Dellamorte Dellamore (translated to Of Death Of Love, which can then be easily jumbled around to Love of the Dead) is a title better known to most American audiences as Cemetery Man. Regardless of which title you prefer to adopt for it however, it is a film that is widely considered by horror aficionados as the last great Italian horror film, and in particular the last standout zombie picture in the long lineage of the countries contributions to the sub genre. While Fulci and his peers were busy pushing the limits of on screen violence and nurturing the inherit apocalyptic nature of the dead coming back to life, writer/journalist/novelist Tiziano Sclavi was hard at work on what we might call a comic book series called Dylan Dog about an investigator who looked into nightmares. As with anything that is held in even remotely high regard in print, it was loosely adapted for the silver screen. While that history is certainly interesting, and may even give insight into the wildly surreal and dream like qualities of Cemetery Man, it isn’t vital to enjoying and thinking critically about the movie itself. What is of utmost importance is the ability to just go with the quite jarring and constantly morphing flow of the picture, allowing yourself and your imagination to free associate the many clues and symbols embedded within the flick, and let your mind fill in the gaps that arise from its sordid and often misconstrued storytelling methods.
Our story is, at its base, one of a cemetery keeper who has not only the nasty chore of burying the recently deceased, but keeping them under the pounds of dirt he shovels on top of them. See, Francesco Dellamorte (an ironic name that even the character pokes fun at in the very beginning of the film) battles zombies almost nightly, and with his trusty revolver and spade, and the assistance of his near mute helper Gnagi, he keeps the tenants of Buffalora cemetery within the gates by either shooting them in the head, or driving objects through their rotting skulls. For a horror movie, this is more than enough to justify a standard 90 minute run time, but what makes Cemetery Man so interesting and open to interpretation is that it is a film with films inside it. There are love stories for both of our flawed and damaged reluctant heroes (Gnagi and Frances), there is a ingeniously deceptive detective story complete with twist, and then there is the ultimate question that plagues any intellectual viewer of this movie. Where on Earth, or outside of Earth, is this all taking place? Before I throw down my loose theories about the messages and mysteries contained within, let me first analyze it as a piece of horror entertainment.
Cemetery Man leans heavily on the acting of its male lead Rupert Everett, which is a good thing considering he does a magnificent job conveying the many facets of Frances without the movie or the character ever coughing up any major information as to his personal history. Besides mentioning that he doesn’t read much and never finished high school, we are instead treated to my personal favorite of all methods for establishing a characters motives, values, and even their beliefs. The method is simply his actions. His movements, the way he expresses his emotions and treats those close to him, and almost every other behavior all compiles together into giving us a better understanding of Frances, and if you take the plunge and see this movie (or watch it again, which I also highly recommend) you will learn that understanding Frances may be the key to understanding the film as a whole. Outside of our enigmatic lead, Anna Falchi also graces the screen with her unique beauty, and brings some acting and modeling credentials to the multiple characters she plays, all of whom are cryptically named as “She” only. She may not be the best actress, and at times it seems like either she is being subtly dubbed or having a hard time speaking perfect English (she is Italian after all), but for what her characters demand, it seemed fitting that someone who is beautiful, but not in a conventional sense, would play those parts. In particular, I noticed that her eyes and eye make up changed for each of her 3 “shes” she plays, which may denote a change in the film itself, perhaps opening another chapter every time she reappears. Gnagi, played by François Hadji-Lazaro, also lends a great deal of depth to the set of personalities on screen, and without hardly muttering any words, and not a full sentence until the very end of the picture, manages to serve as the loyal, but sometimes useless, compatriot to Frances. He is there with him through thick and thin, and seems to serve as a reminder to Frances that even as along as he feels, he never truly is completely alone. The rest of the supporting cast are all good, but they get nearly as much time and dialogue as these 3 do, which means that I don’t feel the need to elaborate on their fine performances. But trust me, they are all well beyond adequate, and in the odd case there is someone you don’t particularly like, don’t worry, they will be dead soon enough.
Michele Soavi (who directed another one of my favorite horror flicks of all time, Stagefright), with competent acting in hand, wastes no time in unraveling his surreal and morbid vision. The pacing of the film is incredible, surrendering the typical pseudo-tension found in most horror flicks for an off-beat but blistering tempo that is always striking you with violence, sex, dark twisted comedy, or a combination of those 3. Soavi comes off as a fan and student of the Italian Spaghetti horror films that dominated the underground and foreign markets for much of the 80’s, while at the same time balancing the tragic and dreamy mind fuck that is the narrative. As I mentioned earlier, it seems like there is at least two movies being told at once, with the major determining factor between the two being the night and day cycle, as well as the lighting and the soundtrack changes. Night time looks amazingly detailed, never suffering from “I can’t see SHIT” disease that I hate with a every fiber of my being. Soavi also employs some clever POV shots, usually from the perspective of the dead or soon to be dead person in the scene. It is used just enough to cement it as a legitimate tool in Soavis directing arsenal, but is done with enough restraint to not come off as a simple gimmick. If you are a fan of European architecture with a Gothic flair to it, the scenes within the cemetery and surrounding area are sure to please you. The film really shines during the night scenes more so than the day, and it reeks of a perfect unison between director, cinematographer, and photographer, who all seemed to understand how to make scenes not only look beautifully lit and well composed, but dark, eerie, and other worldly all at the same time. This is without a doubt one of the most visually arresting horror movies I’ve ever seen, and maybe the best to date.
While it is commonplace in modern cinema to have sound effects and a inappropriately loud and obnoxious soundtrack or score dominant the dialogue of a film, it wasn’t so common even up through the mid 90’s. The sound in Cemetery Man will probably sound dated to most, but then again you can say that the sound in JAWS is dated, in which my response to both is fuck you. Gunshots are clear and sound as if they are being shot from a gun that has been shot many times before. The soundtrack deliberately switches many times in order to extract or set a mood for a particular scene. The dialogue also comes off fairly clean, although it could have been more crisp, but we will chalk that up to it not being a production that was not made on an astronomically large budget. Whatever mild sins may have been committed by the available technology in the audio department are surely made up for by the special effects and visuals ten fold. The blood and gore is incredibly visceral and strong, and Soavi shows confidence in his splatter man when he doesn’t jerk his camera away from head shots and other grisly images. Speaking of which, this may be the movie with the most head shots I have ever personally seen, and each one looks more dynamite than the last. Lighting, set design, filter choices, costumes and make up are all top notch and don’t feel dated or cheesy in the slightest. If this movie were made in America, you would be able to spot the outdated attire and social wear from a mile away, but since this movie is a European production, the clothes have much more of a timeless and classic feel. Same goes for the locations. Beautiful architecture really helps set the stage, and the cemetery itself seems full of wondrous little alleys and coves begging to be explored. It looks like the kind of movie you want to jump right into just to walk around and explore it.
Cemetery Man is, or at least was for me, an answer to many wishes when it comes to my beloved zombie sub genre. It is fast paced,never boring and it combines trippy, almost hallucinogenic visuals with classic elements of European horror film making. It is unapologetic in its cryptic nature, which some have unfairly dubbed as simply confusing, and it is a startling example of how to try an add depth to something that could have existing solely on its surface values. If you consider yourself a zombie film fan, or even a horror fan in general, and you haven’t seen this, you should do so immediately. It belongs within every conversation about horror, especially if the conversation is about classics of the 90’s, and can even be looked at (as I do below, beware though it is full of spoilers) in an analytical sense if you are so inclined to try and figure out what is really happening. Either way, don’t let this one sit there in your “Yeah, I’ll get around to it” pile. You’ll learn to Love the Dead.
Now onto my theories about the actual meaning and psychology behind the film. If you haven’t yet watched it, I suggest you do at this point. Cemetery man at first struck me as a story of a man in purgatory or hell, who is meant to learn about the differences between life and death (see his short talk with the death stature towards the end of the film for confirmation of this) or maybe even life itself while he himself rots in a cemetery where he must “re-kill” the undead. The “She” character could easily be seen as the Devil, as every time she pops up, Frances sets himself back further from learning anything from his mistakes as he takes the bait on her “love” and pays dearly for it every time. Outside of a religious context to the tale, there is also the possibility that Frances has a very vivid imagination, and that isolation, besides his friend Gnagi who could ALSO be seen as just an elaborate hallucination, has started to play tricks on his mind to the point where he truly believes the dead rise up from the ground and that it is his job to put down the “Returners” as he so eloquently puts it. There is also the possibility that whenever night time comes along, what happens during the dark is a dream, and maybe he sleepwalks and acts out his dreams. Of course, these are all just theories, each one having massive holes in them, and would welcome anyone to help me formulate an airtight meaning to this very cryptic gem I love so dearly and hold close to my horror loving heart.
END OF BULLSHIT THEORIES!