Cemetery Man (Dellamorte Dellamore)
Dir. Michele Soavi, 1994, Italy
by Nick Pinkerton
The layered flounce of Goth Rock came to the screen with a vengeance in the early Nineties, as kids whoâ€™d once looked up to posters of funeral-arrayed icons like Siouxsie Sioux, Bauhaus, and the Cureâ€™s Robert Smith were coming of age and landing jobs in the film industry. Accumulation was the key of the Gothâ€™s walking-Olde-Curio-Shoppe dress codeâ€”leather fol-de-rol, ruffled shirts, Edwardian bowlers, jangling memento-mori accessoriesâ€”and so obsessive clutter became the key for the Neo-Gothic movieâ€™s art department; they created spaces that ceased to refer to anything in the films themselves, resembling nothing more than curated collections. If there is a landmark movie for the cross-medium synthesis, in which cinematography began taking orders from decor, it may be wunderkind Tim Burtonâ€™s 1989 film of Batmanâ€”itâ€™s worth noting that the epicenter of Londonâ€™s nascent Goth scene was Sohoâ€™s Batcaveâ€”with Joel Schumacherâ€™s blowdried New Romantic The Lost Boys of 1987 an early harbinger of things to come.
The ragpickerâ€™s shop aestheticâ€”bits of yellow bone, guttering candles, pickled fetuses, busted gadgetry, bottles with peeling labels, ragged parchmentâ€”was omnipresent for some years thereafter: Burtonâ€™s Edward Scissorhands, Mark Romanekâ€™s sepia-toned video for Nine Inch Nailsâ€™ â€śCloser,â€ť and, in perhaps its most thorough cinematic manifestation, Alex Proyasâ€™ 1993 S&M superhero flick The Crow (one of those movies that interprets perpetual downpour as "mood"â€”the tie-in soundtrack featured NINâ€™s straight-ahead cover of proto-Goth Joy Divisionâ€™s â€śDead Souls," alongside genre stalwarts like the Cure and My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult). Googleplex salability proven, the Goth movie's style has since been adapted to a bevy of interchangable action-horror blockbusters where raven-haired vixens do battle with the Forces of the Night for a share of the disposable income of former "Vampire: The Masquerade" acolytes now working in tech service.
A decade-plus after the fact, the early Goth-cinema works are easy to see for what they are: loads of arcana enshrining puerile broodiness (Scissorhands seems particularly risible, with Burton full-on consecrating the beautiful outsider baloney that heâ€™d so-recently ribbed in Beetlejuiceâ€”â€śMy whole life is a dark room. Oneâ€¦ bigâ€¦ darkâ€¦room.â€ť) and rickety spookhouse mannerisms gutted for a CGI renovation, ignoring the fact that so much money on-screen is very rarely scary, at least not for the reasons intended. Which brings us to the exception that proves the rule: Michele Soaviâ€™s Goth-y, genuinely dark 1994 Franco-Italian co-production Cemetery Man. Though the filmâ€™s gruesome slapstick-romantic comedy-provincial satire-existentialist fantasy amalgamation proved a popular success in Italy, the movie tanked during a 1996 American theatrical run enabled by the late October Films, though still attracting some cult status. Its at-long-last arrival on anamorphic widescreen DVD will be cause for celebration for fans of Italian horror cinema, butâ€”and I say this as one who emphatically does not consider creative mutilation a worthy artistic ends in itselfâ€”it deserves the notice of moviegoers in general.
The Cemetery Man in question is Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett; the filmâ€™s Italian title was the far-more-evocative Dellamorte Dellamore: of love, of death), watchman of the Buffalore cemetery, whose duties go well past the usual nightly rounds; per his voice-over: â€śI donâ€™t know how the epidemic startedâ€¦ All I know is that some people, on the seventh night after their death, come back to life.â€ť And they come back hungry, as usual, for the flesh of the living; in order to set these â€śReturnersâ€ť to permanent rest, Dellamorte, aided by his mute, Brueghelesque plug-ugly of an assistant Gnagi (turnip-squat French comic star Francois Hadji-Lazaro, whose only utterance is an all-purpose â€śNyagh!â€ť), opens up their skulls with whateverâ€™s handy: pistol, spade, wrought-iron tombstone decoration. An incurious sort, Dellamorte is grudgingly resolved to his chartered routine of killing the dead, which he performs as punch-the-clock drudgery, squeezing off shots while he handles phone calls, like the counterman at the deli who keeps his cell glued to his ear while heâ€™s ringing you up. â€śIs this the beginning of an invasion? Does it happen in all cemeteries? â€¦ Who knows? And in the end, who cares?â€ť At least within the protective walls of his necropolis heâ€™s free of the spiffy scooter-riding small-town I Vitelloni types who shower him with heckles about his alleged impotence (how this became public domain is left unclear) whenever he goes into town.
The instrument for disturbing Francescoâ€™s torpor arrives in the form of a sexpot widow (buxom Anna Falchi, an open challenge to any dressmaker, identified as â€śSheâ€ť in the credits), who helps our hero prove those impotence rumors wrong, and atop the grave of her late husband, no less (we see the old man's porcelain portrait turn from codgerly amiability to a possessive scowl). Since itâ€™s routine reviewer practice to praise straight actors for going gay-for-pay, I will note that Everett is convincing in his fixation on Falchi, a lust that is tragically short-livedâ€”her husband returns to settle scores, and Francesco is left to grieve. As Dellamorte's despair settles into deadpan-broadcast nihilism (emerging into a bright day: â€śThe weatherâ€™s gone badâ€ť), the film evolves into mind-of-a-madman stuff; our hero's nocturnal routine of re-killing the already-dead blurs into straightfoward homicide with the idea of a time-saving technique: why not shoot people in the head before they've died, so theyâ€™ll only need to be buried once? Making matters all the more dizzying, Dellamorte's lost love keeps resurfacing (or at least women, played by Falchi, who look exactly like herâ€”shades of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), only to trigger aftershocks of his heartbreak. The investigations into Francesco's murders by the local police, led by the very funny career-expatriate American actor Mickey Knox, mount in absurd ineptitude, finallyâ€”literallyâ€”ignoring Dellamorte's smoking gun as heâ€™s walking away from a hospital massacre; Raul Ruizâ€™s flat Ce jour-la reached for similar elephant-in-the-room surrealism, but itâ€™s torpid in contrast to the twisty momentum of Cemetery Manâ€”as Francesco, in a long overhead shot, moves down the endless spiral of the hospital stairs, you can feel the movie draining toward a climax of nothingness.
Which is exactly where it does finish; Dellamorte and Gnagi pack up to leave town, but they hit a dead end: â€śI shouldâ€™ve known it. The rest of the world doesnâ€™t exist.â€ť The film's final moments screech in abruptly, involving a sudden transference of identities, and a gutsy metaphoric edit that leads from the duo dazed, at the edge of eternity, with a wet flurry starting to come downâ€”to the image of their tiny figures, fixed at the same dilemma, reproduced inside a snow globe, the same trinket seen on Francesco's desk in the film's opening credits. But this isn't as much of a bolt from the blue as some contemporary reviewers might've had you believe, and certainly not a last-ditch effort to confuse viewers with a obfuscating smokescreen of pseudo-profundity. This admittedly dilettantish movie counts provincial asphyxia among its many tangential subjects, and itâ€™s chock-full of images of containment, of which the snow globe is only the final, and thus, most damning: Francescoâ€™s walled-in existence at Buffalore cemetery; the paperwork-choked office of Dellamorteâ€™s only friend, a local beureaucrat; a hospital bed, hemmed in by screens, shot from overhead amidst a field of black (Paul Schrader has shown particular fondness for this effect in his Mishima and Patty Hearst). Dellamorte Dellamore finally snaps closed on itself with the tight-lipped finality of a sealed coffinâ€”apt enough for a movie which suggests death and life arenâ€™t all that dissimilar and, if anything, life, with its cyclical romantic catastrophes and repetitious workaday drudgery (Gnagiâ€™s vainly clawing at windswept leaves with a broken toothed-rake; Francesco's Sisyphan re-killing and re-burying) is the more unpleasant of the options. Nasty stuff, but gallows funny: I doubt Iâ€™ve gone a month since first seeing Cemetery Man without borrowing Dellamorteâ€™s best one-liner for muttering under my breath: â€śIâ€™d give my life to be dead.â€ť
Dellamorte Dellamoreâ€™s source material is Italian cult author/ cartoonist Tiziano Sclavi's novel of the same title; as detailed in an accompanying featurette, â€śDeath is Beautiful,â€ť it was a piece of casting serendipity to land Everett, whose long, loose gravestone jaw inspired the look of the Dellamore character in his Dylan Dog comics (popular enough to be newsstand-available). Without having seen any of Sclavi's work for comparison, I will say that the film seems cast with graphic impact as top priorityâ€”in general, the implicit freedoms created by shooting without synch sound in Italian cinema lends itself to casting according to faces, figures, silhouettes, and you get a contained universe of wonderfully distinct bodies here: moony Everett, long legs in black denim smeared with grave dirt, stoop-shouldered, abashed at his conspicuous tallness; Falchi, hyperbolically voluptuous, overinflated to bursting, her breathy line readings like air escaping; Hadji-Lazaro, a Charles Addams doodle played with the pathos of a blubbering silent-film grotesque. Just as well cast is the cemetery itself; the production used an actual terraced graveyard for its art directorâ€™s canvas, hemmed with jutting cypresses (never more closely resembling Milton's â€śpillars of black flameâ€ť), generously embellished with fanciful plaster monuments that create touches of the ethereal amidst the loamy decay: the simple composition of a painted globe headpiece, framed in alignment with the reflection of the moon in fetid water, creates a miniature cosmos; will-o-the-wisps, visibly rigged-up on fishing wire, dart between headstones like comets; backlit fog forms low-lying clouds.
Though Cemetery Man is, on the whole, a very funny movieâ€”and thatâ€™s all I usually askâ€”I have watched it to the point where most of its gags have worn dull, and Iâ€™m still not tired of it; itâ€™s not a Screaminâ€™ Lord Sutch/ Rob Zombie-type concoction with a lifeline only as long as its noveltyâ€™s novel (though I still find new things to laugh at here; Gnagi has a framed picture next to his bed of himself holding a trophy, standing next to Dellamorte... it only becomes a gag when you ask yourself what Gnagi couldâ€™ve possibly won a trophy for). This rewatchability is accountable to many things: handcrafted poetry, sarcastic brooding, and talents (Everett, director Soavi) working at a level theyâ€™d never equaled before or since. Soavi is a former understudy of Dario Argento, his projects under his mentorâ€™s auspices including The Church, a barely coherent rubber monster mash featuring an adolescent Asia Argento that essentially remakes Lamberto Bavaâ€™s Demons inside a cathedral (it does contain one moment of ecstatic madness: a possessed man wrenches out his own heart, lofts it over a Cecil DeMille fuchsia sky thenâ€”snap, cut to the camera racing across Budapestâ€™s Elizabeth bridge, scored by Phillip Glass), and Stage Fright, a stylish but irredeemable slasher (No Shame DVD has re-released some of his subsequent TV work, for interested parties). Nothing in Soaviâ€™s resume would suggest a Cemetery Man is within his powers, but the document is undeniable; along with the largely forgotten and DVD-unavailable The Young Poisonerâ€™s Handbook, this is what made the fallow Nineties worthwhile for connoisseurs of the art of darkness.