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Cemetery Man (1994)

Review

Author
Date
06-05-2006
Comments

There is no good way to categorize Michele Soavi's Cemetery Man (known in its native Italy as Dellamorte Dellamore). Yes, it's a zombie movie, with plenty of decaying flesh and bloody bite wounds. It's also a dark satire in the vein of Brazil (also a difficult film to define, genre-wise). Toss in a twisted metaphysical romance and lightly garnish with American Psycho-thriller, and you might come close. Maybe.

Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett, before he hit it big), caretaker of the cemetery in Buffalora, Italy, has a very busy job. By day, he's maintaining the grounds and burying the dead. By night, he's watching the dead disinter themselves long enough for him to put a bullet between their eyes. Nobody but Dellamorte and his dimwitted assistant Gnaghi are aware of these "returners," and it's best that way. Explaining it to his superiors would be a nightmare in paperwork. However, the never-ending ennui of his position leaves Dellamorte a little unhinged, especially when a beautiful woman (Anna Falchi) flits into his obsessions, even after her death and redeath.

When Cemetery Man was initially released in the United States, its distributor gave it a lurid ad campaign that failed to describe the film even a little and then left it to die in only six theaters. A blink-and-you-missed-it video release followed. Now, finally, Anchor Bay is giving the film a decent DVD release, which is a boon for those of us who caught an edited-for-cable version years ago and wanted to see the full, unedited glory of Soavi's vision.

At first glance, the film appears to be little else but a loosely connected series of episodes -- days in the life of Dellamorte, who ponders endlessly about the nature of life, death, and love while freely admitting he really doesn't know what he's talking about. The connection appears, however, in the lack of connection. Dellamorte's growing dissatisfaction and disconnection with his morbid life inform the fabric of the film's reality. As Cemetery Man proceeds, the events begin to get more and more abstract. This trend reaches its precipice at the film's ending, which makes no sense unless you're thinking purely thematically.

True love is undead in Michele Soavi's Cemetery Man (1994).True love is undead in Michele Soavi's Cemetery Man (1994).

However, enjoying the film does not require pondering the deeper meaning of Dellamorte's dissonance. The film also has a healthy dose of black humor throughout. Dellamorte likes to read the obituaries and ritualistically cross the names of the deceased out of the phone book. Gnaghi falls in love with the mayor's daughter, but she only returns his affections after she's dead. A girl protests that she has the right to be devoured by her zombified boyfriend.

Not everything in Cemetery Man connects, alas. The material occasionally jumps between terribly clever and wonderfully sleazy without taking a breather in the middle. The viewer may sometimes feel like they're watching a tennis match between disparate cinematic sensibilities. For the most part, however, the whole thing gels, and the high-minded and low-brow do the danse macabre together, straight to hell.

Perhaps the most maddening element of Cemetery Man is the continual thread of She (Anna Falchi). She originally appears as a widow with whom Dellamorte falls into obsessive love. After tragedy ends their freakishly kinky attempt at happiness, Dellamorte continues to see her, both literally (as a zombie) and metaphysically (in the form of the Mayor's assistant and then a prostitute). Falchi plays all three roles quite ably; she's hardly the issue here. Its during these sequences that Soavi is at his most visually pretentious, and I find myself struggling to connect them with the rest of the film. Still, this subplot is a thematic necessity for the evolution (devolution?) of Dellamorte's indifferent madness and cannot be separated from the body of the film.

The role of Francesco Dellamorte is the element upon which the film's intricate weirdness teeters -- a bad performance would damn the film to ridicule and drunken mockery. Rupert Everett, very young and very brilliant, comes through marvelously, and the film succeeds in large part based on his charmingly disaffected interpretation of the part. His trick is making us want to bet on Sisyphus to push that damned rock up the hill. There's no f'ing way Dellamorte will ever be rid of his zombie problem once and for all, but we'll put down hard money on him, because he seems like he could use the encouragement.

Dark, funny, violent, absurdist, and just plain different, Cemetery Man is a film of many descriptions, but not enough audience. It's not to the taste of everyone -- it fails the basic test for stupid zombie fun by failing to be stupid enough -- but there are those who will find it fits them all too well (like Martin Scorcese, who called it one of the best films of the 1990s). It's a movie about death, and a movie about love. It's a movie about the dead who live and the living who are spiritually dead. It's not an easy film, but great films rarely are.

Trivia: 

Based on a novel by Tiziano Scalvi. Scalvi based the physical appearance of his other major creation, comic book hero Dylan Dog, on Rupert Everett.

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