Italians love their zombies, as the likes of Lucio Fucli and Dario Argento have proven to us. But well after the careers of those masters had peaked, Italian director Michele Soavi came along and gave us one of the more over-looked films of the subgenre: Cemetery Man. While a very good zombie flick, Soavi goes the Romero route and uses the zombies more as a backdrop for some personal commentary; in this case, overcoming life’s adversities and taking control. Don’t get the wrong idea, though. This film is probably less overtly preachy than your average Romero zombie flick and never skimps on the violence and pitch-black comedy.
Cemetery Man (1994)
Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) lives a life of boring day-in-day-out routine as a cemetery watchman, endlessly lamenting over how bland and unhappy his life has turned out to be. This is somewhat odd, considering his daily routine includes exterminating reanimated corpses which he has dubbed “returners”.
While Francesco is perpetually dissatisfied, his assistant, Gnaghi (Francois Hadji-Lazaro), is a fat, mentally-challenged oaf who only looks on the bright side of life. After falling in love with a widow (Anna Falchi), and quickly losing her to the zombified corpse of her departed husband, Francesco begins to see the same woman every place he goes, only to have his every attempt to be with her end in gruesome tragedy. While all this is going on, Gnaghi becomes infatuated with the severed head of a kind young girl and the two decide to move in together. Coming close to the edge, Francesco is visited by the specter of Death, who tells him to take life into his own hands… with a Magnum.
The ‘90s weren’t a very good decade for zombie flicks, what with the genre having been declared “passé”, so seeing one as good as Cemetery Man crawl out of 1994 is pretty astounding. The sense of humor in this film is about as dark as you can get, what with it constantly being at the expense of the recently deceased and those who mourn them. In all honesty, it’s the kind of sense of humor you’d expect anybody who works at a cemetery or funeral home to have.
Not all the jokes are winners, though, and can go too far over-the-top and step into “stupid” territory. I point to the motorcycle zombie sequence as evidence of this. But what really entertained me was seeing Francesco’s life repeatedly fall apart every time it begins to look up, only to have him either take it all in stride or take his frustrations out on the ”returners”. It all eventually pays off at the finale, when Francesco loses it and has the best surreal mental breakdown I’ve seen outside of American Psycho.
The zombie effects are the “old school” type I adore and lead to some great moments of gore and suffering. I particularly enjoyed the scene where the “returner” gets a cross buried in the back of his skull with the end plunging out through his mouth. The sequence where Death confronts Francesco for a “heart to heart” is very chilling, with the puppet used to portray the Grim Reaper being especially impressive. Unfortunately, not all the effects work so well, with most of the worst moments involving the severed head of Gnaghi’s girlfriend.
Also, despite being made in Italy, the dialogue is all spoken in English. So while Rupert Everett’s performance is fantastic, you can tell that many of the other actors don’t have the firmest grasp of the English language.
Cemetery Man isn’t all that preachy with its message, though its level of surrealism can tread into that dreaded wasteland men call “artsy”. The last scene of the film is particularly strange and I’ve heard some negative comments directed its way. I suppose that in order to understand that final moment, you really need to watch the film a second time over. But don’t worry; it will actually make sense if you do. It isn’t a “what the fuck?” ending just for the sake of being a “what the fuck?” ending (unlike Lucio Fulci’s endings).
I suppose Cemetery Man isn’t meant for everyone. If you’re expecting mindless zombie action, you might be disappointed that there’s a deeper storyline going on. But if you’re in the mood for a different kind of zombie flick, and one not a lot of people talk about, then this should be right up your alley.