Francesco Dellamorte has a bit of a problem. He’s the live-in watchman at Buffalora Cemetery in northern Italy, where the corpses are crawling back out of their graves after spending a mere week or so in the ground. As you can imagine, that’s something of a nuisance, but if he reports it to the authorities, he’s certain of one thing — they’ll shut down the cemetery to investigate, and Francesco will be out of a job. Since he can’t have that happening, he keeps a loaded pistol with him, which he carries to the door whenever he answers a knock. It’s usually just one of them coming back, and a single bullet blown solidly through the head — where have you gone, George Romero? — takes a zombie down easily enough. For a misanthrope like Francesco, it’s a pretty good gig.
Surrounded by death, and with only the clumsy and deformed Gnaghi for company, Francesco’s life is pretty stable until he falls for a mourning widow. Anna Falchi plays the object of his desire (known in the credits as “She”), whom he seduces in the Buffalora Ossuary (where the bones of the dead are deposited); the two indulge their strange affections on her poor husband’s grave. Naturally, the old man comes back. The woman dies in her spouse’s ensuing fit of jealous violence, and Francesco is stricken with despair. Naturally, She comes back again. And again.
That’s only the surface of the remarkable Dellamorte Dellamore. You might expect even a stylish horror director to milk these situations for all they’re worth, but Michele Soavi knows that zombie hijinks have been done to death by such precocious directors as Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. Accordingly, the movie never stops moving, twisting and turning its way to an oddly existential climax. The scenario, written for the screen by Gianni Romoli from a comic book scenario by Tiziano Sclavi, concentrates on the human characters rather than the zombies, and gives as much play to turmoil of the spirit as it does to the carnage that spills from the body. The world of Francesco Dellamorte runs parallel to George Romero’s zombie apocalypse. Like Romero’s trilogy, and quite unlike many of its imitators, Dellamorte Dellamore is a zombie movie with character.
I have to wonder what American audiences are expecting on the way into this picture, given that the normally staid October Films has created a mild cheeseball of an ad campaign to push the film into U.S. theaters. “Zombies, Guns and Sex, OH MY!” reads the tagline, stripped across poster art that may lead audiences to believe that Cemetery Man is actually a cheap horror flick from the 50s or 60s. I find it hard to believe that this campaign will actually attract a discriminating audience, but stranger things have happened, and we’ll just have to see. Rest assured that Cemetery Man/Dellamorte Dellamore is a confident, creepy little horror film with a winning sense of humor, a sure feel for outrageous imagery, and a healthy mean streak.
As played by Rupert Everett (Ready to Wear), Francesco is a misfit and a nihilist. (The main character in the Dylan Dog comic book series originated by Sclavi is based on Everett, and his casting here is something of a coup.) He’s also a remarkable Everyman who commands our attention and our sympathy as he slouches toward the inevitable. Francois Hadji Lazaro’s Gnaghi is by turns irritating and pathetic. (You may have seen Lazaro as the meanest-looking cyclops in City of Lost Children.) By the time he develops a decidedly unhealthy crush on the mayor’s daughter (and the mayor’s daughter’s disembodied head), Lazaro has invited viewers to inhabit his character, and the results are unsettling. The relationship is consummated at the end of the film, but these two are shown early on to be classic codependents. Along those lines, the movie exhibits a well-developed sense of humor that goes a long way toward eliciting the viewer’s sympathy. The characters aren’t very pleasant, but you start to identify with them in spite of yourself. By the time the movie is over, their predicament almost seems to take on mythic proportions.
Herein seems to lie the problem for many American critics, who have been less than impressed with what may be a vigorous political allegory. I guess I’m a little slow, but I didn’t understand right away that the Italian citizens who are zombified — a disquietingly fascist troupe of boy scouts, Buffalora’s highest ranking incompetent bureaucrat — may represent the dead archetypes of Italian society come back to haunt the living. Instead, I fell for the grisly comedy and the sharp cinematic style, which references such influential pictures as Vertigo and Once Upon a Time in the West (on which Soavi’s progenitor Dario Argento received a story credit). And while that bastion of genre reporting, Cinefantastique, had decidedly unkind words for the film’s alleged misogyny, I read it instead as a look inside poor Dellamorte’s head. Francesco, as noted above, is an equal opportunity curmudgeon, and if She is treated as the most maddening of all the characters, it’s because she is the object of Francesco’s most maddening obsessions. At the same time, I think these critics complain a little too much. Stephen Holden, writing in The New York Times, criticized the film’s decision to make Francesco impotent — missing the important joke, which is that he’s really not impotent at all, despite the rumor around town (you have to wonder if Holden left partway through).
The cemetery itself is a triumph of production design, an inhabited world with curious nooks and crannies (the Ossuary, Gnaghi’s cellar in the watchman’s house). It’s also a representation of Francesco’s state of mind, and the essence of the movie rests in the ways he discovers to break away from it. Gory and playful, darkly humorous and flippantly bleak, Soavi’s film is a joyride through a sullen state of mind. After Francesco takes his revenge on the world outside, and sets himself to escaping from the life he’s made, Dellamorte Dellamore finally offers up its own definition of madness.