of the dubbiest of dub reggae. Constructed by Wayne Bell and director Tobe Hooper, it is background noise turned avant-garde soundtrack, foley work gone too far. A huge influence on bands like Animal Collective and Wolf Eyes, it's one of many expertly frightening elements that make The Texas Chainsaw Massacre so singularly scary.


‘Day of the Dead’ (John Harrison, 1985)

Threading lithe synthesizer work around chintzy faux-Carribean vibes and steely electronica, composer John Harrison – who by the way, played the zombie who gets a screwdriver in his ear – captures the tonal chaos of George Romero's military industrial complex spleen-vent, not to mention the tension between the Reagan Eighties' cheery exterior and its cruel underbelly. Day of the Dead is a movie not too interested in "subtlety" or "tonal consistency" and Harrison's score follows: There's the sneaking nervous theme, the island vibes atop bassy gloom and the baffling ballads of Sputzy Sparacino ("The World Inside Your Eyes") which sound like Frank Stallone doing Lou Gramm doing Luther Vandross. "While the music in Day of the Dead closely follows the action … John takes a slight left turn and meanders along a stylistic path that is completely his own," says Romero in the liner notes to the Waxwork reissue. "His score is just as emotionally evocative as one of those [Turner Classic Movies] oldies, just as mysteriously dark when it needs to be, just as bombastic when a startle is wanted … yet there's an overtone of hope … an odd sort of happiness … a calypso voice that advises us "don't worry, be happy" … even in the face of impending doom. … I play it in my car when I'm drivin' around. To me it's 'easy listening.'"


‘Under the Skin’ (Mica Levi, 2013)

One of the weirder movies starring Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin was made by Jonathan Glazer, who in addition to feature films (including Sexy Beast) had directed music videos for Radiohead, Massive Attack and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. For the soundtrack to a mood piece in which alien Johansson lures would-be lotharios to an untimely demise, he turned to Mica Levi, mastermind of U.K. indie-rock upstart Micachu and the Shapes. Her sound in that guise was twitchy and rhythmic and hand-forged, but for Under the Skin she showed off a more industrial and sketchily symphonic side, influenced by composers like Krzysztof Penderecki and Iannis Xenakis. "It does sound creepy, but we were going for sexy," Levi wrote in The Guardian after the fact. In the same remembrance: "If your lifeforce is being distilled by an alien, it's not necessarily going to sound very nice. It's supposed to be physical, alarming, hot."


‘The Boogeyman’ (Tim Krog, 1980)

Pitched somewhere between Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" (as used in The Exorcist) and John Carpenter's score for Halloween, Tim Krog's eerie synth soundtrack for The Boogeyman lent Ulli Lommel's grimy 1980 supernatural slasher flick a much-needed element of class. Recorded by Krog and the Synthe-Sound-Trax duo using various analog synthesizers (and utilizing some nifty digital delay and reversed-tape effects), Krog's minimalist-yet-melodic score is a low-key classic.


‘A Clockwork Orange’ (Wendy Carlos & Rachel Elkind, Ludwig von Beethoven, et al. 1972)

Stanley Kubrick's lurid 1971 realization of Anthony Burgess's provocative 1962 novel about a government willing to embrace mind control to rewire its ultraviolent teen gangs, was anything but a conventional film – so naturally, it required an adventurous score. What the synthesizer pioneer Wendy Carlos created with collaborator and producer Rachel Elkind fit the super-stylized film precisely: Alongside excerpts of banal pop and the classical music Burgess's milk-doped fiends favor (Beethoven and Rossini most notably), Carlos's groundbreaking electronic distortions eerily echoed the film's (and novel's) theme: the perversion of organic life into mechanical simulacra. It's Elkind's voice you hear on Carlos's triumphal arrangement of the jovial march from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony – reportedly the first-ever use of the Vocoder keyboard on record.


‘The Wicker Man’ (Paul Giovanni and Magnet, 1973)

One of the rare horror films to utilize songs as major components of its narrative, Robin Hardy's 1973 classic The Wicker Man features a soundtrack that might easily be mistaken for a charming collection of traditional British folk ballads, jigs, reels, nursery rhymes and drinking songs. It's only when heard within the context of the film – which is set on a fictional, pagan-populated island off the western coast of Scotland – that the ancient-sounding songs, penned for the film by New York playwright and songwriter Paul Giovanni and recorded with the band Magnet, take on a darker, more insidious hue. "On one occasion, Paul suggested we all smoke dope," Gary Carpenter of Magnet told The Guardian. "I'd never tried it; we spent so much time on the floor laughing that nobody could play their instruments." Almost as influential as the film itself, the Wicker Man soundtrack has inspired many covers over the years – especially the erotic "Willow's Song," which has been recorded by Isobell Campell, Doves, the Sneaker Pimps and many others.


‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ (Ennio Morricone, 1977)

Chances are you don't recall a single scene from the sequel to William Friedkin's domestic horror classic The Exorcist. With neither Friedkin nor original writer William Peter Blatty onboard, and Linda Blair reprising her role as Regan MacNeil but refusing to don demon paint again, new director John Boorman had his work cut out for him. A box office disaster that's regarded as one of the worst films of all time, its lone saving grace is that they budgeted for Ennio Morricone. In one of his first forays into big budget Hollywood, the Maestro handed in one of his weirdest, eeriest scores. There's the Afro-Cuban tribal thunder of "Pazuzu," the prog-rock stomp of "Magic and Ecstasy" as well as the ethereal voice and orchestra of "Regan's Theme (Floating Sound)," which Morricone would revisit nearly 40 years later for Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight. "Night Flight" – a mash-up of ritualistic Haitian drumming, strings, moaning and a children's choir – might sound cluttered on paper, but Morricone blends it into a horror film confection of the skin-prickling and sublime.


‘Maniac’ (Jay Chattaway, 1981)

The soundtrack to William Lustig's skeezy serial killer flick sits somewhere between new age and no wave. Pleasant sounds abound – some slick slide bass on the main theme song, crestfallen flutes throughout – but they're interrupted or overpowered by blasts of noise, discordant plucks of strings and slurping synthesizers. "Hooker's Heartbeat," is an exponential piling of electronic buzz like the peak part of the Stranger Things theme looped over and over and over. Chilling, desperate music that scalp-collecting antagonist Frank Zito could love.


‘Maniac’ (Rob, 2012)

Coming from the same French scene that spawned bands like Daft Punk and Air, of course Robin "Rob" Coudert paints with a bigger, bolder, more romantic brush than most. For the 2012 reboot of slasher-era classic Maniac, Coudert, a touring keyboardist for Phoenix, eschewed the gritty, noisy vibe of that creeped throughout the low-budget 1981 original. Instead this soundtrack takes the synthesizer artists that influenced him (John Carpenter, Goblin, Giorgio Moroder) and turns them into enormous gushes of melancholy sound. "I love the way [those artists'] synthesizers are used to make very sentimental music, not just something that's just superficially techno or electronic," Coudert told Complex. "I'm not especially a horror movie fan … With Maniac, I wasn't intrigued by it because it was a horror film, but because there was so much freedom to be creative. There weren't any limits to how much emotion I could put into the music – they kept asking me for power, and more emotion. Everything was more and more."


‘Videodrome’ (Howard Shore, 1983)

As seductive as it is deeply, deeply creepy, David Cronenberg's 1983 Videodrome proposed a media-saturated conspiracy in which sinister forces use exploitative television broadcasts as a means of mind control and mass-scale social engineering. From the moment that James Woods (as television station president Max Renn) sets eyes on the plotless TV broadcast for which the film is named, essentially nothing onscreen can be interpreted as entirely real. Fittingly, Howard Shore's ingenious score – his third for Cronenberg – similar blurs reality and facsimile: Shore composed moody episodes for a conventional acoustic string orchestra, but also programmed the music into a digital sampling keyboard, then recorded both sources in tandem and mixed them in a manner meant to obscure which was which.