The icon that inspired the Bauhaus song ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’
Today, August 16, marks the 65th anniversary of the death of one of the most recognizable actors to ever grace the screen. On that day, in 1956, Bela Lugosi died at the age of 73. One of the most iconic actors to have been a part of Hollywood’s ‘golden age’, Lugosi’s life could be turned into a movie in its own right. His most famous role is arguably his sinister take on the despicable but complex Count Dracula in the 1931 film, Dracula. The monochrome scene of him walking down the stairs to greet Jonathan Harker is one of the most recognizable ever shot. The smirk on his face when he said, “Welcome to you,” has been etched into the collective mind forever.
Its overtly Gothic approach to Count Dracula stands out as the best adaptation as it is closest to the source material. Due to its Hungarian origin, Lugosi’s accent delivers the count’s lines viciously, and it feels natural rather than forced. Additionally, his portrayal of the vampiric master exists at the center of the Venn diagram which includes countless adaptations of Bram Stoker’s 1987 novel, The Gothic Clip, Dracula. His point of view is iconic as it is effortless, not overly sexualized like that of Gary Oldman in the 1992s. Bram Stoker’s Dracula or the overly complicated playfulness inherent in the recent BBC adaptation.
Lugosi is up there with Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee. In fact, the latter will succeed Lugosi as Dracula in the Horror hammer films, from 1958. Since its release, Lugosi’s portrayal has inspired countless references across the spectrum of popular culture. His image has even endured through the works of art of others. Even the mastermind of pop art, Andy Warhol, was touched by Lugosi. The American artist’s 1963 silkscreen print ‘The Kiss’ depicts the scene from Dracula where the Earl is about to bite the neck of the film’s main lady, Helen Chandler, portraying the doomed Mina Harker.
In fact, even the heroes of “British Invasion” The Kinks would not escape Lugosi’s specter. His star on the illustrious Hollywood Walk of Fame is mentioned in their soft-rock track ‘Celluloid Heroes’, from their 1972 album, the aptly named, Everyone is in the Show-Biz.
However, the most definitive example of Lugosi influence came on August 6, 1979. The debut single from the legendary British post-punk Bauhaus, ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’, would change the face of music forever. Widely hailed as the first goth-rock record, it has been a staple of our death clubs since its release.
Lasting over nine minutes, the Gothic classic is actually steeped in irony. Although they derive their name from the death of the titular hero onscreen, the song’s composition was actually inspired by perhaps the least gothic genre of music in the world; reggae. Seeing the words reggae and gothic-rock in the same sentence automatically baffles the brain. It’s a marriage that shouldn’t work on paper, but it does.
In 2018, Bauhaus bassist David J revealed: “We were very influenced by reggae, especially dub. I mean, basically Bela was our take on dub. This revelation is made less shocking when we note that reggae and goth are at the heart of the concern to overturn the status quo and forge a course of their own.
The dark, atmospheric room is unmatched in its sonic embodiment of the Earl. The words of singer Pete Murphy are unforgettable. The first verse openly refers to the star’s death and the inherent darkness of her character: “Bela Lugosi is dead / The bats have left the bell tower / The victims have been bled / The red velvet lines the black box” . In fact, the red velvet discussion can be interpreted as Murphy’s recognition of the underlying sexual stream of Dracula.
The song is also hailed as a critical in the development of goth-rock for the reason that it influenced two of the greatest gothic groups we know today. While Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Cure were very active and released records in 1979; it was only with the advent of the Bauhaus and the release of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” that the transition from post-punk to full-fledged Goth was made.
In 2011, Alex Petridis praised this sentiment by the Guardian: “’Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ would have been just another post-punk experiment without the lyrics, which depicted the Dracula star’s funeral, with bats diving and virgin brides parading past his coffin. The effect was so overwhelmingly theatrical that dozens of bands formed in its wake. So much so, in fact, that goth quickly became a very codified musical genre.
Much like its titular actor, the song has endured and has since been covered by so many of our favorite artists, inside and outside of the goth realm. These include Nine Inch Nails, Chris Cornell, Massive Attack, Chvrches, and The Damned, to name a few. Much like the Bauhaus, the ancestor of goth-rock will continue to be spun by our Gothic peers for as long as they exist. Considering the annual advent of black-clad hordes descending on the British seaside town of Whitby, where Dracula was written, this trend shows no signs of slowing down.
So on the anniversary of Bela Lugosi’s death, why not revisit this Gothic masterpiece?
Listen to ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’, below.