Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The Disc Jockey As Greek Chorus

The radio DJ in a film can act like a narrator, transferring action from one locale to another. The best comment on the action, operating like a Greek chorus. They’re a great plot device for a writer or director, as they can communicate information to characters who couldn’t possibly know otherwise, operating as a witty deus ex machina. We’re going to creep in on some very necessary characters from genre film

Stevie Wayne, The Fog

In John Carpenter’s 1980 ghostly revenge film, The Fog, Adrienne Barbeau plays Stevie Wayne, the only person at Antonio Bay’s KAB Radio 1340, broadcasting from a lighthouse which overlooks the entire bay. Throughout the film, she communicates and delivers news to the residents of the California coastal town, with a perspective almost entirely aural.

However, as the film goes along, that perspective becomes one that is also visual, with the sweeping view of Antonio Bay becoming a literal lifesaver when she describes the path of the fog moving through the town as Jamie Lee Curtis’ Elizabeth Solley and Tom Atkins’ Nick Castle drive like mad through the town to avoid it:

“The fog is moving inland, away from the beach, towards Antonio Bay. It’s by the armoury. I can’t remember the name of it. I think it’s Chestnut. It’s moving faster now, up Regent Avenue, up to the end of Smallhouse Road. It’s just hitting the outskirts of town. Broad Street. Clay Street. It’s moving down Tenth Street.

Get inside and lock your doors. Close your windows. There’s something in the fog.

If you’re on the south side of town, go north. Stay away from the fog.

Richardsville Pike up to Beacon Hill is the only clear road. Up to the church. If you can get out of town, get to the old church. Now the junction at 101 is cut off. If you can get out of town, get to the old church. It’s the only place left to go. Get to the old church on Beacon Hill.”

It’s a standout scene in an already intense movie, and the way in which Carpenter switches back and forth between Wayne in the lighthouse, pacing around and frantically communicating over the air — with no idea as to whether or not anyone is even hearing her — and Solley and Castle frantically swerving through town in Castle’s pickup.

It’s doubly effective, because even though Wayne’s not aware of it, her son Andy is in the pickup with Castle and Solley, meaning that her voice is helping to save her own. By the time they reach the old church, you’re almost panting as a viewer, and beyond relieved once they’ve barricaded themselves inside.

Per The Fog’s IMDB trivia page, “Adrienne Barbeau patterned her voice after Alison Steele, who was a female disc jockey from the 1960s who was known as the Nightbird,” and “[j]azz music was used for Stevie Wayne’s radio station because it was more affordable than rock music.”

Barbeau would go on to revisit the role (in a fashion) some 35 years later in Tales of Halloween, wherein she narrates the connections between the ten different shorts which make up the anthology film. It’s a clever nod to a classic.

Super Soul, Vanishing Point

Cleavon Little should’ve been a massive star. Seriously. He really deserved better than the slight roles he was offered post-Blazing Saddles, like principal Daddy-O in Surf II or Fletch Lives’ Calculous Entropy. Given that there’s so little dialogue over the course of Richard C. Sarafian’s 1971 film Vanishing Point, Super Soul is the voice of Kowalski’s drive from Denver to San Francisco. KOW 980’s music is the soundtrack to that journey, providing the story even when you’re just sort of living with the experience.

“And there goes the Challenger, being chased by the blue, blue meanies on wheels. The vicious traffic squad cars are after our lone driver, the last American hero, the electric centaur, the, the demi-god, the super driver of the golden west! Two nasty Nazi cars are close behind the beautiful lone driver. The police numbers are gettin’ closer, closer, closer to our soul hero, in his soul mobile, yeah baby!”

Much has been made over the years about how Super Soul seems omniscient, but if you’ve ever watched Vanishing Point at all, you know that Nevada troopers Charlie and Collins explain it at one point:

Charlie: Where the hell he get so much information?

Collins: Same place as you do, Charlie.

Charlie: You mean from our own frequency?

Collins: That’s right.

Ta-da. They even show the DJ and his producer listening in pretty early after the telex comes into the station about Kowalski. Still, given that Super Souls’ couching everything in preacher’s delivery and rhetoric, “As far as the law’s concerned, he’s clean as Kleenex,” as Collins says. Still, Super Soul speaking directly to Kowalski over the airwaves before the driver heads off into the desert is absolute brilliance.

Blue Heart, Zombi 3

Blind DJ with semi-omniscient powers? This sounds familiar.

Blue Heart is the DJ for the radio station seemingly every character listens to over the course of the 1988 Bruno Mattei/Lucio Fulci zombie gorefest Zombi 3 and he is basically Super Soul. As is ably pointed out in Ken Begg’s 2012 Jabootu recap of Zombi 3, the film’s “most hilariously obscure piece of pilfering” is just one of the great things about how Mattei and Fragasso make movies; specifically, that they probably never got bothered with questions like, “Where do you get your ideas?”

Even the Blue Heart broadcasts seem to be swiped from other films. The most notable bit from the DJ, wherein he explicitly spells out what’s going on is awfully similar to an equally explicative bit from the original George Romero Night of the Living Dead:

“There is a wave of incredible violence sweeping the country. Murders, rape, whole families wiped out in their homes. Men, women, and children of all ages are sharing the same fate. The dead are rising up again and murdering their own friends and relatives, but then they eat the bodies. The military authorities assure us that the situation is under control.”

That’s Zombi 3. Here’s the OG NOTLD bit:

“There is an epidemic of mass murder being committed by a virtual army of unidentified assassins. The murders are taking place in villages and cities, in rural homes and suburbs with no apparent pattern nor reason for the slayings. It seems to be a sudden general explosion of mass homicide. We have some descriptions of the assassins. Eyewitnesses say they are ordinary-looking people. Some say they appear to be in a kind of trance. Others describe them as being misshapen monsters. At this point, there’s no really authentic way for us to say who or what to look for and guard yourself against. Reaction of law enforcement officials is one of complete bewilderment at this hour. Police and sheriff’s deputies and emergency ambulances are literally deluded with calls for help. The scene can be best described as mayhem.”

You know what’s really funny about all of this stealing, but especially the Blue Heart/Super Soul comparison? Kenny, Zombi 3’s male protagonist, is played by Deran Sarafian, who is the son of Vanishing Point’s director. Yup. That’s how blatant the swipe is: whomever came up with it didn’t even bother to hide it when the son of the director of the movie from which you’re stealing comes on board.

If you get the green edition of We Release Whatever the Fuck We Want’s Zombi 3 vinyl release, you not only get Stefano Mainetti’s complete score, but the b-side features all of Blue Heart’s radio bits, allowing the listener to figure out some extra plot details; essentially, he sees this as just another aspect of the chemicals polluting the environment. It lends Zombi 3 an ecological edge, which makes the film almost more of a supernatural horror than the otherwise pure “science gone wrong theme” it might’ve had otherwise.

Quotes like, “You know all about that hole in the ozone layer caused by hairsprays and deodorants, so why do you people keep on buyin’ that stuff?” really drive the point home, to which one of the characters even refer to as “ecological bullshit” that has “nothing to do with me.” Were that it were true, man … maybe those Greenpeace people are right, because you are definitely on the path to “total extinction.”

It’s all revealed at the end, when Blue Heart takes off his sunglasses and is shown to be a zombie, himself, dedicating his broadcast to “all the undead around the world.”

D.J., The Warriors

In Walter Hill’s 1979 film, The Warriors, Lynne Thigpen — who’d later go on to greater fame as The Chief on Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? — plays a character known only as D.J., who broadcasts from an unknown location, over an unknown radio station. Much like the other characters we’ve looked at, she’s very much helping move along the plot.

However, it seems that she’s also being mostly used as a transfer of information from one gang to another. The dedication of “Nowhere to Run” from the Gramercy Riffs to the Warriors is quite salty:

“All right now, for all you boppers out there in the big city, all you street people with an ear for the action, I’ve been asked to relay a request from the Grammercy Riffs. It’s a special for the Warriors, that real live bunch from Coney, and I do mean the Warriors. Here’s a hit with them in mind.”

D.J. seems to be the narrator of the Warriors’ journey from the Bronx back to Coney Island, letting all the boppers out there know where the hunted gang is and how they’re doing. The idea that she’s possibly affiliated with the Riffs is plausible, since they’re the ones who put out the bounty on the Warriors after the gang is framed for Cyrus’ murder by Luther and the Rogues.

After the Warriors scrap with the Turnbull AC’s, D.J. is on the air to let everyone know the AC’s missed their chance, and when the Baseball Furies make an error, D.J. lets listeners know that “our friends are on second base and trying to make it all the way home.” It’s never stated as to where she’s getting her information, but given the network of snitches and informants seen throughout The Warriors, it’s safe to say that her information is less supernatural than Super Soul.

She ends her broadcast and the film with an apology and a dedication, and Joe Walsh’s “In the City” plays as the credits roll. The lyrics, co-written by Walsh and the film’s composer, Barry De Vorzon, sum up the Warriors’ plight quite perfectly:

It’s survival in the city

When you live from day to day

City streets don’t have much pity

When you’re down, that’s where you’ll stay.”

K-Billy DJ, Reservoir Dogs

In Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 film, Reservoir Dogs, Steven Wright doesn’t necessarily provide any of the things we’ve discussed  (e.g. commenting on the action or providing information to other characters) but his dry, deadpan delivery over the airwaves offers the occasional respite from the otherwise intense film on display.

K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies Weekend is the soundtrack for nearly every major setpiece in the film, from the opening credits, where the gang strolls down the street to the George Baker Selection’s “Little Green Bag,” to “Stuck in the Middle with You, the “Dylan-esque pop bubblegum favorite from April of 1974” by Stealer’s Wheel, which plays over the scene where Mr. Blonde tortures Marvin nash with a straight razor and gasoline.

“The station where the ‘70s survived” even provides a couple of scenes’ dialogue, especially the diner scene, wherein the crew of would-be heisters discuss the plot of “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” and interpret “Like A Virgin.” You can hear pretty much every instance of Wright’s dialogue on the soundtrack release, which is pretty much essential.

Mister Señor Love Daddy, Do the Right Thing

I’m not even going to touch this one. While Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Spike Lee’s 1989 movie is iconic, Ashley Clarke wrote a piece for The Guardian in 2014 that does a far better job of summing up Jackson’s role than I ever could.

“Why I’d like to be … Samuel L Jackson in Do The Right Thing” is a piece which meditates on the film itself, the inextricable link of music and the film’s storyline, and just absolutely kills it in terms of vouching for the importance of Mister Señor Love Daddy. To whit:

“Just imagine being in the centre of that sun-drenched Brooklyn block, with all those beautiful brownstones, irrepressible, entertaining characters, and an inexhaustible collection of classic vinyl at your disposal.”

Yeah. I think I can. Go read Clarke’s piece.

Nick Spacek

Nick Spacek

Nick Spacek writes about films scores in his monthly OST column for Starburst Magazine (http://www.starburstmagazine.com), and can be found talking about movie soundtracks via the From & Inspired By podcast (http:///www.fromandinspiredby.com). He was once a punk, but realized you can't be hardcore and use the word "adorable" as often as he does.
Nick Spacek
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