Saturday, July 19, 2014

ITALIAN HORROR WEEK: Cemetery Man: Why It Matters

Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for, writing Shock-O-Rama. He is a co-curator of several horror and repertoire film series at the world famous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. An avid swing dancer, beer brewer, rock climber, and video gamer, you can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek.

Having Chuck involved with Italian Horror Week is extremely as he is one of the men responsible for the All-Night Italian Splatterfest each August at the Colonial. This is the first place I watched Nightmare, and one of the great events of the year. 

My sincerest thanks to Chuck for contributing to IHW. Make sure to get your tickets for the Splatterfest now! 

Also here is one of my favorite articles by Chuck from Just Google. Shock O Rama and to find all his great work. So many great reads.

I can vividly recall my cherry popping screening of Citizen Kane. Our grade school teacher rolled in the AV cart (which at that time included a television/VCR combo, and was absolutely child killingly top heavy). We were whatever age seventh graders happen to molt at, and an elated electrical buzz charged the room. Movie days always ruled in grade school because they absolved us from the humdrum of actual work, but this one was particularly exciting because several of our teachers had prefaced this one with catch phrases like "greatest film of all time". My disappointment could have filled the Poltergeist swimming pool with an army of corpses. In the many intervening years since then I've revisited Citizen Kane another half dozen times- at the unyielding urging of fellow film fans, as a part of college courses, and even once just to introspectively investigate where it failed for me. Never once was I entertained.

This, I must imagine, is how good pal and fellow contributor to Italian Horror Week, Tom Kingsmill, must feel whenever the topic Cemetery Man rises from the grave. Let me make it abundantly clear that he every right not to enjoy this (or any) flick, and my writing here is not intended to argue that everyone should unfailingly adore it. I dislike perhaps one of the most revered films of all time, so there's no way I can point decapitated fingers or throw severed heads. However, despite Citizen Kane always completely failing to entertain my brain, I can recognize that it is a technical filmmaking marvel which pushed the medium forward into new territory with its innovation. Cemetery Man is not the Citizen Kane of zombie movies (the very thought is laughable), but it is an important and thought provoking film that makes a solid case to earn respect, even if it isn't everyone's particular flavor of Kool-Aid. 

While I prefer the American title of Cemetery Man, the original Italian title begins to immediately plant the seeds of nuanced ideas. Dellamorte Dellamore almost directly translates into English as "of death, of love", a cheeky nod to the unending struggles of the film's protagonist, Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett). Taken literally, Everett's character is "Francesco of Death", aptly fitting for a man charged with the maintenance of a cemetery where the dead reanimate after seven days. In many films this would be a shocking turn of events, propelling the plot along with bloody abandon and wonton gore. Here however, Dellamorte handles the reanimates with detached nonchalance, casually putting them down with the help of his dim witted assistant Gnaghi (who can only speak inflections of the word "Gna").

The meat of Dellamorte's struggles lie not with the walking dead, but with the humdrum rut of his existence. Here the film explores the nature of man striving for meaning through his work, yet continually failing to find any. Cemetery Man takes this to an absurd level to drive the message home, as absolutely nothing Dellamorte does garners attention or, in some cases, even reaction at all. His late film brazen killing spree forms a prime example, as even his blatant killing of a nun in a hospital, and subsequent shouted confession, might as well not even register to the townsfolk. Dellamorte is a no one struggling for the recognition of anyone.

This theme is further reflected in the other half of the original title: Dellamore. Failing to find meaning in death (which has itself become meaningless with the return of the dead) Dellamorte searches for meaning by maidenhead- through love. Falling instantly in love with a widow ("She" played by Anna Falchi- more on that in a minute) at the funeral of her husband, Dellamorte embarks on a rapid fire tragedy of errors which sees her dead by his hand. A wicked war of doubt assuages our protagonist, as it wasn't clear that she was one of the reanimated dead when he killed her.

Here is where the film uncorks the stopper on this beaker of madness: Dellamorte proceeds to fall in love with two more unnamed women, both also played by Anna Falchi, and he goes to absurd lengths to be with them before situations align against him. Is he falling in lover with reincarnations of the same woman? Has he lost his grip on reality? Or can it be that the "women" in these scenarios don't actually matter? We're exploring the search to rise out of the rut of mundane in any way possible; for Dellamorte this could be accomplished by recognition of his worth in the arms of another. Despite this, fate continually denies him the right to change his stars.

The true topper, which elevates this film into the stratosphere of critical thought, is the ending segment. Dellamorte and Gnaghi drive through the mountain tunnel, leaving their small village, never to return. They exit the tunnel and slam on the breaks- the road ends meters out of the archway, with nothing beyond. As they realize that there is nothing else for them but their predetermined stations in life, it's Gnaghi who asks Dellamorte if they can please return home, and it's the former (or always) cemetery man who responds "Gna". Perhaps this is commentary on the triviality of our existence? It is certainly my favorite discussion point on the film.

I've always explained Cemetery Man to friends who haven't seen it as a schizophrenic film, which can't decide if it should be an existential treatise on the human condition, or a zombie schlock fest, but on deeper reflection I have not at all been fair. Director Michele Soavi knew precisely what he was doing, it simply took me years to plumb the deep fathoms of his film's message. Perhaps I haven't yet gotten there with Citizen Kane, or maybe it's totally acceptable to recognize the brilliance in a film without enjoying it. Now, if you'll excuse me, I know a certain German Blu-ray release of an obscure Italian zombie film that's calling my name.

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