From The Parallax Review Vaults: Cemetery Man (1994)

The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Cemetery Man was for the “On Cable” section of The Parallax Review.

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

Now Playing on Encore Action

Cemetery Man is a mess of a movie; a sprawling, overreaching, glorious mess of a movie. A black-comic meditation on love, mortality, loneliness, and desperation masquerading as a zombie film, it’s by turns poetic, laugh-out-loud funny, insightful, and flat-out pretentious.

Francesco Dellamorte (a perfectly droll Rupert Everett) is the caretaker of a small-town cemetery in rural Italy. Dellamorte is a world-weary sort, sneering at the pageantry that accompanies the burial of the dead. Ostracized by the residents of the village, Dellamorte’s only friend is his near-mute assistant Gnaghi (François Hadji-Lazaro), a mentally disabled manchild. Secluded in the cemetery, Dellamorte and Gnaghi spend their days digging graves and their nights battling the corpses that come to life and claw their way out of their coffins. Dellamorte sees no need to tell others about the phenomenon, mostly because of the massive amount of bureaucratic paperwork involved in reporting it. He quietly dispatches the undead with a large handgun and drops them back in their graves. His is a lonely, fatalistic existence that is derailed when he meets a beautiful young widow (Anna Falchi) who makes repeated visits to the grave of her husband. Struck by love for the first time in his life, Dellamorte finds his bizarre existence turned upside down by several surreal plot twists that make the zombie problem seem simple by comparison.

The film is only known as Cemetery Man in the United States. Its original Italian title, Dellamorte Dellamore (literally Of Death Of Love), is a better and far more accurate title. Working from a novel by Tiziano Sclavi (creator of the cult Italian comic book Dylan Dog), director Michele Soavi and screenwriter Gianni Romoli take the expected genre conventions of the ultraviolent Italian zombie film and gleefully subvert them. While the film contains copious amounts of blood and gore, the zombies turn out to be less dangerous than the unstable protagonist who puts a bullet through their brains.

The film puts the viewer in Dellamorte’s head through constant voiceover narration. It turns out that his head is a confusing and disturbing place to spend time. A man who dismissively speaks of love and attachment to the living by stating that everyone eventually ends up being covered in dirt, he shows all the classic signs of being a remorseless sociopath. He just has the luxury of taking out his violent tendencies on those already dead. Where the film is most successful is when it operates as a character piece, exploring whether the zombie epidemic is really happening or just a delusion that he shares with the simple Gnaghi. The film further explores Dellamorte’s damaged mindset when his romance with the young widow ends badly and he finds himself meeting woman after woman who looks just like her. The betrayals of these women lead to surprising acts of violence that may or may not have been committed by Dellamorte. The fact that he’s not even sure himself takes the film down an unexpected path of existential dread.

Before this film, Soavi had directed two solid but unexceptional horror films. Nothing in his immediate directorial background points to a film as layered with lunacy as Cemetery Man. But when you dig a bit further into his credits, you find a man who worked as an assistant to the near-insane Dario Argento and was second-unit director on Terry Gilliam’s awesomely bloated The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. The influence of both directors can be seen in this film, but Soavi combines them into a slightly more palatable cocktail for the mainstream. His style is more humorous than Argento’s graphic shock tactics and less bleak than much of Gilliam’s dark oeuvre. This isn’t to say that he has any better handle on narrative than Argento or Gilliam. The film is often confusing with bizarre leaps in logic. But this could be on purpose, keeping with the fractured view through which Dellamorte sees the world.

Even with the occasionally muddled narrative, the film is still a true gem. Soavi’s camerawork is fluid, mostly hiding the ultra-low budget. The script is witty, with lines delivered by Everett in a perfect deadpan. The special effects by Sergio Stivaletti are truly impressive. Emerging from the ground as dirty, decaying creatures with the roots of plants feeding off them, Stivaletti creates the type of zombies never before seen on film. Add a pitch-perfect ending and it’s easy to overlook the thematic and narrative sloppiness that sometimes plagues the film. This is an over-looked mini-classic that deserves to be discovered.

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