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A SIERRA NEVADA
(MICHAEL MADSEN & JOHN SAVAGE).
Every once in awhile a film comes along that knocks you on your ass, a movie that makes you sit up and take notice, a movie that says "Screw URBAN LEGEND, I'm proof that horror films can be entertaining, artistic, gory, and intelligent." Yes, such films exist even though they are few and far between, but it's that rarity that makes finding them all the more fun. CEMETERY MAN is one of those films.
Based on a popular Italian comic book, DYLAN DOG, the film opens with Francesco Dellamorte (literally Francesco of the Dead, played by Rupert Everett) as the caretaker of the Buffalora Cemetery, a pretty little graveyard in Italy with only one minor problem: The dead come back to life.
Francesco, ever the pragmatist, doesn't bother to tell anyone that the dead return roughly seven days after they've been buried because to do so might cost him his job and his home in the cemetery. Instead he and his child-like sidekick, Gnaghi (Francois Hadji-Lazoro: CITY OF LOST CHILDREN) spend the days thinking about philosophy, reading the phone book, and putting the dead back into their graves (with a well placed bullet or blunt object to the brain).
What happens after that is a series of bizarre episodes that are all inter-related and are almost impossible to describe effectively in print. Francesco encounters a beautiful young widow (referred to only as The Three She in the credits because she plays 3 roles) played by international supermodel, Anna Falchi.
It seems Falchi is turned on by the graveyard setting, and she and Francesco make love on her husband's grave . . . with less than stellar results. Gnaghi meets the Mayor's daughter (and throws up on her in his infatuation, long before Kyle was pulling the same stunt on South Park) and later falls in love with her severed head (which, it should be noted, loves him in return).
Francesco meets another incarnation of Falchi, this one convincing him to become impotent so she can marry him. Then, Francesco chats with Death, who asks him why he doesn't just shoot the living in the head, sparing himself the chore of having to re-kill and re-bury the dead. Francesco takes the advice to heart, becoming a serial killer, only to have someone else steal the credit for his crimes . . . it's a crazy movie, but so irreverent, so full of black humor, that it's entertaining anyway.
Argento protégée Michele Soavi (THE CHURCH, THE SECT, STAGEFRIGHT) helms the film, demonstrating that sometimes the student can outdo the master. The film is a gorgeous visual tableau, full of interesting colors, wild camera work, and some incredible sets. Soavi pulls out all the stops to make the movie as visually intriguing as possible, and the result is a film that incorporates both the best of Argento and Bava (in the colors and set design) and Sam Raimi (in the frenetic camera work and weird shots). It's a movie that's breathtakingly stunning to look at.
Unfortunately, this would be the last film Soavi would direct. He has quit directing at the present in order to spend time with his terminally ill child.
CEMETERY MAN exists in what would appear to be a parallel universe to Romero's Dead films. Here, like there, the human characters are more important than the undead, but unlike Romero's universe, these zombies talk and possess at least a rudimentary intelligence. In Romero's films, the dead are a threat, a teeming mass of shambling death, but here they're really more of an annoyance than anything.
At any rate, it's refreshing to see the film take a non-traditional approach to the familiar subject matter. No one's going to make a zombie film that will outdo the Romero trilogy. It's better to move in a new direction than to waste time trying. Giovanni Romoli's (TRAUMA, THE SECT) script is great, giving Everett's Dellamorte a wealth of lines both funny and profound. Romoli pulls off a difficult balancing act, managing to write a film that's filled with a sense of both existentialism/nihilism (all witnessed through the character of Francesco) and a healthy dose of biting black humor that no other horror film that I can recall has ever come close to duplicating.
The whole thing does begin to become a bit disjointed at the end, and the viewer gets a sense that perhaps Romoli tried to cram too many disparate elements into the script (the zombies, the necrophilia, the mass murder, the comedy, the philosophy, etc.) but it maintains enough cohesiveness to keep the viewer involved and set up what's perhaps one of the most profound endings ever.
What really sets the film apart are the performances. Everett is superb as Dellamorte, delivering lines like "I'd give my life to be dead" with a droll seriousness that makes them more funny than if he'd played them for a straight laugh. But, he also manages to pull off the intentionally funny lines as well, particularly when he berates Gnaghi for burning the old phone book, telling him "Just because we've got the new ones doesn't mean we have to throw old ones away . . . these books are classics!"
Hadji-Lazoro is wonderful as Gnaghi, playing the traditional "Igor" role with a real sense of style. You can't help but like Gnaghi, despite the fact that he's covered in food stains, mucous, or vomit for most of the film. Things aren't necessarily what they appear to be with his character, witnessed by the fact that he puts together a human skull that confounds Francesco while Dellamorte's not around, and that he actually speaks at the end of the film.
Master FX artist Sergio Stivaletti (PHENOMENA, DEMONS, STENDHAL SYNDROME) provides some great special effects, with plenty of bullets to the head, a crucifix to the skull, a plethora of zombies, a flying decapitated head, bite wounds, and a really great looking Father Death puppet. The blood flows fast and furious here and the FX creations should please even the most discerning gore fan.
The film was released as Dellamorte Dellamore (of death, of love) in Europe, a much better title than Cemetery Man.
Unfortunately, the film was terribly mismarketed in America, being played as a cross between FROM DUSK TILL DAWN and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and disappeared from theaters without a trace. It's also been titled Demons 95 and Demons 5 in an attempt to tie it into the Argento produced, Lamberto Bava directed Demons films. In fact, since Soavi worked on both Demons films, there's been an attempt to label each of his films as a Demons sequel. THE CHURCH is often referred to as Demons 3 - along with a Bava flick entitled THE OGRE. THE SECT, aka THE DEVIL'S DAUGHTER, was referred to as Demons 4. The only one to escape this tenuous linking was his slasher film, STAGEFRIGHT. Needless to say, none of these films are truly sequels to the Demons movies (none of them are even remotely like the first two Bava films in terms of style).
In the end, DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE stands out not only as a classic film in a decade more noted for its "slasher homages" than any kind of real, visceral, horror offerings (JACOB'S LADDER and the criminally underrated EXORCIST 3 excepted), but also as a great film that rises above the constraints of genre.
It doesn't need to follow the "rules," nor does it need a cast of hip young TV stars to make it appealing. It gleefully ignores the stereotypes and clichés that have come to dominate the domestic horror scene, instead telling a story complete with horror, humor, and meditations on the meaning of life and the fleeting nature of love. It presents its points intelligently, challenging the viewer to make his own conclusion, instead of pandering to its audience. It's a horror film, but so much more. It's what every horror film could be, provided the people involved cared more about creating an engaging piece of art than making something that follows a formula and appeals to a certain demographic.
No discussion of 90's horror will be complete without mentioning this film, and because of that, it gets 5 shriek girls.