“We are born to die.”
* * *
Meet Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett), the caretaker of a cemetery where, seven days after they’re buried, the dead come back to life. Dellamorte, along with his slow assistant Gnaghi (played with loveable simplicity by Francois Hadji-Lazaro), takes it upon himself to kill the dead again by shooting them in the head when they return. Why does he not tell the authorities about this zombie infestation problem? Because he doesn’t want to get the cemetery shut down. He’d lose his job if something like that happened.
Wait a minute. Zombies? No. The z-word never rears its head here. Dellamorte calls them “returners.” And is that really Rupert Everett? Isn’t he a romcom kind of guy?
Well, CEMETERY MAN isn’t that far from a romcom. There is romance, sure, and you can bet there’s comedy, but heaped on top of those ingredients is a healthy helping of undead action, absurd gore, and oddly enough, a touch of bizarro.
As you can imagine, Dellamorte is a bit of a recluse. He rarely leaves the cemetery, and when he does go to town, he is ridiculed by everyone. For some reason, a rumor has gone around that he is impotent. This is never really explained, but then again, very few things in this film are, as you’ll see. His isolation is so heavy that sometimes he doesn’t think there is a world outside the one he inhabits. He is possibly the loneliest character in the history of cinema. He reads the phone book, for Christ’s sake! And he loves it! It’s his favorite! When he’s not killing returners (and marking off their graves on a map in a parody of Richard Boone in I BURY THE LIVING) or reading the phone book, he’s working on putting a model skull together. These are the things he does for fun.
Until the day he meets . . . her. She’s actually not given a name, but she is played by the incredibly beautiful Anna Falchi. Her elderly husband has died, and when Dellamorte sees her mourning on the day of the funeral, he falls head over heels in love with her. He’s so taken with her that he actually starts hitting on her at the funeral. Every time she comes back to see the grave, he tries getting her to go out with him. Of course, she’s very upset with him, until he mentions the ossuary. That gets her very, very horny, and before you know it, after they make out among the sodden bones of the dead, they start fucking on her dead husband’s grave.
WHAT?! In what world does this make sense?! This is practically the second or third time they’ve met! And she’s in mourning! And all of a sudden, they’re star-crossed lovers?
Well, her husband chooses an inopportune moment to come back, and his bite leads to the young woman’s untimely death . . . but not in the way you think. In this world, zombie—er, returner—bites do not kill you or turn you or anything like that. They just hurt like a bastard. No, she has a heart attack from the fright of it all.
But that’s not the end for Ms. Falchi, as you can guess. What you may not guess is that after she comes back as a returner, she also comes back a couple more times as completely different characters, and they are all in love with Dellamorte from the very first second. Well, except for the third incarnation of her, but she puts on quite the show. Prostitutes usually do.
And then there’s the story of Gnaghi’s love with a severed head. And the undead mayor who thinks he still has a job. And the teenaged girl who gleefully feeds herself to her dead biker boyfriend. And . . . yeah, it’s a pretty fucked up movie.
Not only is there a lot of ghoulish humor and great gore, but there is also a sense of tone. Director Michele Soavi has an excellent eye for aesthetics. The imagery of the cemetery is hauntingly beautiful. The music fits perfectly with the movie. It’s all a wonderful homage to spaghetti horror movies, even down to the reverb sound Dellamorte’s gun makes when he shoots down returners.
The characters are amazing. Not just Dellamorte’s solitude and sudden lust for life, but also Gnaghi’s simpleminded pleasures. There is a great scene where he is raking up all the dead leaves and placing them in a wheelbarrow. Then, the wind comes and starts blowing them all away, and he’s running around, trying to catch them in a panic until he finally throws himself into the wheelbarrow to hold the leaves down. His reaction to falling in love is outstanding, as well. The mayor’s daughter is being very nice to him, and in return, he nervously pukes on her.
Speaking of the mayor’s daughter, she dies in a motorcycle vs. bus accident almost immediately after this scene. Gnaghi sees her corpse at the funeral, and he can’t bear the thought of hiding her away in the ground for eternity. So he digs her up and in trying to get her out of the coffin, he accidentally pulls her head off. And big surprise, she has just returned.
And here’s an interesting point: some of the returners seem to remember who they were. They even act the same. The mayor’s daughter’s head falls in love with Gnaghi, and they start singing together and generally having a good time. And then the mayor himself wants to escape the cemetery so he can get back to running the town. Even the biker who winds up eating his girlfriend has no problem getting back up on that motorcycle. Yet at the same time, most of the returners act like the zombies you would expect. That makes very little sense.
That is the major flaw of this movie. Very few things seem to make sense. Like the second time Falchi comes back. Not only does she confess her love for Dellamorte on their second meeting (which is fast enough as it is), but then she also says that she’s deathly afraid of cock. The very thought of being penetrated by a hard dick scares the shit out of her. She’d heard the rumors of him being impotent, and how does he respond to this? He skips the lie about it being true and goes straight to the bigger lie, that he doesn’t even have a penis.
He clearly wants to fuck this woman, so why would he say something insane like that? Wait! There’s more! He then goes to town, to the doctor, and asks him to cut off his dick. Without anesthetic. Right away. The doctor is understandably aghast, and he can’t bring himself to do it. Instead, he injects Dellamorte’s genitals with a formula that is supposed to make him impotent. It is one of the most uncomfortable scenes ever put to film.
Turns out, the doctor’s squeamishness was for the best. The next time Dellamorte sees his beloved, she tells him that she’d just been raped by her boss . . . and now she loves sex.
Yes. That’s exactly how it works in the real world. Women get raped, and they turn into horny bitches.
So she breaks up with him, and his world comes flying apart. So much so that he is visited by the Grim Reaper in a very creepy fashion, and Death is pretty pissed off. He wants Dellamorte to stop killing the dead. Instead, he should kill the living. So Dellamorte goes to town and goes on a killing spree, shooting down everyone who made fun of him. Understandable, but even though his car was seen at the scene, he gets away with it. Later, he goes on an even more absurd shooting spree in a hospital . . . and he gets away with that, too. A cop even sees him holding the murder weapon, and he merely says to Dellamorte, “Good. You’re armed.”
Oh, and the mayor, before he died and returned, in an attempt to gain sympathy from voters (it’s an election year), has his daughter’s body dug up for a photo op.
All of this is pretty crazy, but it can be excused a bit, because this isn’t a very literal movie. It’s not meant to be taken too seriously. It’s a phantasmagorical bizarro tale. You can get away with a lot of weird, nonsensical shit in a bizarro tale, like having the picture of Falchi’s husband on his grave change expressions as it “overhears” conversations between her and Dellamorte.
But then there are other things. The floating balls of fire are suspended by obvious strings. There is another scene where an insultingly fake fly buzzes around on, you guessed it, a very obvious string. And when Falchi’s character first gets bitten, she is in Dellamorte’s lap as they make love. They are both naked, yet when she gets bitten, and Dellamorte leaps into action, he’s wearing underwear. How, exactly, does one fuck through underwear? Yet in the very same scene, as he cradles her dying body in his arms, he stands up and carries her away, giving us a flash of his naked dick. And the craziest of it all is that the biker is buried with his motorcycle. When he returns, he blasts out of the ground, like he thought he was Ghost Rider. And when the mayor’s daughter’s head attacks, it jumps out of its nest in Gnaghi’s burned-out TV and FLYS AT ITS VICTIM. ON WHAT FUCKING WINGS?! And remember when Gnaghi pukes on the
mayor’s daughter? Claudio, the biker who goes on to return and eat his girlfriend, helps her escape the scene by inviting her on his motorcycle for a ride. BUT SHE’S COVERED IN PUKE. She’d be pressing her vomit-soaked shirt against Claudio’s back. But does he have a problem with that?
Well . . . maybe he’s into that kind of thing. But one remains doubtful.
And there is one more flaw that really hurts the film: it is narrated by Dellamorte. Everett is a very good actor, and he has no problem in getting ideas across without speaking a word. The narration never gets anything new across. It’s completely unnecessary, and it detracts from the power of certain scenes.
But for all the silliness and flaws, it is truly an effective horror movie. Aside from the dick injection scene (where everything was implied, not shown), there are some very uncomfortable moments. At one point, Dellamorte is showering when he is unexpectedly attacked by a troupe of Boy Scout returners. He has to fight these things naked. And when Falchi’s husband is trying to claw his way out of his grave, we see that plants have already grown their roots into his face. And his fingernails splinter away as he scrapes through the wood of his coffin. And when Dellamorte, sick of the whole farce, is ready to quit the game, he shouts and raves drunkenly at a faceless statue of Death. When he turns away, though, a skull appears in the fold of the hood, grinning fiercely. It’s enough to inspire goose bumps.
And then there’s the ending. No other horror movie has such a beautiful, yet absolutely baffling, conclusion. You’ll need to watch it twice before you can even start to think about what it means, and it might even merit a third time before it can be pieced together.
CEMETERY MAN is more than worth your attention. It is an excellent mishmash of genre, and a creepy homage to Italian horror (by someone who used to work with Argento, no less!). You will be shocked and disgusted, but you’re going to need to surrender a lot of verisimilitude to truly appreciate this grim, hilarious masterpiece.Have You Read...?