One of the most innovative, disturbing, and deeply personal expressions of horror to bleed across the screen, Michael Soavi's Cemetery Man combines various styles of cinematic terror without conforming to a single genre. Defying categorization, audience expectations, and the slip-shod definitions of a lethargic critical establishment, this worm riddled ode to the siren song of death (and all they mysteries which such embodies) finds the beauty in darkness, and the disturbing ambiguity buried within the seemingly commonplace. Hinting at the eternal reoccurrence of tortured souls caught unconsciously in purgatories of half-lives and unsolvable enigma, Soavi's comedy of pain plummets the deepest arenas of both cultural and individual fear. Based on the warped novel by Tiziano Sclavi (author of Dylan Dog, whose elegant misanthropy and detached emotional style it mirrors), this daring examination of a world void of sense, meaning, or faith is unerringly funny, sexy, grotesque, shocking, mean-spirited and surprisingly tender. "I'd give my life to be dead," speaks its misguided, self-absorbed hero, and within those anti-heroic sentiments are echoed the film's primary themes of despondency.

Evoking universal terrors as well as introspective, personally intimate phobias, this feast of flesh and fatalism is impressive in its ability to make us laugh at that which we most lament, and desire those objects of destruction and chaos that we most fear. It is no mistake that desire is found in the grave, nor is it an accident that beauty and ugliness are confused until we doubt which is which. From such mythic, archetypal fears as death, the supernatural, and alienation to more personable nightmares as sexual inadequacy, loss of self, and estrangement, Cemetery Man stares honestly into the charnel house heart of the human condition. What is more, Soavi's baroque yet romantically stylized vision is exhilarating at the same time that it repulses. A seething dark miracle of paradox, Soavi evokes emotional power from universal opposites. Momentous conflicts of soul and mind are anchored by the messier and more recognizable tarmacs of human relationships. Lies, deceit, blotched romances, and petty rage are examined alongside questions of reality and dream.

A self-obsessed cemetery night watchman who ponders the enigmas of life when not destroying resurrected corpses, Francisco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) lives a life as lifeless and bleak as the denizens who he buries beneath his ramshackle home. Nonchalantly shooting the rising dead, more concerned with his lackluster love life and Sarte-inspired contemplation of meaninglessness than with the spectacle of angry zombies, Dellamorte inhabits a world of non-logic, inconsistency, and the grotesquely absurd. Seeking solace between the lusty legs of young widow Anna Falchi, he finds that neither the pinnacles of physical pleasure, emotional love, or the occult can bring a sense of purpose to his life, nor explain its hidden ambiguities. Seeking the medicine for his melancholy by engaging in a murderous rampage, seeing little difference between 'the returners' and the people he meets everyday on the sidewalk, Everett seeks answers to his philosophical enigmas in the blood of others. Meanwhile his imbecilic henchman Gnaghi looks for love with a decapitated head. As death becomes the handmaid to love, not only the stomach but mind is moved by this one-two punch to the heart. An evocative musical score by Manuel Sica and FX by Sergio Stivaletti help create a world of dark enchantment in this adult faerie tale.

Playing the fragmented, nightmarish small town of the film for tears as well as laughs, a strangling sense of unease coats the sleep-walking lives of its citizens. Soavi suggests both literally and symbolically that there is little difference between the dead and living, each simply a mirror extension of the other. The dead continue to repeat the stupidities that plagued them during life, and the living may as well be maggot-meat for all the good they do themselves (or each other) in a world ruled by blind obedience to external appearances. Smack in the middle of such pathos, Dellamorte is a fresh modern-day depiction of the intellectual loner -- the modern 'Outsider' -- searching for some semblance of truth. Dellamorte's predicament immediately brings to mind the haunted figure of Joseph K in Franz Kafka's masterwork of ambiguous terror, The Trial. Better yet, the equally frightening and absurdist humor of the performances suggests the playful terror of Waiting for Godot. Breaking with conventional supernatural tradition, wherein a believable context of reality is created before the occult is allowed to slowly intrude, Soavi attacks the very notion that there IS a reality. Allowing us no commonplace experience with which to measure the supernatural elements, Soavi questions the truth of both external appearances and our faith in perception . The suggestion that life is a fragmented nightmare of eternally reoccurring half-truths, daydreams, and fictions wrapped in fictions plays with our understanding of time and space. This philosophical element proves more frightening than zombies any day!

Not content to merely exploit, thrill, or arouse -- all of which this film accomplishes with style and panache, exposing a reckless style and lyricism missing since the heyday of Mario Bava -- Soavi as both a story teller and director lends additional psychological and emotional depth to a taboo-bursting surface story of necrophilia and gut-munching zombies, making certain with credible performances and unerring eye for detail that such cruel carnalities are reinforced by a disturbingly nihilistic sub-text of isolation. Depicting a love that burns brightest in the grave, Cemetery Man goes still further, suggesting the disorientating absurdity overshadowing all human experience.

Fearing nothing and daring all in its wild interweaving of disparate plot elements, surprisingly complex themes, and unapologetically graphic violence, the only thing more impressive in Soavi's modern epic of cruelty than the fanatic levels of physical carnage is his attention to the mechanics of storytelling. An existentialist fable wrapped in the grave cloth of a sexy gothic, Rupert's descent into moral isolation is as much a personal awakening as it is a story of the returning dead. Is this film a horror movie? No more than it is a comedy, tragedy, coming-of-age fable, or gore-hound's wet dream. Money-shots of sprouting gore are accompanied by messier revelations as Rupert's character struggles both zombies and the soul-crushing trivialities of everyday life -- relationships, responsibilities, and the inner emptiness of his Faustian soul, all of which, when combined, represent a greater threat than the creepy undead denizens of his cemetery or the amoral, uncaring supernatural power that appears to direct the chaotic machinery of human life.

If screenwriter Gianni Romoli's adaptation is the heart of this cinematic experiment, than Soavi's direction is the life's blood of the film. He wields the technological power earned working with Argento and D'Amato, filtering it through an intellectual's philosophic integrity and a poet's soul. Working with colors/images both symbolic and emotionally enticing, Soavi's pacing, evocation of atmosphere, and sense of place produce an inspired product that such films as Stagefright and The Church only hinted at. More importantly, he establishes in both the look and emotional depths of the film a generational meeting place for the Italian horror genre. Combining the gothic atmosphere and larger-than-life decadence of 1960's supernaturalism with the more cynical, violent, and psychologically- based terrors of contemporary cinema.

Featured in a lovely widescreen presentation (1.66:1), enhanced for 16x9 televisions, this print is a considerable improvement on the long out-of-print VHS. Colors are bold and sharp, with an eye-pleasing distinction maintained between characters and setting. Skin tones are appropriate, and the blacks are rich. While occasional grain is evident, no significant damage is caused. Audio is likewise professional, featured in crisp Dolby Digital 5.1.

Extras, while not as generous as we may have hoped, are certainly engaging, exploring the historical and aesthetic context in which the film was made. The most significant piece is "Death Is Beautiful," a substantial documentary that examines Cemetery Man from various perspectives of the ruling figures involved in its production. Written, directed, and produced by Michael Frost, this featurette interviews Michael Soavi, Sergio Stivaletti, and Gianni Romoli. From the mouths of the men who should know we learn about the inspiration for the character of Dellamorte, the enthusiasm of the actors, and technical details of set design and effects. Likeable and informative, these interviews also capture the men as just that -- living, breathing, feeling personas whose reminiscences lend emotional color to the film. Anna Falchi is also on hand to discuss her triple appearances, acting as an archetypal form of Woman. Absent from the documentary is Rupert Everett. You won't miss him one bit with so many other interesting folks on board. This basic introduction to the film is accompanied by a clearly written Michael Soavi bio and theatrical trailer.

This surrealistic tragic-comedy is a flame of hope for the Italian film industry. An impressive wedding of physical carnality and emotional depth, its ability to transcend definitions of genre is only equalled by its subversive penchant for symbolizing intellectual complexity. Finding death in life and love in darkness, Cemetery Man is nothing less than a dark miracle of filmmaking. If you can't find something to fall in love with here, you're already dead!

Review by William P. Simmons

Released by Anchor Bay USA
Region 1 NTSC
Not Rated
Extras : see main review