114. CEMETERY MAN [DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE] (1994)

“Michele Soari gave me the script. At first I didn’t understand anything, because it was really strange. It’s a horror movie, it’s a sex movie, it was really strange…”–Anna Falchi

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DIRECTED BY: Michele Soavi

FEATURING: Rupert Everett, Anna Falchi, François Hadji-Lazaro

PLOT: Together with his nearly-mute associate Gnaghi, Francesco Dellamorte is a groundskeeper at a cemetery; his most important duty is to blow out the brains of the zombies (“returners”) who rise from their graves after seven days. Weary of his life as a zombie-slaying gravekeeper, Dellamorte is reinvigorated when he falls in love with a beautiful young widow. Things grow stranger when he hears the voice of Death speaking to him, suggesting another approach to his job…

Still from Cemetery Man [Dellamorte Dellamore] (1994)

BACKGROUND:

  • Cemetery Man is adapted from the novel (or possibly graphic novel) “Dellamorte Dellamore” by Tiziano Sclavi, who went on to enormous popular success in Italy with his “Dylan Dog” comic book series about a supernatural investigator with a Groucho sidekick.
  • In Italian “della morte” means “of death” and “dell’amore” means “of love.”
  • Michele Soavi has had an odd directing career. He apprenticed under Italian exploitaion impresario Joe D’Amato, and later worked as a second unit director for both Dario Argento and Terry Gilliam. Given the opportunity to direct his own features, between 1987 and 1991 he produced three solid but relatively conventional horror films (Stagefright, The Church, The Sect), but nothing suggesting he would produce anything as demented as Dellamorte Dellamore. Despite the fact Dellamorte was a domestic and critical success in Italy and eventually became a cult hit around the world, at the peak of his acclaim Soavi retired from both horror and feature film making, choosing to direct movies in multiple genres for Italian television instead.
  • Soavi has talked from time to time of possibly making a sequel. In 2011 fellow Italian director Luigi Cozzi informed Fangoria magazine that Soavi had started on the script and planned to make the film in 2012, but there’s been no further news on the project since that notice.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: An honorable mention must go to the eerily erotic midnight interlude when Everrtt and Falci make love in a Gothic graveyard lit by spermatozoa-shaped glowing will-o’-the-wisps. It would be a crime, however, if the movie’s most indelible moment didn’t involve Cemetery Man‘s two weirdest characters, the mute child-man Gnaghi and his girlfriend, an underage severed head (buried, for some reason, in a bridal veil) whom he keeps in the broken shell of his television set. You won’t forget what happens when she unexpectedly reveals that she can fly…

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s a film criticism fallback cliché to describe an outrageously eccentric movie using the following formula: “it’s [insert name of familiar movie or genre] on acid!” I’m not above recycling useful boilerplate, though: Dellamorte Dellamore is a George Romero movie on acid. The world’s only surrealist arthouse zombie black comedy is too unique (and too poetic) to leave off the List.


Clip from Cemetery Man [Dellamorte Dellamore]

COMMENTS: The typical zombie-movie enthusiast will find Dellamorte Dellamore strange and frustrating, but it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when the movie decisively flies off the rails and our hypothetical horror fan realizes that he’s watching something uniquely unhinged. Dellamorte starts out off-center and just keeps getting weirder and weirder, like a gravedigger shoveling deeper and deeper into the unconscious earth. It begins with a manageable horror-comedy premise: what would happen if a cemetery caretaker’s duties included putting a bullet in the heads of any corpses that spontaneously clawed their way out of their graves? This is the vocation Francesco Dellamorte finds himself pursuing, and despite the constant danger of being bitten by the ravenous carcasses, it seems his work has already become comically routine. In the opening scene he casually pauses a phone call to dispatch an undead insurance salesman at his door, then calmly returns to the conversation. There are times when work gets a little hairy—when he discovers he’s misplaced his pistol and is forced to find a spade to use to split open a revenant’s head, for instance—but the job has basically become a nightly graveyard grind. His only companion is his fat assistant Gnaghi, who looks like a cross between Curly from the “Three Stooges” and Igor from the Frankenstein films (Francesco explains that his ID card reads “distinguishing marks: all”).  Gnaghi is a loyal friend but not exactly an engaging conversationalist: his vocabulary consists of a single word, “nyah.” Francesco is bored with his life; like any good romantic hero, he’s half in love with easeful Death. In Dellamorte’s case, perhaps more than half…

 Strange enough so far, but nothing your average gorehound couldn’t accept as a workable horror hypothesis. Queue the first plot twist: Dellamorte sees a grieving young widow in a curve-hugging black mourning dress and is immediately smitten to the core. He thinks to himself that she’s the “most beautiful living woman I have ever seen” (and we think to ourselves, how odd to qualify the phrase “most beautiful woman” with the word “living”). It’s also a bit strange that, even as their love starts to flower among the gravestones, the widow never reveals her name. She’s even more thanatonically fetishistic than Dellamorte, considering “you’ve got a real nice ossuary” an irresistible pick-up line and insisting they make love for the first time on her deceased hubby’s grave. And perhaps it’s at this point that the casual viewer begins to realize that something unusual is going on in this zombie film: the movie’s just gone fifteen minutes without an undead attack. That, and the lovers are entwining limbs amongst gravestones while electric-blue balls of spermatozoa-shaped swamp gas hover about them…

Our hypothetical horror fan will forgive the artily-lensed digression (Falci’s nude scene softens the blow) and be briefly cheered when the dead once again rise to munch upon the living. After so much time spent waddling about with character development instead of decomposing corpses, a firm plot and a body count finally appears to be developing. True, certain of the “returners” are now showing significantly greater verbal skills than previous “grr-grr” type of zombies, but that inconsistency is easily overlooked. The fact that Dellamorte’s love interest has disappeared only one-third of the way through the movie seems unusual, but when a disastrous accident brings of a busload of biker and boy scout corpses to the cemetery, the promise of shambling cadaver chaos lingers heavy in the air. That promise is met, leading to brain-spattering suspense sequence as the zombies invade Dellamorte and Gnaghi’s shack; a transvestite nun is among the attackers, but the viewer simply assumes that all kinds of weirdos are buried in the boneyard. Besides, it’s all being played for laughs, as Gnaghi is zoned out with headphones in front of the tube while Francesco fights for his life directly behind him. Even the sight of undead bikers bursting out of their graves on their Harleys is more awesome than weird.

As the movie reaches the halfway point reality (or what passes for reality within the rules of a zombie flick) has been stretched to the breaking point, but has not yet torn apart. The point at which Dellamorte officially abandons any pretense of zombie-normality comes when Gnaghi digs up the corpse of his recently deceased crush. Her head snaps off of her body as he yanks her out of her glass coffin, but Gnaghi’s ardor isn’t cooled; neither the sickly pallor of the grave nor her unsightly stitches bother him. Oh, and despite her recent decapitation, she talks. A lot. That’s not the part the viewer will find weird, though. What’s impossible to swallow is that she’s now attracted to the portly laborer who creeped her out in life, daring him to kiss her. “Take advantage; I’m certainly in no position to refuse,” she purrs. We now seem to be deep inside Gnaghi’s innocently sick fantasy world. The gorehound has been pushed past the limits of suspension of disbelief; the dead coming back from their graves is one thing, but a romance between an idiot man-child and a severed head is pushing things too far (even if, as the torso-free girl argues, “I’m not such a great catch, either”).

Still, this bit is obviously in the service of (very dark) comedy, so perhaps our fan will let it slide. But what will they make of it when Death itself materializes to Francesco from the ashes of a pile of burning phone books, sending the plot off in an entirely different direction? Or when romantic doppelgangers, and even trippelgangers, start showing up? At this point it becomes impossible to salvage either ordinary horror or comedy from the surrealist carnage Soavi sews. By the third act all the rules have rotted away, and what began as an innocuously offbeat zom-com winds up beyond imagination, where the road to nowhere ends.

Dellamorte Dellamore‘s refusal to stick to a recognizable narrative or tonal plan makes the movie a failure to the conventional-minded, but even the film’s harshest critics have to give it credit for its many unforgettable moments. The cinematography and makeup are astounding. The Everett/Falci graveyard love scene is a standout, but there are also amazing shots of a woman’s corpse rising in front of a field of bones in the ossuary, and an embedded-throat-camera view of a zombie attack. Individual scenes—the severed head-cam, a bit of provincial satire about the mayor planning to use his dead daughter as the trump card in his upcoming re-election bid, a shot of a fencepost earth in front of a moon reflected in a puddle—are impeccably executed, even though each piece seems to come from an entirely different movie.

Perhaps Dellamorte‘s strangest feature is that, despite its schizophrenia, the movie feels unified and of a piece. Francesco’s obsession with phone books, the rumors of his impotence that are common knowledge to the townsfolk, and the fact that multiple characters inexplicably call him “engineer” are unelucidated ligaments of backstory that tie the tale together. Everett is effective as a metaphorical living dead, and his master/faithful servant relationship with Gnaghi becomes the film’s emotional spine. Although it veers wildly from horror to black comedy to unabashed weirdness, Dellamorte Dellamore‘s technical excellence and “existential” sensibilities lends the entire enterprise an arthouse air that elevates its exploitation components into something that feels weighty—even if its difficult to describe what the movie’s substance actually is. Dellamorte Dellamore is consistent in its twin obsessions with love and with death; it invokes both the death of love and the love of death. But Soavi doesn’t raise any clear issues for contemplation, unless you consider “can you really call it necrophilia if it’s sex with the living dead?” a meaty discussion topic. Then again, this is a movie about death and its polar opposite, sex. Are these topics that are best discussed within a rational framework? These two themes generally show up in horror movies as boob shots and monsters, and the modern horror fan expects to see both—separately. Start breeding the two together, though, and the result inevitably becomes uncomfortably weird. Fortunately for our hypothetical viewer, in Dellamorte Dellamore the cross-fertilization is also poetic and hilarious. We hope that he will dig it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the bastard progeny of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and any number of Fellini films. It’s compelling, bizarre, and distinctly Italian in its stylish mixture of sex, violence, and scattershot plotting that only Dario Argento could truly love.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

“…if you don’t mind horrific, grotesque comedy that mixes the gore of George Romero and Dario Argento with the quixotic irreverence of Monty Python and Delicatessen, Cemetery Man provides the opportunity for a funny, strange time at the movies…. plenty of violence (wall-to-wall blood-and-gore), sex (occasionally with dead bodies), and general weirdness.”–James Berardinelli, Reel Views

“The opening might suggest a conventional zombie film… but soon it has become a necromantic comedy (with increasingly articulate undead), a giallo-like slasher and a hallucinatory psychodrama, as we are bidden by Dellamorte’s bone-dry narration to wonder whether we are witnessing Lynchian small-town surrealism, an emergent undead apocalypse or a nightmare in a damaged brain… the sort of gothic mindbender that is remembered less as film than as dream.”–Anton Bitel, Little White Lies (DVD)

IMDB LINK: Cemetery Man (1994)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Dellamorte Dellamore (Cemetery Man) – Cult Labs – A message board for fans devoted to the movie, from Cult Labs (distributor of the Region 2 DVD)

The Films of Michele Soavi – Older webpage discussing the horror auteur’s four film output, with a special emphasis on Cemetery Man

DVD INFO: Anchor Bay’s Region 1 DVD (buy) is out of print but still widely available. The print is, unfortunately, full screen. Extras include the original Italian trailer, a Soavi biography, and the informative 30 minute documentary Death is Beautiful. Readers with Region 2 capabilities are luckier, as they have access to Shameless Screen Entertainment’s 2012 release, which is widescreen and contains a commentary track by Soavi and screenwriter Gianni Romoli. The film is currently not available anywhere on either Blu-ray or through on-demand video services.

(This movie was nominated for review by “Dylan,” who called it [with some understatement] a “very unusual and interesting film with Rupert Everett.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

10 thoughts on “114. CEMETERY MAN [DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE] (1994)”

  1. Soavi took time off in the 90’s to care for his terminally ill son, Adriano, who was born with a rare liver disease. The 2001 Palme d’Orr winner, La stanza del figlio/The Son’s Room, which was co-written by Soavi’s partner Heidrun Schleef, is loosely based around Adriano’s death.

    There was talk of his returning to the genre with a film called The Catacomb Club in 2008, but sadly nothing seems to have come of it.

    1. Thanks Fausto, I found no hard information on why Soavi’s output slowed down. The bio on the DVD implied he liked working in television better because it was less hassle and he could make films faster that way.

  2. I love this movie. “Good. You’ve got a gun. You can defend yourself.”

    This is pretty much everything I want to see in a movie. Zombies, off-kilter humor, escalating insanity, and fearlessly WTF moments sprinkled in. Also, naked Anna Falchi.

    An amusing factoid, Rupert Everett is the visual inspiration for the look of the character Dylan Dog, the original comic creator’s wildly popular other series.

    I like the “unified” observation about the film. Kind of reminds me of “Taxidermia,” another strange (and deeply unpleasant) film that had a strong central version. For that film and this, I’m not sure what that central vision was, but it’s clearly there.

  3. so glad people have caught onto this, I saw it on cable TV in the 90s and couldnt locate a copy again untill the rise of file sharing. Now its on lists. woot.

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  7. Recently I got Dylan Dog Comics Italy book which i have read and it has really great characters created by Tiziano Scalvi and drawn for the fist time by Angelo Stano. I must say, if you have not read this book, try to read which is amazing!

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