It's finally here: the Region 1 release of Michele Soavi's masterpiece. Judge Bill Gibron says it was well worth the wait—at least from a cinematic standpoint.
Zombies, guns, and sex, OH MY!!!
"People do not die for us immediately, but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive. It is as though they were traveling abroad."—Marcel Proust
It's one of the great universal questions: What lies beyond our own world? Not just our front door, but down the street, across town, outside the county, away from the state, far from the country, past even the planets and the cosmos. No, what we really think about when we ponder the issue is: What is there that exists outside our own being? Is there a Heaven or a Hell, a life everlasting or damnation for all eternity? Is there another plane of existence, something supernatural or paranormal? When we die, is that it? Do we lose all recognizable consciousness or do we gain some new knowledge, some insight far and beyond that which our living brains could understand? Inquiries such as these have plagued scholars and philosophers for eons, finding potential solutions caught up in religious devotion, scientific skepticism, and nutty new-age hopes. For those of us not living in educational Ivory Towers, the whole mess boils down to a desire for immortality in the face of our own ! fear of the end. Movies rarely deal with problems so profound. The big picture should only refer to the on-screen image, not esoteric reflection. Amazingly enough, there is an Italian horror movie that handles this subject smashingly. Called Cemetery Man in America, it is maestro Michele Soavi's ode to understanding our place in the life/death dynamic and, simply put, it is one of the greatest movies ever made about the seemingly infinite subject.
Facts of the Case
In the small Italian town of Buffalora, some strange things have been happening at the local cemetery. Caretakers Frances Dellamorte (Rupert Everett, An Ideal Husband) and his addled handyman/gravedigger Gnaghi (François Hadji-Lazaro, The City of Lost Children) have noticed that, several days after burial, the dead no longer want to stay in their graves. Instead, they rise up and attack the living. So Frances and his sidekick spend their nights battling the undead and spend their days trying to get the townsfolk to believe them. Then one day, She (Anna Falchi) walks into Frances's life. Mourning the loss of her elderly husband, the attractive young lady seems intrigued by the lonely caretaker. He, on the other hand, falls head over heels in instant infatuation and lust. It's not long before the couple is involved, but something seems out of place. Frances feels more alive when he is with her. She, on the other hand, grows colder and more distant. It's almo! st as if she is dying while he is learning to live. Naturally, tragedy separates them and Frances goes back to zombie clean-up. But then he sees her again—in the visage of the Mayor's secretary. And again—in the persona of a local hooker. Frances feels he is coming unglued. With love and death both battling for dominance in his life, he just wants to escape. But this Cemetery Man may soon learn that there is not much beyond his lonely, insular world.
Cemetery Man is a most unusual horror film. Actually it's not really a horror film at all. Certainly, it has nods to the normal macabre ideals, as it features zombies and murders and the foul stench of death. Still, this is not really a chiller. Instead, it's a thriller, in purely the most soul uplifting definition of the word. It is a movie so brazen and beautiful that it argues for its acceptance as art. It easily outpaces dozens of derivative efforts from the era (1993), making them the crude, comic creations they really are. Anyone coming to this movie hoping to continue their fascination with flesh-eating corpses will have to get their Romero/Fulci fill elsewhere. In the hands of the amazing Michele Soavi, this is moviemaking as poetry, cinema as stunning visual feast. Approximating the feeling of something both otherworldly and wholly realistic, Soavi invites us into a single stylized setting and asks us to make ourselves comfortable. He's about to show u! s things we've never seen before and make us think about issues we take for granted or push into the furthest reaches of our mind for consideration later. The result is much more than a comic take on a graveyard geek and his half-witted butterball buddy. This is one of the most important fantasy films ever made, one that shows the true power in fanciful thoughts and imagery.
As a matter of fact, calling it by its Americanized title is more or less an insult. The novel upon which the film was based, hugely popular in its native Italy, was specifically called Dellamorte Dellamore by its author Tiziano Sclavi, The translation into English exposes the reasons. In the movie, our hero is the product of his father (a Dellamorte) and his mother (a Dellamore). He currently keeps the paternal surname, with the addition of Frances for a first. Therefore, he is a clear combination of love (Dellamore) and death (Dellamorte). It is important to understand this dichotomy since so much of the narrative is based on the juxtaposition of these ideals. The location is a small, isolated city in the big sprawling country of Italy. The cemetery houses both the elite and the impoverished, and the caretaker and his manservant are equal opposites. One (Frances) is erudite but emotionally stunted. The other (Gnaghi) is an outward mongoloid, but buried within is a p! ure heart of expressive clarity. Therefore, in deference to this determination, the review will no longer refer to the movie by its bastardized Western name. After all, this truly is a film about love and death.
One of the reasons Dellamorte Dellamore is so effective is that it has an open-ended narrative that can be interpreted in many wonderful ways. You can take it as a complex and emotional black comedy. You can look at it as a condemnation of an insular lifestyle. There are rumblings of the rotten bureaucracy that constantly threatens to undermine Italy and we also get a whiff of the pre-millennial ennui that swept across the globe before the dot.com boom signaled its (short-lived) saving graces. In essence, Soavi's symbolism runs much deeper than just a bunch of reanimated corpses attacking a lonely caretaker. This is a fantasy with a foul, decaying core, a fable founded on notions of individual alienation and human disconnect. Relying on the lessons he learned at the feet of two technically amazing cinematic auteurs—Dario Argento and Terry Gilliam—Soavi understands how to funnel the ephemeral into the mundane, mixing the two in just the right combination to creat! e a work of wondrous visual vitality. Dellamorte Dellamore is such a flight of obvious imagination that it literally takes one's breath away. Similar in style to the movies made by Caro/Jeunet, or the non-mainstream Guillermo Del Toro, Soavi stands for art, not just monster movie artifice.
As a matter of fact, one could subtitle this movie The Cemetery of Lost Humans. One of many ways of looking at this film finds it as a folk tale about fear and loss. Since he only really works with a trio of main characters (Frances, Gnaghi and the ethereally named She), Soavi uses them as conduits for the creation of an entire self-contained world. When viewing the movie as a missive on grief and failure, we begin to see how each entity takes shape. In the world of the cemetery, death determines the priorities, both private and public. People grieve over dead relatives, lifeless lovers, and the missing mainstays of their existence. Frances and Gnaghi represent the practical application of the process. While the overweight worker does the dirty work of burying, Frances fills out the paperwork, puts on the funereal show—and handles the clean-up when the dead refuse to stay buried. This is one of the most potent ideas in Dellamorte Dellamore. While we literall! y see the dead rise and attack the living, what Soavi seems to be suggesting is that, even after they've rotted and decayed, there is something about the dearly departed that remains vital and alive. As a personal pessimist, Frances can see no way out except a gunshot to the head. As the eternal optimist, Gnaghi has no problem interacting with the zombies. In between come the residents of Buffalora, constantly clamoring about reputation and reality. As for She, she represents the link between these conflicting emotional and ephemeral states. At first, she values the dead. Then she longs for the living. Finally, She proves to be an ever-present state, constantly reminding Frances that the confusion he feels is actually destroying, not defining him.
Since he enjoys exploring this human condition, one could also argue that Dellamorte Dellamore is a parable of affection and how we respond to it. Frances is clearly a cynical, dejected man. Lost in his job as cemetery watchmen (and zombie killer), he no longer feels an attachment to humans, living or dead. Instead, he has spiraled into himself, viewing his deadly occupation in a passive, pensive manner. On the other hand, Gnaghi is all innocence and immediacy. His appetites are immense, yet also honest and simple. When She walks in, Frances is suddenly smitten—not just sexually, but psychologically. Certainly she excites his libido, but she immediately becomes a far more meaningful life raft for the mired man. Frances projects so much on her—his own internal struggles, the aspects of life and death that confuse and delight him—that her presence offers the shock wave his staid situation needed. Of course, as in all such stories, tragedy must tame the prevaili! ng passions. It is only then that true love lingers. Something similar happens to Gnaghi and his child like fondness for the Mayor's decapitated daughter. Their scenes together are sickly sweet, a combination of saccharine and the sacrilegious, underlying the complicated concept of love. Our grunting giant is as determined and devoted as Frances is passive and perplexed. Together, they make the perfect partners. Apart, they're a completely human mess.
Even extended out to something far more universal, Dellamorte Dellamore easily becomes an allegory for the battle between good and evil. Placed in ersatz religious terms, Frances is God, the mighty overseer of his cemetery cosmos (and, by extension, Buffalora). He sits back trying to recreate man (the perplexing skull puzzle) while determining who lives and who dies. Down below him is a sort of Satan, the far less esoteric and much more primal Gnaghi. Though he doesn't appear to be evil, we know that he has a mighty temper and lives a life centered on the satisfaction of his huge personal desires. He also aids in the death determinations, but his killings are always the byproduct of God's "goofs." Walking into their world are the competing temptations of She and the Mayor's daughter. Both try to woo their paramour away from their natural state of right/might and into something more moderate, a more or less happy and hopeful medium. It's in this struggle then! , the war between hope and hate, conquest and cowardice, that the film finds its characters. They are not only protecting the populace from rampaging corpses—they are competing for their own very souls. At the end—one of the most moving and masterful in all of Italian 'horror' cinema—something of a switch occurs. Reality comes crashing in and our longtime partners suddenly see how perception vs. truth changes everything. The finale, as open-ended as the rest of the film, argues that sometimes the chance taken leads to a literal dead end.
In fact, Dellamorte Dellamore is one of the best films about the end of life ever crafted. Its insights show an understanding of the process from a personal, public, and professional standpoint. It never flinches from the fact that most people can't accept death and argues that the end really isn't, no matter how final it feels. Indeed, the crass continuation of life is crucial to the narrative's dynamic. It is only when the Grim Reaper faces off with Frances that our hero understands the connection. Since it's true that we get out of life what we make of it, the same should apply to death. If we treat it as a horrifying, nasty thing, it will always feel that way to us. Still, if we try and confront it (or in Frances's case, actually create it for ourselves), we demystify it, making it important but not overwhelming. Much of the humor here comes from the conflict between the afterlife and the life after. Dellamorte Dellamore's comedy may derive from the uneasy ! issues the movie makes us face, but there are nods to other genres—slapstick, absurdism—that drive the delirium as well. As a performance piece, the cast is pitch perfect. Everett actually gets to avoid his more flamboyant tendencies to deliver a deep, introspective turn as Frances. As She, Ann Falchi is fetching (especially without all those inhibiting garments) and yet she manages to infuse her character(s) with enough enigmatic elements to always keep us guessing. As Gnaghi, Hadji-Lazaro is tremendous—elemental and expressive without being dim. Along with the rest of the excellent company, we have the makings of a true masterwork.
All it needed was Michele Soavi to push it over into the realm of greatness. The direction here is monumental, leaps and bounds above the filmmaker's other efforts (1987's Stagefright, 1989's The Church, 1991's The Sect) and argues for its place among the more amazing flights of fancy ever captured on film. The movie is reminiscent of Dreamchild, the Alice in Wonderland allegory from 1985. It celebrates physical effects without stooping for some manner of computer cover-up. Indeed, Dellamorte Dellamore argues that props, make-up, and matte paintings do a far better job of serving the speculative than a bunch of bitmaps. There is a tactile quality to the film, a true texture that your eye picks up on and your brain processes. It's interesting to note that, after his visionary work in this film, Soavi semi-retired from the cinema and went on to direct for television. His rationale for the decision was simple. He'd rather create a thous! and standard efforts for TV, he once said, than make a single substandard movie. Until something like Dellamorte Dellamore comes along again, Michele Soavi is out of the fright fantasy game. While he is definitely missed, this masterpiece will linger on…and on…and on.
Now, outside of all the metaphysical mumbo jumbo, what fans really want to know is if Anchor Bay bungled this long-awaited Region 1 DVD release. The answer, unfortunately, is kind of. Make no mistake, this version of Cemetery Man (when you finally see the film, you'll understand just what is wrong with that terrible title) is leaps and bounds better than the awful laserdisc/VHS versions, but if you're looking for something perfect, perhaps another Region release can help in the reference quality department. The 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer here is terrific (while some ardent fans argue it's far too bright) and color correct, but does deny us many of the movie's more interesting details. The zombie effects lack the zing we expect from living dead make-up, and the overall feel is a little flat. Still for those of us unable to get our hands on other digital presentations of the film (the Italian release from Medusa offers the image in an incorrect 1.85:1 aspect ratio), this is truly a technical treat.
On the sound side, we are back in Argento country. Soavi, like his important mentor, made this movie in English, for a mostly English-speaking audience. Sure, there are Italians interspersed amongst the cast, but a dub into his native language was merely a necessity of homeland distribution. As such, the original soundtrack has been remastered in English in a pair of sensational mixes (sorry, there is no Italian version here, as there is on the Medusa disc). The Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround is outstanding, while the 5.1 is far superior. The multi-channel facets are used expertly (especially in a horrific motorcycle/bus accident scene) and provide excellent spatial ambience throughout. Though some may still argue that Anchor Bay failed to fulfill the promise of this particular film, this critic finds only minor issues to complain about.
The extras, however, deserve a separate consideration. On the Italian release, Soavi signed on for a commentary, there was a behind the scenes documentary and a comic-book comparison which showed how some of Tiziano Sclavi's graphic ideas were incorporated into the film. Here, Anchor Bay offers its own "Making Of," a 30-minute collection of interviews that really helps us understand Soavi's roots in Italian cinema and his artistic aspirations. We also hear from writer Gianni Romoli (he crafted the screenplay after reviewing Sclavi's entire output), make-up artist Sergio Stivaletti (best known for his work with Argento), and actress Anna Falchi. Filled with insights and interesting details, this is a wonderful addition to the disc. Along with a text biography of Soavi (that covers much of the same ground as the Q&A), an eight-page booklet, and a collection of trailers, this is a decent DVD package. Maybe one day this title will get the full-blown Criterion Collection treatment it so richly deserves.
In the end, it's hard to tell if Dellamorte Dellamore even answered that initial universal question. Certainly we see literal translations of a response and, all throughout the film, Frances' narration hints at possible suggestions and solutions. However, the truth is that, even in something as artistically sound and visually intelligent as this film, the mystery is still mighty. After all, if life allows us a limited time within the realm of reality, why would death decide to be so limitless? If we love someone even after death, does the lack of a physical body lessen our devotion? Who determines who lives and who dies—or better yet, what is death and, conversely, what is life? If they are such polar opposites, why are they considered connected? Couldn't we just judge each one separately and be done with it? Sadly, it seems the human condition is hell bent—or make that Heaven bent—on obsessing over these ideas. We don't want to believe that death is the end,! partly because we frequently do so little with in our own existence. It's the same thing for Frances Dellamorte. He spends so much time worrying over the cemetery situation that he's forgotten that there's an entire world outside the graveyard gates. Unfortunately, he realizes this a little too late, and ends up missing it—or at the very least, most of it. It still beckons beyond the blockage, inviting those with the will to find a way to make the most of it. Still, for Frances, it seems so final. Just like love. Just like death. Just like Dellamorte Dellamore.
Not guilty. One of the best movies ever to come out of the Italian horror genre, Dellamorte Dellamore is declared a modern masterpiece and is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• "Death is Beautiful" Featurette
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