It is indisputable that Italian cinema is one of the most influential national cinemas in film history. Italian neorealism in the post-war era would influence the French New Wave, which would itself be one of the most powerful floods of creative talent. While films from the French New Wave tended toward breaking wide-open established modes of commercial cinema, Italian cinema would make its mark by subversively working within genre. From the operatic westerns of Sergio Leone to the visual poetry of the giallo films of Mario Bava, Dario Argento and others, most modern cinema pays some debt to the very specific artistic visions of these directors and their collaborators.
By the mid-90s, however, Italian genre cinema had diminished considerably from its heyday in the ‘60s to the ‘80s. Directors like Argento and Fulci were far past their prime and, despite a few bright spots, the most widely popular Italian movies foreign movies tended to be easily digestible crowd-pleasers such as Life is Beautiful. One of those delightfully ghastly bright spots is Michele Saovi’s Cemetery Man or Dellamorte, Dellamore as it is known in Italy. Rupert Everett plays Francesco Dellamorte, a cemetery caretaker in a small Italian town. With the aid of his mentally disabled assistant Gnaghi (Francois Hadji-Lazaro), Dellamorte must suppress the constant swarm of undead that rise from his graves nightly. But his life is turned upside down when he falls in love with a beautiful widow played by Anna Falchi. His love (lust) for her awakens in him a madness that turns Cemetery Man into a fantastical descent into the grotesque and comically surreal.
Cemetery Man plays on the intersection of sex and death in a very literal way, specifically the fear that the former will somehow inevitably lead to the latter. It’s a concern that is so common in modern horror movies that it’s even become a commented-on trope in horror movies themselves, most notably Scream. Yet even as there is a fear of sex, there is also a gleefully macabre embrace of it as well in Cemetery Man. Anna Falchi’s widow (she is unnamed in the movie) is not particularly interested in Dellamorte until he takes her to the ossuary, a repository for bones of the deceased. The physical consummation of their love is on the grave of her deceased husband, which is a desecration to say the least, but both Falchi and Everett’s performances are so heightened that it’s hard to take it seriously. Of course, the deceased husband rises from the grave and takes a bite out of his widow, further imprinting the fear of sex in Dellamorte.
Even if you have accepted the required suspension of disbelief to watch a movie with zombies in it, Cemetery Man really stretches that suspension to its breaking point. In a side story, Gnaghi forms an unlikely romance with the severed yet animated head of the mayor’s daughter in an even more ghoulish and comic reflection of Dellamorte’s relationship. A personification of Death visits Dellamorte and advises him to start killing people himself in order to avoid the hassle of having to kill them when they are undead. And even when Dellamorte does follow that advice, a police detective refuses to see his obvious guilt and instead makes ridiculous suggestions like it was Gnaghi who stole Dellamorte’s car to commit the murders himself.
Clearly, we are seeing a very distorted view of Dellamorte’s reality. Events serve either to play out his worst fears or neuroses. Dellamorte is also visited by two more incarnations of Anna Falchi’s character. When he finds out that the third incarnation is a prostitute, it is too much for him to bear and he burns down the apartment where she and her roommates live. It is the classic Madonna-whore complex that is present in the most toxic forms of masculine views on women. None of the female characters acts in a sensible or logical way but in a heightened horror comedy like this one where we cannot trust anything we see, their behavior makes perfect sense.
Even the casting of Rupert Everett himself hints to the audience that we can trust nothing on the screen. Dellamorte is an awkward loner who likes reading old phone books for fun. While he understandably doesn’t have much of a social life due to the constant need to keep the zombie invasion at bay, it stretches credulity that he would so easily get any incarnation of Anna Falchi’s character to fall in love with him. The main reason we can buy their romance is that Everett is a classically handsome leading man. Or at least that’s what we are made to believe.
In fact, Everett looks like what a lonely, awkward man would want to imagine himself to look like, with his piercing eyes, aquiline nose and well-defined abs. Tiziano Sclavi, the writer of the novel that Cemetery Man was based on, actually based his famous comic book character Dylan Dog, on Rupert Everett, perhaps subconsciously inspired by the subversiveness of Everett’s persona. It’s a great credit to Everett that he has little vanity about his leading man looks in Cemetery Man and in his many other movies where he often plays quirky characters that don’t necessarily trade on his appearance.
Cemetery Man looks back on the traditions of giallo through a loving if not entirely faithful lens. The gorgeous cinematography characteristic of giallo is apparent even in the many scenes that take place during the night. Most of the performances are larger than life commonly found in Italian movies where actors playing different languages would have their dialogue dubbed in post-production, often not by themselves. And even though Cemetery Man came out in 1994, the zombie effects are not much more advanced than what is found in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. The film is endearingly practical in most of its effects, such as the personification of Death, which is essentially a large, well-crafted puppet.
Martin Scorsese called Cemetery Man the best Italian movie of the 90s, probably because it pays homage to previous Italian movies. Yet it manages to be more of a hodgepodge of its influences thanks to Michele Saovi’s very specific vision and Rupert Everett’s fearless and committed performance. Ultimately, Cemetery Man is memorable not necessarily for the necrophilia or unrestrained bloodlust that is shown on screen but because it is a fantasy about a man indulging in his carnality and, most importantly, the consequences he faces for his excesses.