Dellamorte Dellamore (Cemetery Man) (1994)

Dellamorte Dellamore (Cemetery Man) first published by Little White Lies

“The most beautiful living woman I have ever seen,” declares Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett), guardian of the Buffalore cemetery, when he first sets eyes on an unnamed, recently widowed young lady (Anna Falchi) placing flowers on a tomb. “Will I ever see her again?”

Our lovesick protagonist will see her again, all right – and not just because she will revisit the cemetery, nor just because, after being bitten by her revenant husband and herself dying, she too will rise (twice!) from the grave. For in Michele Soavi’s horror curio, adapted by Gianni Romoli from a novel by Tiziano Sclavi, everyone seems trapped in an eternal return where love never truly dies, death itself is never irreversible, and metamorphosis is the only possible escape. Dellamorte (whose mother’s maiden name was Dellamore) may be a liar, a loner and a loser – but as gatekeeper between the world of the living and the dead, he is also both ‘engineer’ and victim of a reality whose borders seem to be constantly shifting before his eyes and beneath his feet.

Released more prosaically as Cemetery Man in the US, Dellamorte Dellamore circles obsessively around the twin themes of love and death that are enshrined in its original Italian title. There is arousal in the ossuary, sex in the cemetery, teenagers literally consumed with love (“I can be eaten by whomever I please,” protests one young lover as her zombie biker boyfriend chows on her flesh), murderous crimes of passion, and even Dellamorte’s supposedly impotent member is soon rising from the dead, again and again and again.

Yet amidst all these repetitions, recursions and returns, the film refuses to settle for long on any one particular generic form. The opening might suggest a conventional zombie film, with Dellamorte and his colleague, the mute manchild Gnaghi (François Hadji-Lazari), putting one in the brains of dead ‘Returners’ at the graveyard – but soon it has become a necromantic comedy (with increasingly articulate undead), a giallo-like slasher and a hallucinatory psychodrama, as we are bidden by Dellamorte’s bone-dry narration to wonder whether we are witnessing Lynchian small-town surrealism, an emergent undead apocalypse or a nightmare in a damaged brain. 

By the time the unexpected (yet strangely logical) conclusion reveals itself, looping the narrative, Moebius-like, back to an image first seen at the beginning, Soavi has positioned his film far closer to the hermetic enigmas of Last Year In Marienbad (1961) and the snow-globe microcosms of Citizen Kane (1941) than to more generic fare, and the result is an elegantly eccentric folly – playful, perplexing and paradoxical in equal measure. That such a defiantly undefinable film should exist at all is something to be welcomed – but that it should have emerged from the horror wilderness of the pre-Scream Nineties is as miraculous as the resurrection itself. It is the sort of gothic mindbender that is remembered less as film than as dream – and now, thanks to this new DVD release from Shameless Screen Entertainment, viewers can see it again (and again), unearthed in all its kitschily colourful oddity.

© Anton Bitel