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 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’s “Goth 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.
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.