Beyond Film #4 – “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus

19 April 2010 at 21:30 (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

In spite of authoring a blog called “Dark Room,” I’ve never considered myself a “goth chick” in the least, but ever since seeing The Hunger a couple of years ago, I’ve found “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” which plays over the opening sequence, how shall I say it, infectious?

The Bauhaus track supposedly christened the post-punk genre of “gothic rock.” Of course, such a clear origin story is ripe for nit picking–what about the darker tunes of Joy Division or the theatrics of The Damned?

At the same time, you couldn’t pick a better tune to spin as the first of your genre. It has an unaffected rawness to it, which makes sense given the band’s lack of recording experience at the time. It begins with faint percussion before the bassist overlays a simple line. Then comes the guitar, the creepiest element of the the song with its echoey reverb. What happens next is best described by the AllMusic.com song review:

The ingredients merge, but the curtain is still rising; it takes minutes before Peter Murphy, his voice a deep, sepulchral rumble, is cued to take the stage, and minutes more before there’s even a hint that the tension might be relieved, as the song — such an inappropriate word — moves towards its melody. It’s relentless, one of those so-scarce moments when performer, performance, mood, and music are so expertly blended that the actual components are absolutely inextricable. Guitars become creaking coffin lids, the bass becomes footfalls in a darkened corridor above, the drum is the flapping of a myriad of bat wings, and Murphy — Murphy is the count, dead, undead.

The last line of the quote alludes to the lyrics, which prove fascinating in and of themselves. As much as the song can be described as “post-punk,” it could also be labeled post-modern due to its referentiality. Also interesting: the fact that the lyrics speak of Bela Lugosi the performer rather than Dracula the character. One might read this conflation as a commentary on the way in which Lugosi’s star persona became bigger than the man himself. In other words, Bela Lugosi, like Dracula, remains undead as a kind of cinematic ghost, doomed to continually feast upon flesh for audiences in homes and theaters everywhere.

The original cover for the for the Bauhaus 12" of "Bela Lugosi's Dead." Like the song itself, the cover references cinematic horror with it's use of a still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Image taken from wiels.com.

The song’s invocation of horror cinema may be part of the reason it continues to crop up in film and television with movies like The Hunger exploiting its atmospheric qualities.

As much as the song has come to embody goth, it’s also been used to take the genre to task for its excesses. Saturday Night Live’sGoth Talk” sketch, for example, used it as a kind of short-hand to parody the goth subculture. The sketches featured two white, suburban teenagers in full goth-garb performing mock funerals (as in this sketch) and other ceremonies. The sketches consistently undermine the seriousness of these performances by reminding viewers of the white, middle-class privilege that makes such goth antics possible for so many. Unfortunately, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” features prominently in these sketches, becoming a part of the theatrics that the sketch parodies as inauthentic.

Molly Shannon and Chris Kattan in the "Goth Talk" sketch from SNL. Image from morethings.com.

Say what you want about goth subculture (I neither defend it nor condemn it), but “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” does not deserve this bad rap. Impressively, it holds up thirty years after the fact in spite of how dated goth culture has become. Few songs achieve such timelessness while at the same time epitomizing such an outrageous subculture. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” like its title subject persists undead.

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3 Comments

  1. Alyx Vesey said,

    I’ll really have to watch The Hunger now! This reminds me that I first heard Siouxsie and the Banshees when I saw Batman Returns. I found out about Bauhaus through Love and Rockets, who was comprised of some former members and had the minor hit “So Alive.” I confess I don’t know much about Bauhaus, so this was great to read.

    In addition, I thought of you when I was doing a little Wiki digging on Julee Cruise, who sang “Mysteries of Love” in Blue Velvet and the theme to Twin Peaks. Apparently, David Lynch originally wanted This Mortal Coil’s goth cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song of the Siren” but couldn’t afford it. Thus, composer Angelo Badalamenti ended up creating something of a soundalike for the movie.

    Also, have you ever listened to Swans? They weren’t goth and I don’t think their music was used in any movies, but their early stuff takes the nihilism of goth to . . . an extreme. Pretty punishing stuff.

    I have to admit that I actually like the “Goth Talk” sketches quite a bit and may need to rewatch them. I remember they were the ones I anticipated in high school, as my friends and I were big SNL fans. I’m in the minority here, but I kinda wanted them to get a spin-off movie like Wayne’s World, which also featured suburban public access TV talent and spoofed a specific rock subculture.

    It was always interesting to me that Azrael Abyss (given name: Todd) worked at a Cinnabon and had a jock older brother who would always crash in on their tapings. It sent up the white suburban underpinings of the subculture, but I never felt that it was particularly mean about it. I would also extend this to South Park’s treatment of the goth kids, who are made light of but also given some characterization (possibly because co-creator Trey Parker was a big fan of the Cure growing up). For all their seriousness and affectation, I really liked Azrael and Cerce Nightshade and felt like I understood what (and where) they were rebelling. Hmmm. Interesting!

  2. c8ic8 said,

    I definitely appreciate the parody at work in “Goth Talk.” It calls attention to the performative nature of subcultural practices and the ways in which such performances can be in tension with the privileges ascribed to its members. I also agree that in spite of the silliness of Azrael and Cerce, they are likeable characters with an understandable disdain for their sunny, suburban setting.

    As always, thanks for all the suggestions and reflections! They’re much appreciated!

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