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DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE (1994)
[aka Cemetery Man]

“Oh, go away! I haven’t got time for the living!”

Director: Michele Soavi

Starring: Rupert Everett, François Hadji-Lazaro, Anna Falchi, Mickey Knox, Fabiana Formica, Anton Alexander, Clive Riche, Stefano Masciarelli

Screenplay: Michele Soavi

Synopsis:  There is a knock on the door of the house of Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett), caretaker of the Buffalora cemetery. Outside stands a man who is wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, and who is very dead. Dellamorte shoots the intruder through the head, and then returns to an interrupted phone-call from his friend, Franco (Anton Alexander), telling him that, you know, life goes on.... Dellamorte calls for his strange, near-mute assistant, Gnaghi (François Hadji-Lazaro), and the two re-bury the body. Suddenly, another grave nearby erupts and a second corpse rises, stalking menacingly towards them. Dellamorte grabs the spade from the terrified Gnaghi and splits the corpse’s skull. Later, Dellamorte ponders this strange epidemic, which sees what he calls “Returners” rising from their graves within seven days of death, and wonders whether it is happening anywhere but his cemetery – and why anyone would want to return. The next day, Dellamorte observes a funeral for an elderly man, and is stunned by the sight of a young woman in black (Anna Falchi), the most beautiful living woman that he has ever seen. When the woman returns to replace the flowers on the grave, Dellamorte sympathises with her over the loss of her father – only to have her hiss that the dead man was her husband. Dellamorte goes into town to collect his wages. Franco advises him to alert the mayor about the Returners, but Dellamorte, hearing how much paperwork would be involved, decides that it’s easier to just go on shooting them. As Dellamorte leaves the town hall, he is subjected to catcalls from some of the townspeople, who mock his rumoured impotence. The woman returns once again to the cemetery, but Dellamorte’s attempts to talk to her go from bad to worse. Finally, desperate for something, anything, to say to her, he blurts that the cemetery has a remarkable ossuary – and this does the trick. The woman begs to see it, excitedly caressing the remains and their tattered shrouds. Then, casting a veil over Dellamorte’s head, she kisses him passionately – until suddenly she breaks away and runs from him, sobbing that she cannot be unfaithful. That night, however, she returns, weeping as she confesses her passion for Dellamorte. The two begin to make love on her husband’s grave – but in the grave, the corpse’s eyes suddenly open.... The woman screams as her late husband tears open her upper arm with his teeth. Dellamorte snatches up a cross from a nearby grave and drives it through the corpse’s head. He then carries the woman into the house, swearing that nothing will separate them, not even death.... Dr Verseci (Clive Riche) reports that the cause of the woman’s death was fear, not the bite wound, and that she died while making love. Marshall Straniano (Mickey Knox), the investigating officer, chuckles that, in that case, Dellamorte cannot be responsible. He adds that since the woman had no family, the body can remain at the cemetery. In the ossuary, Dellamorte watches over his lost love’s body, praying that she does not become a Returner....but the shrouded figure begins to move....

Comments:  A bizarre rumination on life and death, love and hate, and those exceedingly grey areas that lurk in between, Michele Soavi’s Dellamorte Dellamore is the kind of film that leaves you torn between shaking your head in mystification at the fact that it was ever made in the first place, and being enormously heartened by the fact that it was; that somewhere, some time, a few brave souls had enough nerve to throw themselves with such obvious enthusiasm into a work so profoundly uncommercial. Dellamorte Dellamore almost defines the expression cult movie, inasmuch as it is impossible to categorise. Is it an art film about zombies? – or a film about zombies executed with great artistry? Is it a black comedy....or a political satire....or a gore film....or a love story? It is, in fact, none of these things entirely, and all of them by turns. It makes bad jokes when it should be at its most serious, and grinds to a halt for a little philosophy when the story most cries out for action. Go into this film with expectations of any kind, and it is likely they will be disappointed. Go with none at all, and you just might find yourself enjoying what is – whatever else it is – one extremely wild ride.

While one would hesitate to recommend Dellamorte Dellamore to anyone – that’s the kind of act that can ruin friendships, or possibly get you killed – it would perhaps be safe to say that the people most likely to enjoy it are those well-versed in the history of Italian horror – as Michele Soavi himself clearly is. Soavi belongs to the third wave of Italian horror directors, and credits those of the second wave – specifically, Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava and Aristide Massaccesi – as his mentors. Dellamorte Dellamore, however, is a work whose roots may be found in the very dawn of Italian horror, combining the thematic audacity of films such as Riccardo Freda’s L’Orrible Segreto Del Dr Hichcock with the visual poetry of almost everything photographed or directed by Mario Bava. (Conversely, it is, I think, fair comment to say that Dellamorte Dellamore reflects its ancestry also in its blithe disregard of such niceties as a structured plot, or logical story progressions.) Nevertheless, it is a more recent, and non-Italian, influence that is most deeply felt throughout this film. Soavi’s other great cinematic tutor was Terry Gilliam, for whom he shot second unit on The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen. Gilliam’s fingerprints are all over this film, particularly in the extravagance of its imagery – and even more so in the sense gained of Soavi’s pleasure in that extravagance, purely for its own sake. The scene in which the Grim Reaper manifests himself out of the swirling ashes of Francesco Dellamorte’s bonfire and sits down for a little chat about their respective professional demarcations is unmistakably Gilliam-esque.

But there is another level at which Terry Gilliam’s sensibilities are at work in Dellamorte Dellamore, and that is in the film’s satirical portrayal of the community of Buffalora. Well – perhaps “community” isn’t quite the right word here: that could imply a town where people have normal interactions. Dealing each night with the newly risen undead, Francesco Dellamorte wonders why they should be coming back in his cemetery. We, the outside observers of Buffalora, have no doubt. If here we never reach the extremities of Brazil’s depiction of a Thatcherite hell, Buffalora is quite sufficiently disturbing – and funny. The town is the most stifling of bureaucracies. The office of Dellamorte’s friend, Franco, is a bewildering maze of files and folders, and there is paperwork to cover every possible eventuality – even the existence of the living dead. Literally everyone is a part of “the system”: the first of the Returners with whom we see Francesco Dellamorte deal appears to us in full office regalia, right down to the briefcase in his hand. The mayor, who presides over this straitjacketed existence, is a single-minded opportunist whose main reaction to the gruesome death of his daughter is to try and figure out how best to make political mileage out of it. (“How about....‘Vote for a man who has lost all other happiness’?”) The local police force, meanwhile, is headed by a man who hears only what his superiors want him to hear (“Did you hear that?” the mayor cries when his dead daughter calls out to him. “I don’t know....it depends,” responds the Marshall cautiously), and whose thinking runs so completely upon pre-defined rails that he is literally unable to see what is right before his eyes. (Having made up his mind that Dellamorte is not guilty of a wave of murders throughout Buffalora, the Marshall doesn’t even blink when he sees him walking away from the scene of a hospital massacre with a smoking gun in his hand. “You’ve got a gun? Good thinking! – you’ll be able to defend yourself!”) In such a place, where the living grow ever more moribund, why should we be surprised to see the dead grow ever more lively? Small wonder that, as our story progresses, Francesco Dellamorte should have increasing difficulty in telling the two states apart.

Small wonder, too, perhaps, that Dellamorte has withdrawn himself from most human interaction, contenting himself with delivering cod-philosophical lectures on the meaning of life to the unfortunate Gnaghi (whose main qualification as Dellamorte’s chosen companion seems to be that he cannot interrupt him), and with rambling phone conversations with Franco, who is as dissatisfied with his existence as Dellamorte himself. (When the two men meet face to face, though, they have little to say to one another.) Surrounded on all sides by literal death, Dellamorte is barely conscious of his own spiritual stagnation....until the moment when everything changes, when he first catches sight of – She.

Given, however, that his first glimpse of the woman who will simultaneously give meaning to and utterly destroy his life is accompanied by the observation that she is the most beautiful living woman that he has ever seen, we must be exceedingly wary about taking lessons in love from Francesco Dellamorte – even lessons in amour fou. On the other hand, Dellamorte’s attempts to strike up an acquaintance with the object of his obsession are an object lesson in what not to do; and if we needed any proof of just how divorced from reality our anti-hero really is (and even so early in this film, we really don’t), we have it in the fact that that Dellamorte tries to impress the woman by telling her he has a degree in biology!! (It’s a lie, by the way.) Then again--- As pick-up lines go, I suppose that one is no more ridiculous than the one that actually works: “The cemetery’s small, but it has a marvellous ossuary!”

“An ossuary!?” breathes the Widow.

And so begins one of the screen’s most perverted romances, one as comical as it is horrifying – and one that, as we are aware, even if Dellamorte is not, is doomed from the outset. There are, after all, certain rules that it is wise to follow when pursuing forbidden love, the first one being not to have sex in the cemetery where your lover’s recently departed spouse is buried. Or, if you do have sex in the cemetery where her spouse is buried, don’t do it right on his grave. Or, if you do do it right on his grave, at least make sure you’re not in the kind of cemetery where the dead regularly come back to life.

But if you do choose to ignore all these admonitions, then at least have the grace not to look surprised when the irate undead spouse climbs out of his grave and starts biting chunks out of your lover.

While to this point the viewer of Dellamorte Dellamore is invited to see its events, no matter how incredible, as reality, from this moment onwards we must be extremely cautious how we interpret what we see. Even as Dellamorte sits by his lover’s body, praying that she might not become a Returner, we see him doze off....and indeed, there is a distinct possibility that everything beyond this point is simply a figment of Dellamorte’s increasingly deranged imagination.

Mind you, it is a derangement that is entirely understandable: in rapid succession, Dellamorte shoots his lover when she sits up in the ossuary; buries her; regains her when she rises from the dead; loses her again when Gnaghi splits her skull with a shovel; and then realises that if she returned a second time, then she couldn’t have been dead the first time – that is, when he shot her.

Oops.

And even that isn’t the end of it. In the aftermath of a horrific traffic accident that wipes out most of the youthful population of Buffalora, Dellamorte must deal with the rising of an undead biker and his tryst with his distraught, still-living girlfriend. Dellamorte ignores the girl’s pleas for her lover’s, um, life, and shoots the biker through the head – only for the bullet to pass right through and kill the girl as well....leaving a stunned Dellamorte to ponder the difference in likely consequences to himself from killing the living rather than the dead. (As it turns out, he needn’t have worried: if anyone even notices that the girl has disappeared, we never hear from them.) It is against this background that the Grim Reaper turns up, to admonish the caretaker for re-killing the dead – his dead – and to suggest that if he doesn’t like the dead coming back to life, then he should go on shooting the living in the head – thereby cutting out the middle-man. Dellamorte acts upon this advice, choosing for his victims a group of young men given to ridiculing him for his supposed sexual impotence. Dellamorte makes no effort to conceal his responsibility for the slaughter, only to have Marshall Straniano declare him innocent of it, on the grounds that if he is incapable of having sex, he must be incapable of....well, just about everything else.

The unspoken joke in all this is that the source of the false rumour of Dellamorte’s impotence is almost certainly Dellamorte himself – one more excuse for avoiding interaction with the living. As with most things that Dellamorte does, his choice here has an entirely unexpected outcome when he finds himself pursued by a young woman whose sexual phobia means she can only love an impotent man; a young woman who bears a striking resemblance to Dellamorte’s lost love....

Dellamorte Dellamore takes a particularly distasteful turn here. Convinced that he can only hold onto this reincarnation of his dead lover by being truly sexually incapable, Dellamorte takes steps to make himself so. (This plot twist seems to have been lifted from what may be the best of the Tod Browning-Lon Chaney collaborations, The Unknown – although it is executed here with none of its model’s subtlety, and is therefore not half so disturbing. [Or at least, so I think. Male viewers are free to feel otherwise.]) No sooner has Dellamorte taken this drastic action, however, than the girl reappears to announce that she has been “cured” of her phobia – by being raped – and liking it.

There is no doubt that the film is skating on some very, very thin ice here....but we must keep in mind that by this stage of the story, everything we see is being filtered through Francesco Dellamorte’s crumbling sanity. For all that he nurses a tragic romantic vision of himself, Dellamorte doesn’t actually want a real relationship with a real woman – hence the fact that his dream girl (who has not yet finished reappearing) only ever manifests herself as different versions of “the unobtainable”. After showing up as a widow, as frigid, and as a corpse (and in this universe, the fact that the object of his desires is dead is, quite frankly, the least of Dellamorte’s romantic worries), the woman’s final appearance as a literal prostitute is disappointing in its inevitability – although not without its comic side. Blind to the facts that are so obvious to the viewer, Dellamorte is shattered to find that the consummation of his grand passion comes with a price-tag. Asked by the woman’s roommate for 100,000 lira, Dellamorte utters numbly, “But – she said she loved me!” “Oh – that’s 150,000,” responds the pragmatic roommate. By this time, however, Dellamorte has learned how to deal with those who let him down....

No, it is certainly not Francesco Dellamorte to whom we must look for guidance in matters of the heart. There is such a guide to be found in Dellamorte Dellamore, though....perhaps the most unlikely one imaginable. Although this film is a wonderful vehicle for the young Rupert Everett, who perhaps never gave a better performance, there are times when it is almost stolen from him by the marvellous comic performance of François Hadji-Lazaro, who manages the not inconsiderable task of making Gnaghi utterly repulsive and entirely lovable all at the same time. Through various throwaway shots and scenes, the viewer learns that there is a great deal more to Gnaghi than initially meets the eye, the underlying joke being that everyone seems to realise it except Gnaghi’s supposed best friend, who keeps him around chiefly, we suspect, so that he will always have someone at hand to whom he can feel superior. The two co-inhabit the house that comes with their jobs at Buffalora cemetery, with Dellamorte occupying all the upper rooms, and Gnaghi a windowless basement. From a psychological perspective, it can be seen that the two are fragments of a single fractured personality, with Gnaghi in his underground room the Id, and Dellamorte, up in the open, the Ego; this relationship is even more evident in the film’s infamous closing moments.

While Dellamorte philosophises endlessly about life and love, Gnaghi goes about finding them, the latter in the shape of the mayor’s doomed daughter, Valentina Scanarotti. Unfortunately for Gnaghi, the only way he can express his affection for Valentina is by throwing up on her. (One wonders if this was the inspiration for Stan Marsh’s similar romantic affliction in South Park.) Valentina takes this in surprisingly good part, however, before jumping onto the back of the motorcycle of Claudio the biker, the two riding off to meet their destinies by colliding with a bus full of boy scouts. Buffalora cemetery being what it is, Gnaghi knows very well that it is only a matter of time before Valentina is up and around again. Impatience gets the better of him, however, and he opens Valentina’s grave and tries to lift her out of it – but only succeeds in pulling off her head. Not to worry. The head is very glad to see Gnaghi, inviting him to kiss it....and the two, in the first flush of love, take up residence in the basement room. What ensues is one of the strangest, the sweetest, and, God help us, the most convincing romances in....well, certainly in the history of the horror movie. Never mind Francesco Dellamorte and his obsession with a physically exquisite exterior: it is Gnaghi and Valentina who understand what really matters. True love is, after all, true love; and if it dawns between a maladjusted near-mute man-child and a zombiefied severed head, well, what can the rest of us do but be properly envious? Alas, however, this being the kind of film that it is, it all ends in tears....and severed jugular veins....and bullets through the head.

(By the way – what is it with the Italians and flying zombie heads?? Oh, well, I guess they’re not as bad as the Balinese....)

Dellamorte Dellamore is – as you have probably gathered by now – a very uneasy blending of content and styles. While certain viewers might be attracted to the film by this very quality, it seems likely that more of them will be put off by its refusal to settle into being any one kind of story. The grue content might also be too much for the casual observer, although it must be said that the gore effects are, for the most part, singularly unconvincing. (I’m particularly fond of the newly undead boy scout whose head explodes in a puff of sawdust.) The film’s screenplay is also problematical, being ultimately more a series of set-pieces than a coherent whole; but if those fragments never really come together, individually they are never less than compelling – and frequently very funny. There is plenty of talk about sex in this film, but for all that, one of the most remarkable things about the screenplay of Dellamorte Dellamore is its mastery of what you might call the triple entendre: that is, it keeps looking like it’s setting itself up for a dirty joke, but the punch line never eventuates. Thus, Gnaghi’s relationship with Valentina’s severed head is as chaste and delicate as it well could be; while the teenage girl who declaims indignantly that she’ll be eaten by whoever she chooses does indeed have her undead boyfriend chowing down on her arm. Best of all, though, is the Widow’s breathy reading of the line, “You know – you have a real nice ossuary,” which sounds so salacious in context that it takes you a while to realise it actually isn’t.

But in the end, what really bothers people about Dellamorte Dellamore is not its erratic script (this is, after all, an Italian horror film), or its violence, or its sexual content, or its zombies, but that the film has – or seems to have – the temerity to demand to be taken seriously. It is this, I think, that so often sees the film dubbed pretentious; well, this, plus an ending that seems carefully devised to drive as many people as possible into screaming frustration. Personally, I don’t mind at all if some of Life’s Big Questions come to us courtesy of an Italian zombie film. Where I baulk is at being asked to take at face-value the philosophical meanderings of Francesco Dellamorte.

But are we really meant to do so? In fact, Dellamorte’s personal creed is as horrifyingly destructive as it is hilarious – more so, because he seems intent not just on going, but taking everyone he can down with him. After Gnaghi has lost Valentina once and for all, Dellamorte tries to console him with the observation that the world is full of girls like that. “And most of them have bodies,” he adds, proving conclusively just how thoroughly he has misunderstood everything that has been going on – or rather, how incapable he is of seeing anything from any perspective but his own. This is appallingly evident also in his dealings with Franco, when the latter complains to him of dissatisfaction with his life. “You’ll see, Franco: Maria is going to get tired of you, and Cinzia will grow up to hate you – and then you’ll be free!” Yet when he later hears that Franco has murdered his wife and daughter, he hardly even reacts, being more concerned with Franco’s appropriation via false confession of three of his murders. “What kind of fucking friend do you think you are?” Dellamorte demands aggrievedly of the man who lies comatose after a suicide attempt, taking his feelings out by blowing the brains out of three strangers unfortunate enough to wander into the hospital room. In his own sick way, Dellamorte is a worse infection than that usually spread by a zombie’s bite.

(It is, in any case, rather hard to take Francesco Dellamorte seriously – and, by extension, the film that contains him – when the “philosopher” at whose feet he seems to have studied most is Marvin the Android! [“The living.... Don’t talk to me about the living!”])

Francesco Dellamorte is, then, not a guide, but a grim warning. His self-obsession has taken him completely away from the possibility of a normal life, normal relationships. Like Narcissus himself, Dellamorte has gazed so long, not at his own reflection, but into his own naval, that he has at length fallen in. His existence, like the ending of the film itself, is a reminder that too much time spent pondering life rather than living it, leads nowhere but up a dead end – literally as well as metaphysically.

Want a second opinion of Dellamorte Dellamore? Visit Stomp Tokyo.

CEMETERY MAN [Dellamorte Dellamore] – available on DVD through Anchor Bay Entertainment.

Running time:  99 minutes

Aspect ratio:  1.66, 16x9 enhanced

Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1 and English Dolby 2.0 Surround

Extras: 

·      8-page souvenir booklet

·      Death Is Beautiful:  the story behind Dellamorte Dellamore

·      Michele Soavi biography

·      Italian theatrical trailer

Comments:  Too long missing in action, Michele Soavi’s magnum opus is another welcome release from Anchor Bay (even though one must deplore the company’s decision to go with the film’s thuddingly unimaginative English-language title, Cemetery Man, rather than the appropriately poetic Dellamorte Dellamore). The picture quality is upon the whole very good, although there is some loss of detail in the night time scenes; a pity, because the cinematography and production design of this film are both exquisite. The film has been released in its English-language version only, a decision vindicated by the fact that Rupert Everett is allowed to speak with his own voice: Everett’s deadpan delivery is one of the film’s comic joys. An absence of closed captioning, however, is disappointing.

The accompanying featurette, Death Is Beautiful, is chiefly of use for untangling the film’s exceedingly complicated genesis, and making clear the often mis-credited relationship between Tiziano Sclavi’s comic, Dylan Dog, this film, and Rupert Everett. It also spends some time on the early career of Michele Soavi, and includes interviews with screenwriter Gianni Romoli, special effects designer Sergio Stivaletti and actress Anna Falchi, as well as with Michele Soavi himself. The text biography of Soavi covers some of the same ground, but goes into more detail about his early life and collaborations. 

Material for this review generously provided by Anchor Bay Entertainment. Special thanks to Jacqueline.

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