Throughout the 1990’s, Michele Soavi kept the traditions of Italian horror alive. Starting as an actor in films like Aliens 2: On Earth, City of the Living Dead, Demons and The New York Ripper, Soavi would also become an assistant director to greats such as Dario Argento (Tenebre, Phenomena), Lamberto Bava (Blastfighter and the previously mentioned Demons) and Terry Gilliam (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Brothers Grimm). Finally, he’d graduate to creating his own films, including Stagefright, The Sect and The Church.
Cemetary Man is based on Tiziano Sclavi’s novel Dellamorte Dellamore (the best translation is “About Death, About Love”). Sclavi also created the comic book Dylan Dog, whose protagonist looks exactly like this film’s star Rupert Everett (and which was also made into a 2011 film).
Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett, My Best Friend’s Wedding) takes care of the Buffalora cemetery. He lives in a shack, with death and his mentally challenged assistant Gnaghi his only friends. Quite frankly, his life sucks. Young punks in town tell everyone he’s impotent. And his only hobbies are putting together a skull-shaped puzzle and crossing out dead people’s names in the telephone book.
That said, he has a hell of a job to do. The gates of the cemetery read “For those who will rise again,” and after a week, the dead rises from their graves, ready to kill the living. Francesco must kill them when they rise, even if no one wants to hear what a problem he’s facing. Again, the townspeople think he’s a moron, the mayor doesn’t care and, according to Franco, the town’s bookkeeper, he’d have to do a ton of paperwork if he really wanted the help.
While watching a funeral, Dellamorte falls in love with a widow. He waits for her to visit the graveside of her dead husband, then takes her on a tour of the grounds. As they have sex on the graves, her dead spouse rises and fatally bites her. Or maybe it’s a heart attack. Or maybe she isn’t even dead. That said, seven days later, she also rises from the dead and Dellamorte must put her down as well.
Meanwhile, Gnaghi falls in love with the mayor’s daughter, Valentina. Even when she’s decapitated, he won’t fall out of love, instead digging up her head and starting up a romance. And the widow rises again, leading Dellamorte to believe that he was the one who killed her, not her husband. This causes him to either go insane or to begin seeing the truth, as the Angel of Death appears to him, begging him to stop killing the dead and only kill the living.
The widow has become the unattainable object of Dellamorte’s desire. He even tries to talk a doctor into removing his penis so that one aspect of her, the assistant to the new mayor (oh yeah, Valentina killed her dad when he shunned her new relationship) who is afraid of penetration, will fall in love with him. That relationship ends when she is raped, loses her phobia and marries her attacker.
Dellamorte then goes into town and kills anyone who said he was impotent. Meeting a prostitute in a bar, he realizes that she is also his unattainable love. He kills her and everyone in her apartment by setting it on fire.
Remember that bookkeeper, Franco? Well, he’s killed his whole family and the other murders that Dellamorte has done are all pinned on him. He drinks iodine to kill himself, but before he dies, Dellamorte visits. While visiting, he kills a nun, a nurse and a doctor, finally trying to confess to everything but no one will believe him.
Death reveals himself again and laughs that Dellamorte has not figured out what the difference between life and death is. So our hero packs up the car, grabs Gnaghi and tries to escape the town. As they race out of a tunnel, their car wrecks and Gnaghi is critically injured.
Dellamorte fears that the rest of the world has ceased to exist. He decides to kill himself and Gnaghi before his assistant is miraculously healed. He throws Dellamorte’s gun off a cliff and the two men decide to go back home.
If you’re looking for a narrative film that makes sense, this is not the movie. If you’re seeking a dream meditation of life, love and loss, then fire up your DVD player. Or streaming device, it is 2017 after all. Shot in a real abandoned cemetery, there are moments of poetic beauty and grace, like when the floating fool’s fire lights dance around the graves as Dellamorte and She make love. And there are also moments of abject horror and dread, as the film has an incredibly memorable personification of death.
Soavi would drop out of filmmaking to take care of his sick son in the late 1990’s, returning to work in television in the early 2000’s. Here’s hoping that he gets another chance to return to features, as Cemetery Man is everything I love about film — strangeness that is not easily accessible or categorized.