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 who’d once looked up to posters of funeral-arrayed icons like Siouxsie Sioux, Bauhaus, and the Cure’s Robert Smith were coming of age and landing jobs in the film industry. Accumulation was the key of the Goth’s walking-Olde-Curio-Shoppe dress code—leather fol-de-rol, ruffled shirts, Edwardian bowlers, jangling memento-mori accessories—and so obsessive clutter became the key for the Neo-Gothic movie’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 Burton’s 1989 film of Batman—it’s worth noting that the epicenter of London’s nascent Goth scene was Soho’s Batcave—with Joel Schumacher’s blowdried New Romantic The Lost Boys of 1987 an early harbinger of things to come.

The ragpicker’s shop aesthetic—bits of yellow bone, guttering candles, pickled fetuses, busted gadgetry, bottles with peeling labels, ragged parchment—was omnipresent for some years thereafter: Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, Mark Romanek’s sepia-toned video for Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” and, in perhaps its most thorough cinematic manifestation, Alex Proyas’ 1993 S&M superhero flick The Crow (one of those movies that interprets perpetual downpour as "mood"—the tie-in soundtrack featured NIN’s straight-ahead cover of proto-Goth Joy Division’s “Dead 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 he’d so-recently ribbed in Beetlejuice—“My whole life is a dark room. One… big… dark…room.”) 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 Soavi’s Goth-y, genuinely dark 1994 Franco-Italian co-production Cemetery Man. Though the film’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, but—and I say this as one who emphatically does not consider creative mutilation a worthy artistic ends in itself—it deserves the notice of moviegoers in general.

The Cemetery Man in question is Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett; the film’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: “I don’t know how the epidemic started… All I know is that some people, on the seventh night after their death, come back to life.” And they come back hungry, as usual, for the flesh of the living; in order to set these “Returners” 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 “Nyagh!”), opens up their skulls with whatever’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 he’s ringing you up. “Is this the beginning of an invasion? Does it happen in all cemeteries? … Who knows? And in the end, who cares?” At least within the protective walls of his necropolis he’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 Francesco’s torpor arrives in the form of a sexpot widow (buxom Anna Falchi, an open challenge to any dressmaker, identified as “She” 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 it’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-lived—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: “The weather’s gone bad”), 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 they’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 her—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, finally—literally—ignoring Dellamorte's smoking gun as he’s walking away from a hospital massacre; Raul Ruiz’s flat Ce jour-la reached for similar elephant-in-the-room surrealism, but it’s torpid in contrast to the twisty momentum of Cemetery Man—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: “I should’ve known it. The rest of the world doesn’t exist.” 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 down—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 it’s chock-full of images of containment, of which the snow globe is only the final, and thus, most damning: Francesco’s walled-in existence at Buffalore cemetery; the paperwork-choked office of Dellamorte’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 coffin—apt enough for a movie which suggests death and life aren’t all that dissimilar and, if anything, life, with its cyclical romantic catastrophes and repetitious workaday drudgery (Gnagi’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 I’ve gone a month since first seeing Cemetery Man without borrowing Dellamorte’s best one-liner for muttering under my breath: “I’d give my life to be dead.”

Dellamorte Dellamore’s source material is Italian cult author/ cartoonist Tiziano Sclavi's novel of the same title; as detailed in an accompanying featurette, “Death is Beautiful,” 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 priority—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 director’s canvas, hemmed with jutting cypresses (never more closely resembling Milton's “pillars of black flame”), 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 movie—and that’s all I usually ask—I have watched it to the point where most of its gags have worn dull, and I’m still not tired of it; it’s not a Screamin’ Lord Sutch/ Rob Zombie-type concoction with a lifeline only as long as its novelty’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 could’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 they’d never equaled before or since. Soavi is a former understudy of Dario Argento, his projects under his mentor’s auspices including The Church, a barely coherent rubber monster mash featuring an adolescent Asia Argento that essentially remakes Lamberto Bava’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 then—snap, cut to the camera racing across Budapest’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 Soavi’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 Poisoner’s Handbook, this is what made the fallow Nineties worthwhile for connoisseurs of the art of darkness.