Michele Soavi said that he achieved his filmmaking dream when he became an assistant director to Dario Argento. He’d started out as an actor, having appeared for example in CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD and THE NEW YORK RIPPER for Lucio Fulci, then transitioned into AD jobs, starting out for Joe D’Amato and eventually making the acquaintance of Argento. His first film for Argento, as 2nd AD, was TENEBRAE. He also worked on my beloved PHENOMENA, as first AD now, where he also played a small role as Inspector Geiger’s assistant. He directed a music video for “The Valley,” a Bill Wyman track from the PHENOMENA soundtrack He was second unit director on OPERA, and did the same duties for Terry Gilliam on THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN. This is how filmmaking careers happen sometimes — Michele Soavi didn’t start out dreaming of becoming a film director, but he ended up becoming a terrific one.
His first film as director was THE CHURCH, in 1988, then he made THE SECT, in 1991. But his best-regarded film to date is DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE. (Those are long ‘E’s, for the record. Della-mort-ay Della-more-ay. It sings!) The film came about from a pool of Italian, French, and German money, and was based on source material from Tiziano Sclavi, author of the comic strip DYLAN DOG. When first released in Italy, it was greeted with a shrug, and it fared even worse in the United States. In America we renamed it CEMETERY MAN (a title I can’t look at without the song “Solitary Man” starting up in my head) and pretty much ignored it after that, although the New York Times notes that no less an authority than Martin Scorsese called it one of the greatest Italian films of the 1990s.
British actor Rupert Everett stars as Francesco Dellamorte, the embattled caretaker of a run-down estate somewhere in Italy that contains a disproportionately large cemetery. His sole human companion is the monosyllabic simpleton, Gnaghi (Jim Norton lookalike François Hadji-Lazaro), who eats and watches TV obsessively and only says one word: “Gna,” which doesn’t seem to mean much in any language. The two men spend nights dealing with the local zombie problem — the dead often return from their graves and need to be dispatched. The plot kicks in when Dellamorte spots an impossibly shapely young woman (model/actress Anna Falchi) at a funeral and falls irrevocably in love. For one thing, he’s got to shoot her husband when he rises from the grave.
If that was all that happened in this movie, it’d still be pretty fun, but I’ve only scratched the surface. DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE (which I’ll call CEMETERY MAN from here on out just for the letter count) has a hectic, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink pace and a plot that careens from episode to episode. What unifies the film is its unusual romanticism — unusual for gory zombie pictures, that is, but common for foreign films — and Michele Soavi’s incredible eye for compositions. There are as many artful, captivatingly-lit and starkly arranged master shots as there are wild, comic-booky, insane gag shots which would mark CEMETERY MAN among contemporaries like Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD 2 and Peter Jackson’s BRAINDEAD. It’s a heady blend of Fulci, Argento, and Masterpiece Theatre.
CEMETERY MAN basically collects all of the elements you already love about Edgar Wright’s style, the hyperactivity and the pastiche of classic references and tropes, but here there’s none of the timidity around sex. This film is so enamored of Anna Falchi’s pulchritude that it resurrects her character twice. It’s not often you see a model playing a shocking triple-role. But you need a lady who looks like that in the role, because she makes the lead character go crazy a couple different ways in the movie.
In the end, it really is all about the unlikely friendship between the dashing Dellamorte and the brutish Gnaghi. The movie gets so crazy at times that you don’t notice even the parallels between the two characters, for example how Gnaghi has his own futile love interest in the film — she’s a disembodied head, but let’s not go into that detail now. The end of the movie finds the two men, at what looks like the end of the world, finally learning to speak each others’ language. A pretty nice ending for such an international production.
I may be stretching this utopian-style reading of what is essentially a Gothic horror-comedy, but then again, note as I do the presence of Mickey Knox in a supporting role. Mickey Knox is a New York born actor who was known for working as a dialogue coach and writer on films in other countries. Most notably, as Leone scholars already know, he wrote dialogue for THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Mickey Knox is like a human gateway bridging Western worlds, a good-luck charm in a couple conspicious cases. Maybe Michele Soavi cast him hoping the film would find fortune overseas. It didn’t happen right away, but now CEMETERY MAN is beloved amongst every single person who’s seen it. That’s still not a large number, but with any luck, that number is still growing. I know I’m on board.
CEMETERY MAN is playing today at Lincoln Center in New York! Halloween ended but horror will never die — the Film Society Of Lincoln Center is demonstrating that definitively with a cool new Scary Movies film series. And I’ll keep writing about ’em!
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