While talking with his best friend on the phone, Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) casually shoots a zombie in the head. “You know everything’s going to hell,” he sighs, “life goes on.” On the seventh day after they die, the bodies in the cemetery where he’s the caretaker rise from the grave. A blow to the noggin can only kill these “returners.” “Is this the beginning of an invasion?” Dellamorte wonders, “In the end who cares? I’m just doing my job.” Despite his insanity, Francesco projects an apathetic demeanor.
Cemetery Man takes the inherent silliness of walking rotting corpses and adds the existential nightmare of a hero who can’t tell the difference between the living and the dead. Based on a popular Italian comic Dellamorte, Dellamore by Tiziano Sclavi, the film was a success in its native country when released in 1994, but received little enthusiasm from the international audience for which it was intended. Screenwriter Gianni Romoli says in the making-of documentary, Death is Beautiful, “Abroad it was a complete — and I mean a complete — total flop.”
Romoli claims that America didn’t understand the film, that “they couldn’t understand whether the film was a comedy or a drama.” I’m not so sure. Although director Michele Soavi was trained by Italian splatter maestros Dario Argento and Aristide Massaccesi, the film is more Hollywood high-concept than bloody abstract horror and has a fantastic quality reminiscent of Soavi’s self-proclaimed third teacher, Terry Gilliam. In a superficial way Cemetery Man fits into the pulpy spoofing of Gremlins, The Addams Family, and Ghostbusters, and has tonal similarities with Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series. Needless to say, the horror comedy concept should not have been confusing or foreign to a wide American audience. Its episodic, downward spiral structure and pessimistic outlook may have been the only thing keeping it from being a modest success on the level of Shaun of the Dead.
Hopefully, the new DVD will attract a more sizable audience to its nutty pleasures. The script contains no shortage of classic black comic one-liners. “No, please don’t [shoot], he’s only eating me,” cries a girl who has returned to her boyfriend’s undead embrace. A widow (Anna Falchi) who Dellamorte falls in love with wants to have sex on her husband’s grave because she, “never kept anything from him.” But Soavi and Romoli’s greater skill might be in sudden switches from comic to melancholy. Dellamorte gives the widow a tour of the cemetery. “You know, you’ve got a real nice ossuary,” she earnestly comments, “it’s like in my dreams.” “This is my dream,” Dellamorte shoots back.
With his long face, handsome features, and hollow dark eyes, Everett looks like the comic book approximation of a death-obsessed hero. (The actor was in fact the visual basis for Sclavi’s Dylan Dog character, a precursor to Dellamorte.) His self-obsessed outlook gradually drifts from seeming loveably world weary to irritatingly jaded — from gothic to Goth. “The living dead and the dying living are all the same,” he mutters like a morose teenager, and the camera initially supports his claim frequently framing the characters in rectangular grave settings from above and below. Dellamorte eventually decides he might as well kill everybody, anyway, but an angel of death punishes him for his refusal to understand the difference between life and death, sending duplicates of the widow who he loved and died earlier. Isolated by his thoughts and actions, he realizes too late that his only friend is his assistant Gnaghi.
As supporting characters go, they don’t come more fascinating than Gnaghi, a bald, almost perfectly round, near-mute that French musician Francois Hadji-Lazaro plays like an impish Fatty Arbuckle. Soavi describes him as “a creature — we don’t know what kind.” He’s sweetly slapstick but also tries to marry a chatty head (which he sticks in his broken television set), and whips an ax at Dellamorte when he thinks he might be dead. But as the movie progresses, he proves to be saner than his master, possessing a clarity of mind that eludes the muddle-headed Francesco.
The transition of Gnaghi to likeable hero is the movie’s major shift. Stylistically Cemetery Man is steeped in an ironic, darkly comic aesthetic that screams early ’90s, but time reveals how strongly the film eventually comes out against debilitating cynicism. When a bus full of boy scouts crashes (leading to the film’s best zombie attack sequence), Dellamorte tells an inspector “They thought their life was ahead of them, but it already passed them by.” The problem with Francesco, twisted by his stoic brooding, is that he thinks his life is already over so he’s created nothing to live for.