I’m a certain type of horror fan. I want a story that creeps up on me long after the movie is over. Practical effects? I can’t get enough of them. Give me some quality cinematography and a permeating tone, and I’m happy as a clam.
If you happen to share these preferences, do yourself a favor and check out Dellamorte Dellamore, marketed in the United States as Cemetery Man. It’s only available in Region 1 on a rare DVD, so it’s a little unknown, but director Martin Scorsese hailed it as one of the best Italian films of the ‘90s.
The film is an unusual Italian, French, and German co-production, and it takes the best from all three schools of horror. It’s schlock as only the Italians can make it, it’s stylish and ethereal like a beautiful French film, and it explores taboos like subversive German underground horror. Yet the dialogue is still dubbed in English by the original actors, so you can get three movies worth of culture without reading a single subtitle.
It’s adapted from the novel of the same name by Tiziano Sclavi, creator of the Italian comic book series Dylan Dog, which is like the John Constantine: Hellblazer comic, only much more surreal. There’s also a direct adaptation called Dylan Dog: Dead of Night—avoid it like the plague. The star of Cemetary Man, Rupert Everett (Julia Roberts’ gay friend in My Best Friend’s Wedding, Prince Charming in the Shrek films), is the perfect double for Dylan Dog, right down to the look of the outfit. The director, Michele Soavi, is a veteran of Italian horror films, and he does an amazing job keeping you engaged with the film’s bizarre story.
Francesco Dellamorte (Everett) works in a graveyard with the Igor-like Gnaghi. Their job is more than just digging graves and caring for the grounds. Some of the dead people come back to life as Returners, undead ghouls with a hunger for human flesh. Francesco passes the time shooting Returners in the head and reading the phone book.
It isn’t long before he falls in love with the beautiful widow from a funeral. She seems uninterested at first, but it turns out she’s more turned on by graveyards than any girl since Jean Rollin’s The Iron Rose.
As you might guess, hooking up in a graveyard full of potential zombies is a bad idea. After a short affair worthy of Skinimax, the girl of his dreams slips through his fingers—not once but multiple times. Meanwhile, his assistant, Gnaghi, falls in love with one of the recent additions to the graveyard. Part of her, anyway.
Finally, the Grim Reaper appears to give Francesco a command: “Stop killing the dead” and start killing the living. As events spiral out of control and reality itself unravels, Francesco tries to make sense of it all before the world ends.
On the surface, this is a zombie film. But don’t let that scare you off. I’m over zombies myself, but there is room in my heart for Cemetery Man. Returners are zombies without clear rules or any semblance of logic. There’s no explanation offered or necessary; for all we know, Francesco is crazy and the zombies are just a fever dream. Besides, it’s hard not to love a zombified Boy Scout troop.
The movie isn’t perfect. The score is nice, but it can get a bit repetitive. There is one scene with a flying severed head that has several unfortunate moments where the special effects were obvious and poorly done.
But aside from the flying severed head, the physical effects are first rate and memorable. The pervasive tone keeps you off-balance and on your toes. Francesco remains sympathetic despite his body count, and the depiction of the Grim Reaper is the best you’ve seen since Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. The ending is absolutely haunting, and I catch myself thinking about it at odd times.
Most importantly, this movie is scary. The zombies are the least of your worries here. You’ve got a nice mix of childlike fears of graveyards and ghouls, and adult fears like losing the woman you love, the death of a child, losing your grip on reality, and penectomies.
Much like Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil ended the original cycle of noir films, Dellamorte Dellamore closes out the Golden Age of Italian zombie movies like Demons 2 or Zombi 2. It’s a work of art, and will deliver on the heebie jeebies. So if you’re looking for a new cult horror film to experience, add Cemetery Man to your list.