Essays · Movies

The Weird and Wild History of Zack Snyder’s Needle Drops

From “Down With The Sickness” to “Zombie,” Snyder is the king of not-so-subtle musical cues.
Zack Snyder Watchmen
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on July 10th, 2021

Zack Snyder is a king of excess with such a distinct filmmaking style that you could spot one of his movies from a mile away. His visuals rely on bright contrasting colors, slo-mo fight sequences, and huge action set pieces that, regardless of the film’s quality, are quite impressive. Another key component of a Snyder movie is the needle drop, which he employs to make his big action scenes more effective. 

He doesn’t typically use the original version of the song, though. Snyder really loves covers. While this may have started due to the lower cost of licensing the redo, they’ve become such a Snyder staple at this point that they define his work just as much as his over-the-top scripts and chaotic cinematography. Whether a cover or original recording, though, Zack Snyder’s music choices are such a crucial tone-setting tool that they can truly make or break his movies.

While there are some exceptions — Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (no, the Owl City song does not count as it was written specifically for the movie) — Snyder tends to include at least one needle drop per film where the song choice is about as subtle as a hammer to the face.

Zack Snyder began developing this music trademark with his 2004 debut feature, Dawn of the Dead, a remake of George A. Romero’s 1978 film of the same name in which a group of survivors hunkers down in an abandoned mall during the zombie apocalypse. While hoping to be saved, the group “befriends” another survivor trapped in his gun store across a parking lot, communicating with whiteboards and a pair of binoculars.

During a montage of the characters’ daily routines, a cover of Disturbed’s “Down With the Sickness” as performed by Richard Cheese plays on the soundtrack. Cheese is a lounge singer, so instead of the hard rock intensity of the original recording, Cheese’s version is relaxed and smooth. It’s happy, which is a term not often applied to the heavy metal music of Disturbed. This needle drop is an example of Zack Snyder’s use of music for comedic effect. Accompanying shots of zombies swarming in the parking lot, the song makes the horrifying situation feel normal, just part of the characters’ everyday lives, like their rooftop conversations.

Then came Watchmen, Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel. This is when the filmmaker really started playing with needle drops of both covers and original music, using lyrics to really pack an emotional punch from beginning to end. First, we have Nat King Cole crooning “Unforgettable” while the vigilante called the Comedian fights an unknown assailant. The smooth voice and romantic vibe of the song are placed in stark contrast with the intense violence on screen as blood slowly flies across the screen and bones pop out of skin. 

Not long after that, Snyder pairs Bob Dylan’s “The Times Are A-Changing” with a fantastic opening sequence that establishes the context of the vigilante hero group known as the Watchmen and how this world exists in an alternate version of America. The song choice is quite literal as the history of the Watchmen is shown changing in front of the viewer’s eyes, but Dylan’s lyrics and unique voice still make this a perfect pair; the combination creates a sense of nostalgia for an unknown past. It’s all such impressive use of existing music to play with the film’s atmosphere.

But that comes crashing down with Snyder’s decision to use Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” over a graphic sex scene between vigilantes Night Owl and Silk Spectre. Cohen’s gravelly voice is synced up with each thrust of Night Owl’s hips in the most uncomfortable way that removes any and all eroticism. Perhaps Jeff Buckley’s cover would have made more sense, as it better suits the intimacy but also the sadness behind this moment. Snyder almost hit a needle drop homerun but truly struck out at the last minute.

He does almost recover with his use of “All Along The Watchtower” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience at the film’s climax, but nothing can truly help the movie come back after the “Hallelujah” scene.

That didn’t keep Snyder down, though. He continued to layer needle drop on top of needle drop in his 2011 movie Suckerpunch, to the point that it becomes excessive. Sure, it’s great for the audience to hear a song they might know, but there comes a time when the music becomes a crutch — as if Zack Snyder doesn’t have enough faith in the story and its action to excite the viewer. 

He has Bjork singing “Army of Me,” he has a mash-up of Queen‘s “I Want It All” and “We Will Rock You,” and he has not one, not two, but seven covers, redoing songs by Jefferson Airplane, The Smiths, The Stooges, The Beatles, and others. The soundtrack only has nine songs. The music becomes distracting and clashes with the large set pieces in Suckerpunch, which include a dragon-guarded castle and a snow-covered dojo. 

The two most notable covers are performed by the film’s lead actress, Emily Browning: “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” by Eurythmics and “Where Is My Mind” by Pixies. Both of Browning’s renditions are haunting versions of the original songs, and therefore better match the overall tone of the film. The use of “Where Is My Mind” is incredibly on the nose. The slow acoustic guitar and the melancholy voice of Browning play over a scene of her character, Babydoll, being admitted to a mental institution. The words “where is my mind” drift over a shot of her being brought into the hospital, dwarfed by two massive guards in white. It offers a very literal interpretation of the events at hand.

The cover of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” is used as Babydoll dissociates to escape her harsh reality, entering her own version of a dream. In this context, the slowed-down version of the dance song feels right while the character floats through different realities in which she is being used and abused by men in positions of power. Browning’s voice echoes the pain in Babydoll’s eyes as she tries to find a place where she can feel safe inside her own mind. The music then swells with the booming tones of an organ that echoes a brief moment of catharsis as she settles into a new time and place of her own creation.

Sadly, when Snyder started making superhero movies in what would become known as the DC Extended Universe franchise, his directing style did a one-eighty as his use of color faded and the needle drops were few and far between.

That is until the “Snyder Cut,” his four-hour version of Justice League. There’s one during the introduction of Aquaman as he chugs a bottle of liquor and walks down a sea wall in the middle of a storm as waves crash around him. The epic nature of the scene and its kinetic energy is countered with Nick Cave’s melancholy “There Is A Kingdom,” making this feel like Aquaman’s own inner soundtrack to his loneliness. It’s an odd visual and aural pairing, but it does work in establishing the character as more than just muscles.

Interestingly enough, this same scene in the original cut of Justice League instead features The White Stripes’ “Icky Thump,” which creates an entirely different tone. With the pounding drums and guitar riffs, the song’s energy better matches the chaos around Aquaman, and instead of reflecting any interiority of the hero, it builds him up to be all the more badass. With Zack Snyder’s music change, he’s trying to give more depth to his characters than was seen in the original film. While not ultimately successful, it is fascinating to watch how Snyder sees outside music as just as important as the score for creating an emotional connection to his characters.

With his latest movie, Army of the Dead, Snyder goes back to his over-the-top roots with an absolutely ridiculous story about breeding zombies, a number of massive set pieces, and a needle drop that is the cherry on top of one wild ride. As the credits start to roll and the future looks uncertain, The Cranberries’ “Zombie” starts to play, and that snaps the tension of the bittersweet ending in half. Snyder again proves to be the king of literal interpretations. It is eye-roll-inducing because it is such a painfully obvious choice, but it’s also so on-brand that it’s impressive.

Of course, such a choice did spark some controversy given that the song is actually about IRA bombings in Northern Ireland. It is an extremely political tune used as a punchline for a movie about, well, zombies.

Just as Zack Snyder plays with color to create striking visuals, he plays with existing music to shape the emotional impact of individual scenes and the movies overall. While his use of needle drops is often silly and very obvious, they are a part of Snyder’s charm as a filmmaker who isn’t afraid to take risks. As he continues to make movies (an Army of the Dead sequel and an adaptation of The Fountainhead are in the works), one hopes Snyder stays true to what makes him stand out: a sense of humor and a degree of self-seriousness that can only be described as oddly charming.

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Mary Beth McAndrews thinks found footage is good and will fight you if you say otherwise. When she's not writing, she's searching for Mothman with her two cats. Follow her on Twitter @mbmcandrews. (She/Her)