“Horror” Movie Review: CEMETERY MAN (1994)

By MATT HOFFMAN

First of all, Cemetery Man is not really a horror movie*, despite the fact that your local video store almost certainly stocks it on the Horror shelves somewhere between Cellar Dweller and The Cheerleader Massacre. (That’s assuming your local video store stocks obscure European cult movies. Actually, this being the age of Netflix and OnDemand, that’s assuming you’re lucky enough to have a local video store at all.)

*Hence the scare quotes in this post’s title. “Scare” quotes–wow, even this blog’s punctuation is Halloween-themed! Get it? Any English majors out there? This thing on?

This is an understandable miscategorization, since the movie’s premise seems to fit so well into the horror mold: An introverted sad-sack cemetery watchman named Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett, great but not seeming even the least bit Italian) discovers that the corpses in his graveyard are coming back as zombies seven days after being buried. With the help of his goofy mute sidekick Gnaghi (French musician François Hadji-Lazaro, looking like the second coming of Curly Howard), Dellamorte takes on the responsibility of shooting down the “returners,” as he calls them, before they can attack the living.

What movie is this from? Oh, right.

Despite a few suspenseful sequences and an abundance of graphic brain-splattering, though, Cemetery Man isn’t focused on frightening the viewer. Much of its violence is presented almost as tongue-in-cheek slapstick; in fact, the only reason Dellamorte doesn’t alert the authorities about the zombie outbreak is that filling out the necessary paperwork is more of a hassle than dispatching the ghouls himself.

But then again, while the film is rife with similar examples of morbid humor (“Mind your business! I shall be eaten by whomever I please!” yells a young woman while her undead boyfriend gnaws on her arm), it’s not exactly a comedy either. Cemetery Man is its own genre, a surreal, Felliniesque head trip that uses the “zombies, guns and sex” promised in the poster to comment poetically on mortality and love.

The film’s ambitious artistic aspirations are summed up in its original Italian title, Dellamorte Dellamore. See, the protagonist’s name literally means “Francis of Death.” (“I’ve often thought of having it changed,” he says at one point. “Andre Dellamorte would be nicer.”) The movie’s obsession with death is expressed not just through the obvious symbols of zombies and graves but also through the dialogue and narration, which often center around that old undiscovered country. However, Dellamorte’s mother’s maiden name, as he explains to Gnaghi in one poignant scene, was Dellamore: “Of love.” So while death justifiably gets top billing, love is also in play, mainly in the form of a beautiful woman referred to in the credits as “She” (the absolutely gorgeous Anna Falchi; I usually try to avoid lusting after film actresses, but damn).

Damn, that is one hot mourner.

“She” doesn’t get a name because she appears as three separate characters; whenever Dellamorte thinks their relationship is done for good, Falchi shows up in a new incarnation. Did I mention that this movie is surreal? Seriously, it really is. Even the zombies don’t seem to follow any hard-and-fast rules. Sometimes they talk, and sometimes they don’t; sometimes they follow the laws of physics, and sometimes a decapitated head flies through the air of its own volition. Anything and everything seems to be possible.

All this talk of philosophical ruminations and surrealism might make Cemetery Man sound a bit overwhelming, but what really makes the movie great is that it shoulders all these weighty elements while still being incredibly entertaining from start to finish. Every single scene is memorable, and the story is communicated through stunning imagery carefully crafted by director Michele Soavi and cinematographer Mauro Marchetti. In fact, you can tell that the filmmakers put a lot of effort into their visuals partly because, as a few blogs I recently stumbled across point out, certain images are set up to echo classic works of art. I’ve created a handy graphic to illustrate a few examples of this:

At this point, whether you’ve seen the movie or not, you may be thinking: “Okay, that’s great that they can imitate these hoity-toity painters and all that, but what does it all mean? Why bother to mix down-and-dirty horror tropes with high-falutin’ intellectualism? What the hell am I supposed to make of this crazy-ass movie?”

This image has no basis in the work of Caspar David Friedrich, as far as I know.

Well, I have no idea. I’ve seen Cemetery Man several times over and I still couldn’t tell you what its message is, much less what the especially bizarre ending is supposed to signify. But while I’m not sure what this film means, I do feel like it means something. And maybe some part of me understands that something, if not the part that verbalizes ideas in blog posts. What I can say for sure is that Cemetery Man affects me. It makes me laugh, it holds me in awe, and it makes me care about Francesco Dellamorte and his twisted world.

Which is not to say that it will affect everyone that way. As you may have gathered, it’s very dark and very weird. But if you can stomach dark weirdness–or, even better, if you like dark weirdness–then you owe it to yourself to check this movie out.

A few more stray thoughts:

•  True story: I once wrote a high school English paper comparing this movie to Hamlet.

•  If you’re into minimalist synthesizer horror scores, this one‘s pretty great.

•  Given the shockingly arbitrary outburst of violence near the end of the film, I’m actually kind of glad the movie never got any mainstream exposure, because if it had, it probably would’ve been blamed for Columbine.

•  The screenplay was adapted by Gianni Romoli from a novel by Tiziano Sclavi. If anyone out there knows where I could find an English translation of the book, please don’t hesitate to speak up.

•  Did I mention that Anna Falchi is hot? She’s really hot.

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