Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Cemetery Man is a fitting bookend for forty years of Italian horror filmmaking that started out of the blue in 1957 with Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava's I Vampiri. It captures the entire sepulchral spirit of the Italian Euro-horror film, combining the erotic-Gothic necromancy of The Horrible Dr. Hichcock with the later zombie-splatter films of Lucio Fulci and others. Able filmmaker Michele Soavi is a third-generation horror director, having apprenticed with Lamberto Bava and Dario Argento. But perhaps his strongest influence is Terry Gilliam, for whom he accomplished many stylish second-unit scenes for The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
Cemetery Man is also one of the few Italian horror films to get an extensive American release, in 1996. It can't have been due to the presence of Rupert Everett, as the actor didn't achieve notable star status here until 1997's My Best Friend's Wedding with Julia Roberts. After seeing this artfully taste-challenged gore-fest, nobody will confuse it with Everett's more conventional work.
Cemetery keeper Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) already lives a creepy life among the gravestones with his loyal but half-witted assistant Gnaghi (Francois Hadji-Lazaro). But now the recently interred are rising from their graves within hours of burial. The only way Francesco can return them to stillness is to shoot them in the head or otherwise pierce their skulls with metal. Nobody will help him -- the town officials expect him to keep mum if he wants to keep his job. Then Francesco falls in love with the girl of his dreams, who first appears as a voluptuous woman in black and avoids him until he mentions that he has an Ossuary to show her. Thus begins a bizarre and macabre love affair that makes simple necrophilia seem like the proverbial Sunday School Picnic.
Just before the horror genre decided to pick itself apart -- pardon me, deconstruct itself -- with Scream and other self-conscious thrillers, Cemetery Man took us back deep into core Italo-horror obsessions for one last examination of Mad Love among the dead. The film's source is the macabre novel Dellamorte Dellamore by Italian comic author Tiziamo Sclavi, itself an offshoot of Sclavi's enduring comic character Dylan Dog, who he happened to model after the actor Rupert Everett.
Francesco Dellamorte, the "St. Francis of Death" is really a gentle soul who kills out of "indifference or love, but never out of hate." He goes about his grim work whistling "Blue Skies" and is at first fascinated by the morbid miracles emerging from his graveyard. The tale is a standard gloss on the zombie holocaust idea invented by Richard Matheson in his I Am Legend, filmed most memorably with Vincent Price (in Italy) as The Last Man on Earth. Francesco begins as a standard vampire-zombie killer inflected with a Kafka-esque hopelessness, except that in his case both the civil authorities and the local lawman choose to ignore the problem altogether. They also refuse to acknowledge Francesco's culpability for a series of murders, even when they catch him red-handed in the act.
Gianni Romoli's script transcends the often pedestrian predictability of earlier genre efforts; Italian slashers and giallos of the 70s weren't known for their intellectual airs. Francesco's nightly zombie killings are soon overshadowed by his love for Anna Falchi's mysterious widow, an erotic hallucination composed of huge eyes and lips, a striking figure and mortiferous veils. Francesco peeks around corners and out of graves just to catch a glimpse of her receding veil. When they first kiss, the veiled woman puts a thin shroud over Francesco's head as well, turning them into figures resembling the macabre "death and the maiden" themes seen in Ornella Volta's collected horror artwork.
Francesco's Mad Love plays out amid carnage and grue. The lovers first declare themselves in the cemetery's Ossuary, basically a dripping-wet covered pit full of long-decayed corpses. With her passing and subsequent returns (no spoilers, although she keeps coming back in various forms, like a self-generating hallucination) Francesco falls into an insane nightmare resembling H.P. Lovecraft's Re-Animator: The resurrected zombies are people he knew and loved.
The same is true for Francois Hadji-Lazaro's Gnaghi, the mentally handicapped but endearing gravedigger who stays madly in love with the Mayor's daughter Valentina (Fabiana Formica), even though a violent motorcycle accident has reduced her to a severed head. Gnaghi's TV has been smashed so he places the head in the broken cabinet so she can keep him company. It's an oddball parody of The Brain that Wouldn't Die.
Francesco is eventually driven off his rocker by various haunted doppelgangers of his beloved black widow. To please one of them he undergoes a literal emasculation, retracing the path of Tod Browning and Lon Chaney's grotesque silent The Unknown. Mirroring the film Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, Francesco goes on a killing spree just so the law will end his misery. Yet the police chief refuses to consider him a suspect, no matter what he does. The final cosmic finale brings Cemetery Man to a philosophical dead end -- or perhaps a riff on the theme of innocence from Citizen Kane.
Rupert Everett is perfect as the befuddled and delirious patsy for the morbid goings-on, and Anna Falchi is indeed an erotic vision to break one's heart. Francois Hadji-Lazaro is the first actor since Dwight Frye to successfully assay the misshapen dwarf character, making him lovable and repulsive at the same time. Actor and noted dialogue coach and English-language director Mickey Knox (The Tenth Victim) makes a strong late-career acting appearance as the blithely irrational detective.
Anchor Bay's DVD of Cemetery Man is a good enhanced presentation of this 1:66 ratio film. The handsome transfer is good but not quite sharp enough to show the finest details in production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng's dripping tombs and Sergio Stivaletti's grotesque zombie makeups. Anna Falchi's zombie incarnation actually has green roots and vines sprouting through her face.
The movie was produced in multi-national versions but the one presented here is the English language copy that allows Everett and Knox to speak in their proper voices. This seems appropriate, as the dubbing of the other actors is excellent. It would have been nice to have the Italian variant as a choice but Fox apparently did not have the license for that version. Oddly though, the trailer included is an Italian original, in the Italian language.
Michael Frost's featurette Death is Beautiful contains interviews with director Soavi, Anna Falchi, writer Gianni Romoli and makeup man Stivaletti, and covers the genesis of the film from comic book to release. Michele Soavi has just come out with his first feature since Cemetery Man, a strange crime thriller called Arrivederci amore, ciao. An eight-page insert contains an informative essay on the film by Michael Felsher.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Cemetery Man rates:
Movie: Excellent but obviously not for all tastes
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good but English only
Supplements: Making-of docu, trailer, Michele Soavi bio, booklet
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 22, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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