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Cemetery Man

Being neither fish nor fowl is often confusing for audiences. It was the curse of Dellamorte Dellamore's American theatrical engagement in 1996, where the 1994 picture was retitled Cemetery Man. The director, Michele Soavi, had a horror pedigree, having worked as an actor for Italian gore purveyors like Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi, and having apprenticed under Dario Argento and Terry Gilliam as an assistant director. His first few films revealed the promise of a genre master: His debut Stagefright (1987) is clever enough, and The Church (1989) is even better. But Cemetery Man — though featuring the makeup of Italian gore master Sergio Stivaletti — is only a zombie movie in passing, and few things anger genre fans as much as lip service. Conversely, the movie featured too much gore for some critics to shake its genre confines. It would take a masterful marketing campaign to interest a larger audience in an art-house zombie film, which means Cemetery Man floundered domestically. It had supporters (Martin Scorsese called it the best movie of the year) and eventually found an audience on home video, leading to a devoted cult who have waited impatiently for the eventual DVD release. Fortunately, the title was much better received in Italy, where audiences knew that it was based on the comic by Tiziano Sclavi. The main character, Francesco Dellamorte, was a spin-off from his "Dylan Dog," to which the character of Dylan Dog was modeled on Rupert Everett. Thus, for Dellamorte, getting Rupert Everett was a casting coup, even if he wasn't playing Dylan (though Everett was dressed as his comic doppleganger).

Francesco Dellamorte (Everett) is the self-proclaimed watch-keeper of the Buffalora cemetery, where he and his helper Gnaghi (Francois Hadji-Lazaro) not only bury the dead, but also deal with the city's zombie problem. Around seven days after a person's death, they come back to life as "returners," and Francesco (who's mother's maiden name was Dellamore, making him of death, and of love) — fearing he'll lose his job if he reports the strange goings-on — has found that simply shooting the zombies in the head takes care of it, though in a pinch any sharp object will do. The zombies tend to do what they did before dying: A dead salesman rings Francesco's doorbell, dead boy scouts practice for their merit badges, and the dead mayor tries to lead his fellow returners. Bored with his day-to-day, and with his only friend someone he talks to on the phone all the time but rarely sees, Francesco is stirred when he meets a widow (Anna Falchi) who he declares the most beautiful woman he's even seen. He begins a courtship by inviting her to his cemetery's ossuary and eventually seduces her, but her husband returns and inflicts revenge. And in her death, Dellamorte is left knowing that the love of his life will return. Gnaghi also finds a love interest in the mayor's daughter Valentina (Fabiana Formica), whom he throws up on when they meet, but — as Dellamorte predicts — "They all end up here sooner or later." After having to kill the widow twice after she's proclaimed dead, Dellamorte starts losing his bearings and begins having conversations with what appears to be the angel of death, who advises him to just kill the living instead.

*          *          *

When filmmakers have an intuitive understanding of the language of cinema, the results often feature the boyish playfulness that comes from getting to make a film. It's evident in the works of Orson Welles, Michel Gondry, and in Dellamorte Dellamore — the movie is alive with the possibilities of cinema. It works because director Soavi (working with cinematographer Mauro Marchetti) has such a wonderful eye, and there are too many shots to mention that stun with both their composition and choreography — perhaps Soavi was enlivened by working from the comic book form. But more than being a zombie film, it's also a relationship comedy, with Falchi's character returning as three different characters throughout the film (in homage to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp). Each time, the relationship hits a different bump as Dellamorte tries to compromise for her, only for it to always end poorly. It's notable that Soavi makes numerous homages throughout, referencing Blimp along with Brian De Palma and his circling camera, Mario Bava, mentors Argento and Gilliam, and Jean Cocteau and Jean-Pierre Melville's Les Enfant Terrible. But these references aren't of the later Tarantino-esque on-the-nose quotes, but those of a clever pundit drawing parallels throughout. Arguably, the greatest influence is that of Federico Fellini — Dellamorte Dellamore comes across as the zombified progeny of La Dolce Vita. Like Marcello Mastroianni's main character, Dellamorte represents his generation's ennui. And when the film comes to its circular conclusion, the main character struggles with the external world is in a way that is open to interpretation. All this said, the script is endlessly clever, with great bits of wordplay. One exchange has Dellamorte arguing with his now zombified girlfriend that "I'm alive, and your dead!" Her response "I'm not prejudiced, my love." It also features a great score by Manuel (son of Vittorio) De Sica that was modeled on the great giallo scores by John Carpenter and Goblin. Few films are so deserving of resurrection on DVD.

Anchor Bay presents Cemetery Man in a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from a source-print that is exceptionally grainy. This doesn't hurt the film per se — it lends the transfer a filmic quality, but it also suggests that this will not be the last iteration of the title on DVD. Thankfully the audio is excellent in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround. Though an Italian DVD release features commentary by Soavi, it was in Italian (naturally) and has not been ported over. Included here is the documentary "Death is Beautiful" with Soavi, Falchi, producer and screenwriter Gianni Romoli, and make-up artist Sergio Stivaletti (28 min.). Also included are the film's original Italian trailer, a Michele Soavi bio, and bonus trailers. Keep-case.

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