Friday, April 8, 2016

A Puzzle Wrapped in an Enigma Wrapped in a Zombie: DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE (CEMETERY MAN)

I had planned on writing about a different movie this week, but The Walking Dead’s incredibly ill-conceived season 6 finale left me with a bad taste in my mouth (disappointment, not blood), so I sought comfort in the arms of a truly satisfying zombie movie.  I had a lot to choose from.  My zombie movie collection ranges from legitimate masterpieces (DAWN OF THE DEAD) to oh-my-god-I-can’t-stop-laughing (BURIAL GROUND).  I decided on an ambitiously unique middle ground, the 1994 Italian mind-fuck DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE, or as it is known in the States, CEMETERY MAN.

Underachiever Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) manages the grounds of Buffalora Cemetery.  Along with his mentally challenged friend, Gnaghi, he tidies up, makes repairs, and dispatches the reanimated corpses that rise from their graves after three days (give or take).  His boring routine is disrupted one day when he instantly falls in love with a beautiful widow visiting the grave of her elderly husband.  She rejects his awkward advances until he invites her on a date to the cemetery’s skeleton filled ossuary (chicks love ossuaries).  Things go well and soon they are making love atop her departed husband’s grave, which, in retrospect, was not the wisest decision.  Her jealous ex bursts from the grave and it all ends badly.  Dellamorte continues to be haunted by the vision of his love as she reappears in his life as different people.  With each unfulfilling encounter, his grasp on reality becomes more tenuous.  Taking advice from his pal the Grim Reaper, he begins taking out the living as well as the dead, all with the same indifference.  Can Dellamorte escape Death’s service and discover the world beyond Buffalora?  Gna.

DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE is a brilliant piece of cinema.  There are so many mishmashed genre elements rolling around that it should be a total mess, and yet they somehow blend perfectly together.  On the surface, it’s a zombie movie, but its heart is a romantic tragedy about the unrequited love of a lonely and isolated man.  It’s also incredibly funny, with heaps of black comedy, absurdist humor, and dry wit.  There’s plenty of blood without going into full DEAD ALIVE slapstick gore.  Some parts are genuinely sweet.  There’s a bit of a psychological study in there, too, and almost a serial killer vibe near the end.  It all bakes together into an increasingly surreal plot that leaves the answers up to the audience.It has something for everyone…who likes weird movies.  

Rupert Everett is the glue that holds everything together.  He plays Francesco Dellamorte with such nonchalant charisma that the character remains likable even when doing reprehensible things.  He immediately gives the Italian zombie film a unique feel.  At times it almost seems like a charming British comedy like FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, then he shoots a bunch of undead boy scouts in the head.   Like I said, brilliant.  

Dellamorte is remarkably unfazed, bored even, by all the supernatural events going on around him.  He doesn’t tell the authorities because he’s afraid he’ll lose his job at the cemetery.  “It’s easier just to shoot them,” he tells his one “normal” friend at city hall.  His big hobby is crossing off the names of the recently departed from the phone book.  He’s so low key, in fact, that the police never bother to give him a second thought when the string of head shot murders begin.  Like Patrick Bateman in AMERICAN PSYCHO, he can’t get anyone to believe his confession.  When Dellamorte is spotted leaving the hospital where he casually killed every single person who interrupted him, the detective warns him that a maniac is on the loose in the building.  Then he praises Dellamorte for already having a gun to defend himself with. 

Also doing a stellar job is François Hadji-Lazaro as Gnaghi.  I was tempted to call him a man-child, but really, children have more going on upstairs than Gnaghi.  He’s more of a human puppy.  He’s perpetually drooling and is a disgusting eater, but he’s very sweet and lovable.  The only word he ever says is “gna”, though Dellamorte can somehow unpack it into a more elaborate meaning, like how Rocket understands Groot in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.  He even charms the Mayor’s daughter, Valentina, despite (or because of) him accidentally vomiting on her at their first meeting.  She’s kind of an odd one herself.  Unfortunately, she’s decapitated in a horrible motorcycle crash involving a bus load of scouts and nuns.  This actually helps their relationship, though.  When she returns to life, he keeps her head in his broken TV, lavishing her with attention and serenading her with his handmade violin contraption.  It’s probably the healthiest relationship in the whole movie.  They both seem to be enjoying the arrangement.  Valentina even wants to marry Gnaghi, but her father objects.  He wants her to hold out for more promising options.  You know fathers, they only want the best for their darling, slowly rotting, bodiless little girls.  As expected, it all ends in tragedy.  Valentina counters her father’s argument by flying out of the TV and tearing out his throat.  Dellamorte has to put them both down in front of a heartbroken Gnaghi.  Isn’t that always the way with young love? 

The zombies themselves are something special.  A lot of them incorporate twisted roots or vines into their bodies, giving them an Old World storybook look.  Artisan crafted zombies.   Many of them have distinct, distorted features mirroring their living selves.  Dellamorte’s mysterious reanimated love is depicted as a force of nature, bathed in dramatic light and surrounded with billowing tendrils of shear cloth.  The zombie boy scouts are a fantastic bit of morbid humor, and they continue to pop up throughout the movie like a call-back gag in the old Road Runner cartoons.  Plus, the grim little take-off on “The Teddy Bear’s Picnic” that the surviving scouts sing at the funeral is priceless.  

The most amazing zombie, though, is Valentina’s ex-boyfriend.  The accident left him so mangled and merged with his motorcycle that they had to bury him with it.  When he bursts from his grave, he looks like he took an unsuccessful bike ride through THE FLY’s telepod.  There’s no telling where he ends and the bike begins.  My favorite element is the digital clock display blinking inside his gaping eye socket.  I haven’t seen that before.

For a fairly low budget movie, it is beautifully shot.  There are so many striking compositions.  It makes sense that the movie originated from an Italian comic book called Dylan Dog.  A lot of the shots look like comic panels brought to life.  Dellamorte himself is an iconic figure, a badass in black jeans, coat, and boots.  You can tell that director Michele Soavi was heavily influenced by classic Dario Argento.  The opening shot, a close up of a skull pulling back through a telephone cord, could have come straight from the start of DEEP RED.  The lighting and the colors also hearken back to Argento or Mario Bava. The cinematography really elevates the movie above its typical Italian zombie movie brethren (not that there’s anything wrong with those, either).  Other times, though, the film’s cheapness shows through.  Filament strings are very obvious anytime something is bobbing in the air, and the makeup effects (bite wounds in particular) can be less than seamless.  It’s fine.  Call it quaint.  

Sometimes delving a movie into the surreal can come off as pretentious or contrived, but it really works here.  It’s subtle for most of the running time (as subtle as a zombie movie can be), only ramping up at the end.  Things get weirder and weirder, and suddenly we’ve gone all the way round to the beginning of the film again.  The action could all be happening in Dellamorte’s mind, it could be an allegory for disconnection and loneliness, it could be a modern fairy tale, or it could be he just lives in an incredibly strange (and small) world.  It’s not exactly ambiguous, it’s multiple choice.  Your interpretation is just as valid as mine.

C Chaka

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