There has been a lot of cinematic water under the bridge of my life between the last time I'd seen Michele Soavi's "Cemetery Man" and last night's screening of that film at New York's Museum of Arts and Design. While I count that movie as a favorite, I was a little nervous about re-watching it and maybe falling out of love. I had a sad experience with not enjoying Soavi's "Stage Fright" as much as I'd remembered a few months back, and I wasn't eager to revisit that feeling.
Much like the central romance between the cemetery caretaker and his nameless beloved, my adoration for this film has only grown stronger and perhaps madder with time. This is such a damn-near perfect movie in its execution that it's almost heartbreaking.
Through some supernatural means, the dead are rising from their graves in Buffalora Cemetery. This puts caretaker Francesco Dellamorte in a bit of a bind, since he knows that the townspeople will never believe such a fantastic story. With the help of his simpleton assistant Gnaghi, Francesco does his best to suppress the invasion. His life is forever changed when he falls in love with a nameless young widow, "the most beautiful living woman" he has ever seen. He discovers that she shares his romantic notions about death and decay and the two engage in a tryst that's simultaneously creepy and undeniably erotic.* Those who've seen this film will know the turn things take from here, but for the benefit of folks who will want to experience this film with fresh eyes, I'll just say that there's a genuinely surreal, nightmare spiral to the plot that sweeps the viewer along on its strange course.
*This segment of the film includes one of my favorite lines ever. I will die happy if a beautiful woman ever tells me I've "got a real nice ossuary."
Adapted from a book by "Dylan Dog" scribe Tiziano Sclavi, one the key strengths of "Cemetery Man" comes from its shifting tones of dark comedy, tragic romance, and visceral horror. It defies efforts to pin down the story's thematic focus, and while it's got prominent comedic elements, the primary feeling I have walking away from this movie is one of loss and despair. This is not primarily a smarter than average, shoot-em-up romp, even though there are plenty of those moments. "Cemetery Man" is about the potential emptiness of life and the insanity of love. There's no convenient "Shaun of the Dead" coda to make the audience feel good walking away from the film.
Much like the work of the Surrealists, this film forces one to experience the sexually appealing and the grotesque in one gulp. There's a strange beauty to design of the film, from the crowded funereal kitsch of the cemetery itself (god, how I want to believe that's a real place!) to the unique appearance of the zombies. Special effects artist Sergio Stivaletti, who I usually associate with the goopy, black blood period of Dario Argento's career, has created dry, root-sprouting revenants that have a dark fantasy look that's much different from the coroner's office realness that one has come to expect from a Romero-inspired zombie film.
There's some wonderful puppeteering in this film as well, including one of my favorite on-screen representations of the angel of death. I like the fact that there's a stageyness to the execution of these practical effects--it serves to underscore the other-than-realness of the story.
I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge Rupert Everett's performance in the lead role. In a weird hall-of-mirrors bit of casting, Everett inspired the appearance of Sclavi's Dylan Dog character, and was the choice to play the lead in this very Dylan-Dog-esque film. Not only does he look the part, he's incredibly natural as the misanthropic, hermit-like Francesco. Paired with plastic-fantastic Anna Falchi in the role of the young widow, the two make for quite an eye candy pairing during their love scenes.
All this, plus a Magritte-inspired kiss? "Cemetery Man" is a movie that feels like it was made with my viewership in mind.
I've seen this film at least a dozen times, and I really can't think of another movie quite like it. I'm genuinely moved by the romance, I laugh at the comedy, and the ending still makes me think. I like being challenged by movies that are grown from the soil of genre entertainment--it's proof that there's meat on the bones of these ideas yet.
I wish I could find the name of the person or team who's curating the current film series at the Museum of Arts and Design, because there's a clear love of psychotronic cinema in his/her/their mind(s) [what an awkward way to have to express that thought--sheesh]. Tonight and tomorrow night, the museum will be showing "Demons" and "Demons II," and beginning on September 23rd, there will be a program of the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky. I'm nigh upon pants-peeing with delight at this prospect, as you might imagine! Both the Jodorowsky series and the Zombo Italiano film program are linked with the Dead or Alive: Nature Becomes Art exhibit currently on view at the museum through October.