Italian horror cinema has always been the domain of a few grandmasters – Bava, Argento, Fulci. This triumvirate represents the pinnacle of spaghetti splatter, the touchstones to which so many filmmakers aspire. Director Michele Soavi’s storied career is steeped in the lineage of these Italian masters, from Argento and D’Amato to Lenzi and Fulci. Soavi studied under his country’s best and brightest, even breaking mold to step onto the international stage and shoot second unit footage for Terry Gilliam’s Barron Munchausen and Brothers Grimm films. But Soavi as a filmmaker is a paradox, taking substantial periods of absence and refusing to shoot feature films without epic stories to tell. The reluctant director who has often been described as the future of Italian cinema appears more often than not to harbor the same intense psychological makeup that shaped and molded careers as immense and unpredictable as that of Stanley Kubrick and Terrance Malick. In 2006, the world will once again continue to wait for the return of Michele Soavi, but until then, fans who have sat patiently for nearly a dozen years are about to be treated to the first official sell thru release of Soavi’s majestic masterpiece of surrealistic sanguine cinema.
Cemetery Man or as it is best known, Dellamorte Dellamore, is the brainchild of comic book creator and novelist Tiziano Sclavi as interpreted by Soavi. The story is that of a man, pure and simple and his struggle with both the inner and outer demons of the world he calls home. Francisco Dellamore (Rupert Everett) is caretaker of the small Buffalora Cemetery, a job that would typically entail little actual responsibility. However Buffalora has a bit of a problem, it seems that the dead that inhabit this decrepit necropolis don’t spend their eternity resting in peace. Within seven days of burial, each will rise from their graves to walk the night in search of flesh. Dellamore’s job is to keep the dead, well…dead. With the help of his half-wit assistant Gnaghi (François Hadji-Lazaro), Dellamore wields his revolver and brandishes sharpened spades to stop the influx of living dead from taking over the town, and all is maintained in its oddity until the appearance of Anna Falchi. Falchi portrays several characters in the film but each exists only to torment the lovelorn soul of Dellamore. After an erotic tryst on the grave of her deceased husband, Falchi falls prey to the same curse as all the inhabitants of Buffalora. This tragic turn of events sends Dellamore into a spiral of madness where reality and fantasy dance on the dangerously thin edge of Dellamore’s sanity.
Soavi set Italian horror cinema on its ear with the release of Cemetery Man, no longer the world of leather gloved killers, set against contrasting lighting schemes, Soavi reconfigured the genre taking the best bits of fantasy and lyrical imagery and wrapped it around a stark divergence of cynical comedy. Dellamore is neither hero nor villain; devil nor angel, and the flesh feasting fiends that he faces are hardly mindless, murderous beasts soullessly searching for the soft skin of their next victim. The film is the darkest comedy set inside the brightest parts of the genre – bullets flow freely blasting grapefruit size holes in the reanimated corpses of the undead, but the biting satire draws more blood than a hundred Hollywood horror fables, taking the modern zombie film back to a place that George Romero once envisioned it, a place where the guts and the gore and the girls are just subtext, serving the greater meaning. Soavi’s film is still uniquely Italian, feeling every bit the seed of Phenomena and City of the Living Dead, echoing the great shot composition of the Gialli’s that came before or the sweeping symphonic scores of Ennio Morricone, but at the same time, Soavi’s film is wholly his own – a masterpiece of macabre wit and murderous laughter that takes all the great elements of Italian cinema and redistributes them into a utterly unforgettable neoclassical context.
Anchor Bay’s long awaited DVD arrives on shore missing so many opportunities that it seems a slap in the face to genre fans that have been trading bad bootlegs of this ambitious film for what seems an eternity. I expected, or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say hoped that the film would be provided the deference that was attributed to classics like Argento’s Opera and Suspiria. But, even without that fanfare, good and bad aside, you and I both are keenly aware that Cemetery Man effortlessly remains the must own film of the year. The DVD includes a perfunctory theatrical trailer and a short featurette about the making of the film entitled Death is Beautiful. The documentary takes an all too brief look at the history of the project featuring interviews with Soavi, Falchi and Italian special effects maestro Sergio Stivaletti. Conspicuously absent from the documentary is the presence of Rupert Everett, who so embodies the spirit of the film. Speculations aside, fans of the great Francisco Dellamore can only dream what the brilliant Everett would have made of the cult that surrounds Soavi’s creation. In short, the doc is too glossed over, with the only real insight into production coming from Falchi, who lit up the screen in each of her 4 incarnations.
It seems a tragic shame that after a 13-year wait for a legitimate release, and nearly a decade since the rollout of DVD, that a voracious genre audience has not been given a bit more consideration when finally, and I stress finally, given the opportunity to paw their greedy mitts on to one of the greatest cult films of the last twenty years.