He found work writing tunes and electronically scoring music for television commercials and, still in his early twenties, joined two British musicians named Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes to form a rock group called The Buggles. They produced a world-wide hit called "Video Killed the Radio Star," which made music history as the first piece ever broadcast on America's music network MTV. The Buggles' subsequent LP, "The Age of Plastic," was also a major hit.
Zimmer became interested in film music, mostly through the influence of Italian composer Ennio Morricone, and also cites Elmer Bernstein's The Magnificent Seven as an influence both on himself and Morricone, as well as John Barry's James Bond scores, Bernard Herrmann's Psycho, and Jerry Goldsmith's The Omen as major influences on later film scores. But it was a meeting with another film composer, Stanley Meyers, that led Zimmer into scoring for films and into a style using classical and electronic techniques. Zimmer and Meyers founded Lillie Yard Studios in London. Zimmer and Meyers worked on small British films, including Jerzy Skolimovsky's Moonlighting, Success is The Best Revenge, and The Lightship, and Nicholas Roeg's Insignificance and The Castaway. The big hit of this "little movie" period was My Beautiful Laundrette. This introduced Zimmer to the Hollywood community and he was brought in to help Ryuichi Sakamoto and David Byrne (neither with much film experience or Western classical training) to score Bertolucci's epic The Last Emperor.
After writing scores for a few more movies, including Wonderland, Paperhouse, and Burning Secret, he was commissioned to compose for the low-budget film on South African racial problems A World Apart in 1986. This work led Barry Levinson to hire Zimmer to write the score for the Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman drama Rain Man, a score nominated for an Oscar. The financial and critical success of this film led to such prestige films as Driving Miss Daisy, then made a sharp turn into action movie scoring, beginning with Black Rain and continuing with Days of Thunder, Backdraft, Thelma and Louise, Peacemaker, and Crimson Tide (which won a Grammy Award). He says he developed a new action music style in Black Rain because he was trying to sound like John Williams and didn't know how to.
Zimmer's best known work is the score to The Lion King, Disney's most popular animated film, which won the Academy Award and, at twelve million copies sold, became the best-selling record in the history of Walt Disney Records.
Zimmer has not escaped typecasting; action films became his forte, along with projects with some element of cross-cultural clashes in the plot. He is exceptionally frank about his own work and in interviews has readily identified work he considers good and bad. For instance, when asked why there is no recording of even a selection of the best parts of his score for Days of Thunder he said, "Because there wasn't any good music in it." On the other hand, he cites his films Drop Zone, Two Deaths, Peacemaker, Driving Miss Daisy, Prince of Egypt, and part of Crimson Tide as favorites.