Cemetery Man aka Dellamorte Dellamore is the last great Italian horror film. And it’s a proper send off to almost five decades worth of work from maestros like Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento. Michele Soavi entered among their ranks in the late 80’s with the really funny (not sure if intentionally) Stage Fright, and the supernatural thriller The Church after having worked for years under the tutelage of Dario Argento. While I have enjoyed his earlier films, Cemetery Man is his true masterpiece. I first heard of this film through Fangoria magazine in the mid-nineties. Most Italian horror films were difficult for me to get a hold of back in dinosaur days of VHS, but I always read articles on those spaghetti horror flick with the hopefulness of one day seeing them. I was pleasantly surprised one day in October 1996 when I saw Cemetery Man sitting in the new release section of the video store. I was fifteen years old, I had recently lost my father to lung cancer eight months previous, and found myself “in love” for the first time.
Dellamorte Dellamore translates to “of love, of death”, the two central themes of the film and two big things my adolescent self was trying desperately to come to grips with. I had always loved films, but this one really hit home. At the time I was feeling completely disconnected from the world, and that I had little in common with those around me. Looking back on the situation, that’s probably even more true than I originally thought. The story concerns itself with the caretaker of the Buffalora city cemetery, Fransesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett, in his finest role), and his seemingly simple assistant Gnaghi (François Hadji-Lazaro). Gnaghi is seemingly named after his only vocal expression “Gnagh”. For some reason the cemetery has the power to bring the dead back to life seven days after their burial, and this makes Dellamorte’s job difficult. He would like to have the mayor of the town do something about it, but finds the paperwork too tedious to fill out. Shooting the “returners” in the head seems the easier option. Besides Gnaghi, Dellamorte’s only real friend and confidant is Franco, who works in the town hall and in charge of the paperwork Dellamorte refuses to fill out. Dellamorte’s life becomes more tumultuous when he falls in love with a grieving widow (the lovely Anna Falchi), who does not return his advances. He pines awake at night wondering, “Will I see her again?”. And see her again he does. The two have an ill-fated romance that is consummated on her dead husband’s tombstone, because she wants to be honest with him even in death. They are watched over by the ignis fatuus aka will o’wisp. Ignis fatuus is a latin expression meaning “foolish fire” and is named so because of a superstition of leading travelers astray. And indeed it does. Even though it’s been over two weeks since he died and has not come back (she certainly didn’t waste any time) her husband finally returns, none too pleased with the situation. He bites his wife, and Dellamorte kills him. Dellamorte then puts her body in the ossuary of the cemetery thinking she’s dead, and shoots her when she seemingly returns. He later finds out that the bite didn’t kill her. The bullet did.. A normally morose person, this act sends Dellamorte down a spiral of depression and a cycle of ill-fated meetings with the women who look just like the woman he was in love with (also played by Anna Falchi). The film becomes increasingly comic and surreal as the film goes on, but it never overshadows the tragedy of Dellamorte’s existence, which may or may not be a form of purgatory. Death eventually appears to Deallamorte, telling him to stop killing the dead, and to kill the living to keep the problem with the zombies at bay. For this reason, Dellamorte goes on nightly escapades of shooting sprees to help rid himself of the problem. Gnaghi falls in love with the mayors daughter, who ends up dying, and thus ends up a disembodied head Gnaghi places in his broken TV screen. Unfortunately, this ends up just as well as Dellamorte’s relationships. Eventually, Franco takes the blame for Dellamorte’s murder spree after killing his wife and daughter. This happens shortly after the following telephone conversation between the two:
Francesco Dellamorte: You’ll see, Franco. Mara is going to get tired of you. Cinzia will grow up to hate you. And then you’ll be free. Free to see what the rest of the world looks like. Franco: Mmm. What do you think the rest of the world looks like? Francesco Dellamorte: The rest of the world? Franco: Mmm-hmm. Francesco Dellamorte: Mmm. Who knows if the rest of the world even exists?
Cheery fellow, but fears everyone goes through with life. And that’s what the main plot of the film is, the fear of living. Dellamorte is a nameless hermit to the people of the town, who never refer to him by name, only “the engineer”. The only thing they supposedly know about him is rumors of impotence (which becomes a humorous subplot midway through the film). Without Dellamorte guarding the cemetery, we can only assume that the town would be over-run by an epidemic. His unsung heroism/occupational hazard is unknown to the town, even after Franco fills out the paperwork himself for Fransesco. Dellamorte’s killing spree is the one mark he is able to leave on the outside world and that is stolen from him by Franco, and unbelieved by the townsfolk even as he passes them by with a smoking gun in his hand yelling “IT WAS ME”. As far as Dellamorte’s rumination on the rest of the world existing? In his world, it doesn’t. His attempt to escape with his assistant leads to a Silent Hill esque cliff off the edge of the world where he almost decides to kill Gnaghi and commit suicide as it begins to snow inexplicably. Gnaghi stops him from doing this and shocks everyone by speaking in an actual sentence. The film ends with this:
Gnaghi: I want to go home. Dellamorte: Gnagh.
The opening and closing image of the film is the snow-globe on Dellamorte’s desk that show him and Gnaghi as they are in the end of the film, standing on a cliff at the edge of the world. However, in the ending shot of the snow-globe they’ve switched sides. The popular theory is this signifies they’ve switched roles. The more far fetched theory that Fransesco Dellamorte is a figment of Franco’s imagination. I respectfully disagree with both of these. I think the truth is that at the end Gnaghi finally stops playing a role. Fransesco’s reaction is to respond like a smart ass (which is fitting with his character). There is a puzzle of a skull Dellamorte spends his time trying to solve at throughout the film. In a very small scene midway through the film Gnaghi solves it then breaks it apart when Dellamorte comes enters the room. Dellamorte cracks a joke about how Gnaghi is too stupid to solve it. Dellamorte is so predisposed to his own version of reality that he can’t see the truth right in front of him. The poem at the end of the film expresses Dellamorte’s view on life as being an “actor in a passion play, without beginning without end, evermore amen”. When Fransesco meets She for the second time, she tells him “It’s as if I’ve known you forever”, indicating that they are both fated to do this over and over again. Even though Fransesco tries to break the cycle after their third encounter, he is unable to do so. There is no escape for him, as he’s self-contained in his own little world that he’s made up himself.
We all get that way sometimes.