Jonathan Demme Created an Iconic Horror Movie Moment With “Goodbye Horses”

The Big Picture

  • Jonathan Demme was a unique curator of idiosyncratic songs, utilizing original scores and soundtracks of pop music to add depth to his films.
  • The use of Q Lazzarus’ “Goodbye Horses” in The Silence of the Lambs elevated the film’s uncanny resonance to unimaginable levels.
  • The song perfectly complemented the postmodern take on serial killer horror-thrillers in the film, demonstrating Demme’s understanding of pop music in storytelling.

While not as renowned for his taste and integration of popular music as other notable auteurs, Jonathan Demme is one of a kind as a curator of idiosyncratic songs. With an eclectic filmography, ranging from comedies, courtroom dramas, horror-thrillers, concert docs, and historical epics, Demme utilized original scores and soundtracks of pop music. Audiences never knew if the director would aim for mainstream hits or a subversive tune that throws a wrench in a particular scene. No song choice satisfies the latter quite like the use of “Goodbye Horses” in his Best Picture-winning classic, The Silence of the Lambs.

How Did Jonathan Demme and Q Lazzarus Meet?

Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in 'The Silence of the Lambs'
Image via Orion Pictures

Jonathan Demme, on the outside, appeared to be an unqualified candidate to adapt a novel belonging to Thomas Harris‘ Hannibal Lecter series, having previously directed the screwball-esque comedies Something Wild and Married to the Mob. Thanks to his background in the Roger Corman system during the infancy of his career, the director was trained in genre filmmaking, especially of the lurid kind. The Silence of the Lambs became Demme’s arrival as one of the most humanist directors of his time – demonstrated by his mastery of the close-up shot. This trait is what still separates the 1991 film from its copycat serial killer movies. He tapped into interconnected, sympathetic portrayals of idealistic law officials in Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), and depraved misfits in Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). In one unforgettable sequence, scored by the unknown track, “Goodbye Horses” by Q Lazzarus, the uncanny resonance of Demme’s film was elevated to unimaginable levels.

Q Lazzarus, born Diane Luckey, who died in 2022, was forever an enigmatic figure in the music industry. Before she ascended to cult status and subsequently vanished from the public eye in recent years, Q Lazzarus worked as a taxi cab driver to make ends meet in the 1980s. The singer, who sang mournfully and complemented by a pounding snare and somber synths by her backing band, the Resurrection, was viewed as unmarketable in the industry. The legend entails that, during one snowy night, Q Lazzarus picked up Jonathan Demme as a passenger. The singer asked the director if he was in the music business, and Demme replied “Not really.” Nevertheless, Q Lazzarus proceeded to play a cassette tape of “Goodbye Horses,” the artist’s soon-to-be signature track, in the cab. The song left Demme in awe. “Oh my God, what is this and who are you?” he exclaimed while riding through a blizzard.

This serendipitous meeting in a taxi cab led to a fruitful creative partnership. In 1986, Demme would feature another Q Lazzarus, song, “Candle Goes Away” in Something Wild, complementing the film’s celebrated execution of stark tonal shifts. For Married to the Mob, which was scored by Talking Heads singer and previous collaborator, David Byrne, Demme featured her stand-out track, “Goodbye Horses,” in a scene where Matthew Modine gives Michelle Pfeiffer a foot massage. Played quietly, the moodiness of the song enhances the unnerving feelings of romance and trepidation surrounding Modine’s undercover FBI agent falling for the amiable mob wife played by Pfeiffer.

“Goodbye Horses” Elevates the Eeriness of ‘Silence of the Lambs’

Anthony Hopkins and Hannibal Lecter wearing a muzzle in The Silence of the Lambs
Image via Orion Pictures

Of course, history will prominently remember the song’s appearance in Silence of the Lambs. The film, which swept the Academy Awards, is relentlessly spooky and capable of scaring the most unflinching viewers through minimalist filmmaking. Demme never loses sight of the story’s genre origins, but Silence of the Lambs possesses an unmistakable heart that fills the narrative with unexpected soulfulness. “Goodbye Horses” plays over a sequence that cuts between Buffalo Bill’s captive, Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), attempting to escape from the killer’s pit as Bill puts on makeup and lipstick, and dances to the song’s chorus. The camera fixates on Bill’s nipple piercings, necklace, and tattoos on his body. While applying lipstick, he solemnly asks himself, “Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me. I’d fuck me so hard.” At the precise moment in which a medium shot is established, showing Bill’s whole naked body as he dances to the song, the seismic impact of “Goodbye Horses” is fully realized.

With this needle drop alone, Demme joined the likes of Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick as filmmakers with an impeccable sense of music selection. Between the song choice and casting of Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, Demme’s left turns were creatively rewarding. Joe Coscarelli of The New York Times writes that the Q Lazzarus track adds an extra layer of eeriness to an already chilling set piece. Tracy Moore of Vanity Fair writes, “As Q Lazzarus’s gothy, somber ode ‘Goodbye Horses’ warbles on the soundtrack, Catherine sobs in the nearby pit. It’s played as a dark moment of degeneracy.” In other words, the song taps into the fleeting hopefulness of Catherine’s bid to escape from Bill’s dungeon–further visualized by the ambivalent manner in which Bill’s dog looks down into the pit after her rescue plan fails.

RELATED: 10 Horror Movies That Made Normal Songs Creepy

How “Goodbye Horses” Demonstrates Jonathan Demme’s Understanding of Pop Music in Film

Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs
Image via Orion Pictures

The synthetic, new-wave sound of “Goodbye Horses” perfectly complements Silence of the Lambs‘ postmodern take on serial killer horror-thrillers. Demme’s tightrope walk of humanizing people behind inhumane acts is brilliant, and this song is the clearest manifestation of the director’s thesis statement. This aggressive focus on the human condition, as demonstrated through Demme’s iconic close-up shots, simultaneously invigorates the horror elements of the film by forcing the audience to engage with each character’s psychological complexities. The director’s concert documentary masterpiece, Stop Making Sense, capturing a thunderous and majestic performance by the Talking Heads, shows music as a palpable force capable of storytelling and freewheeling expression. Q Lazzarus’ iconic song executes this on all levels in Silence. The bone-chilling presence and emotional sincerity given to Buffalo Bill seamlessly intersect thanks to the power of “Goodbye Horses.”

Q Lazzarus and Jonathan Demme were artistically made for each other. Both possessed an unknowable quality to their careers. Demme, who passed in 2017, proved to be one of the most chameleon-like directors in recent history, and Q Lazzarus quickly established that she dispensed any notion of selling out. Years following the breakout success of “Goodbye Horses” in Silence of the Lambs, she turned to working as a bus driver in Staten Island and even led a class-action lawsuit under her birth name against a bus company for allegedly refusing to hire women. Lazzarus’ obituary states that she was planning on crafting a documentary with filmmaker Eva Aridjis, as well as completing a career-spanning compilation of unreleased music. “Goodbye Horses” was destined to be a niche tune heard only by the ears of the underground landscape. It was only until Demme, an equally esoteric voice, deployed her song in a pivotal scene in a culturally magnetic film like Silence of the Lambs that the vision of Q Lazzarus was embraced by the mass public.

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