Cemetery Man: Special Edition (US - DVD R1)
Gabe Powers rises from the grave to relive the last great Italian horror film...
Buffalora cemetery has a little problem. For some reason the dead have decided to rise from their graves 7 days after death. Ultra apathetic caretaker Francesco Dellamorte has taken it upon himself to simply shoot these flesh craving zombies in the head and rebury them, rather than fill out the correct forms. Besides, reporting the situation could lose Dellamorte his job.
Frustrated yet content in his lot, the caretaker continues his detached existence, with only a mentally retarded, mute assistant Gnaghi (pronounced Nah-Gee) to keep him company. But everything changes the day a beautiful and unnamed woman enters his cemetery after losing her elderly husband. Dellamorte is smitten, and an affair ensues.
Director Michele Soavi was called the savior of Italian fantasy cinema when he made his fourth film, Dellmore Dellamorte ( Of Love, Of Death, also a play on the main character's full name), which was retitled for American distribution as Cemetery Man. Soavi had grown as a filmmaker under the wing of Italian genre greats Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Aristide Massaccessi (Joe D'Amato), and was a contemporary of Argento protégé Lamberto Bava (son of Argento mentor Mario Bava), and worked for these maestros in various capacities.
His first intention was to be an actor, and can be seen losing the back of his skull in Fulci's City of the Living Dead, killing girls while dressed in drag in the younger Bava's A Blade in the Dark (oops, spoiler), and getting a knife in the gut in Argento's Opera. Soavi worked as first and second assistant directors on several Italian fantasy/horror productions, and made his directorial début with Dario Argento's World of Horror, a documentary on his egomaniacal and eccentric mentor.
All but ignored by Argento, it was sleaze merchant Massaccessi that finally offered the fledgling director a chance to strut his stuff on the ace slasher flick, Stage fright (aka: Deliria, Bloody Bird). The film was a modest success and proved to the hesitant Argento that Soavi had what it took to make memorable feature films. Soavi's second break came when he was hired by American based enfant terrible Terry Gilliam to act as second unit director on his doomed production of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (this collaboration was reinvigorated on Gilliam's equally doomed The Brothers Grimm 17 years later).
Soavi then made a pair of films working under producer/co-writer Argento, a man notorious for harping on his directors when acting in a production role. The Church, the pairs first collaboration, was originally intended to be a second sequel to Argento and Bava's successful Demons series, but due to varying factors (clashing egos, Argento's short attention span, etc), the project was morphed into a sort of Demons/ In the Name of the Rose/ Rosemary's Baby hybrid.
This was followed by another shaky collaboration on The Sect, another visually appealing, but muddled production concerning the birth of the Anti-Christ (it seems Soavi and Argento are real fans of Polanski). Soavi then proceeded to separate himself from Argento, his specific reasons are revealed during an interview for Alan Jones' Profondo Argento, the book that made me realize how much of a self-centered brat Dario Argento could be in his everyday life.
It was around this time that Soavi began to be praised by his peers as the savior of the dwindling Italian film industry, and he began production on a loose adaptation of Italy's number one comic book series, Dylan Dog. The character of Dellemorte is visually based on Dylan (ironically the comic character was actually based visually on actor Rupert Everett), the comic actually has more in common with Mike Mignola's Hellboy series (which was adapted rather faithfully itself by Guillermo Del Toro in 2003). Cemetery Man (as I shall refer to it from here on out to avoid further confusion) is a much more layered and cerebral story than the plight of Dylan Dog. One might refer to it as a psychoanalytical zombie movie.
Around the second act Cemetery Man, in true Italian fashion, loses interest in telling a linear, plot driven story, and begins to pile on subtext and mystery by the gallon. Dellamorte's sanity comes into question, as does that of the audience. Are we experiencing the story through the eyes of a schizophrenic, or does the world actually revolve around our protagonist. Does the world even exist? Is this the afterlife? The film raises more questions than ten Agatha Christy novels, and refuses to answer any of them. Every time appears that Dellamorte's truth will be revealed, another question is raised in its stead, and yet somehow Soavi manages to make the film fascinating rather than the umitigatedly frustrating mess it should be.
Actor Rupert Everett is and always has been a go to guy for filling small but memorable roles in American romantic comedies. On occasion he's been aloud the lead, but almost always in sappy romances or Jane Austin based period pieces. Though my opinion is obviously skewed due to my love of genre pictures, I state without hesitation that Cemetery Man is the actor's finest hour. He virtually oozes an angsty sense of apathy, along with the raw sexuality of James Dean, but never without a charming sense of humour. His presence lifts the performances of his co-actors, their two-dimensional nature proving almost necessary in light of the story's purpose. This is a lead role in every sense of the phrase.
Though most male viewers will come away from the film with visions of Anna Falchi (not to be confused with Anna Fulci) in the buff, her impossible nude body writhing atop the one man in the cast who could never fully enjoy the experience, it is François Hadji-Lazaro's Gnaghi that consistently threatens Everett's commanding presence. Hadji-Lazaro, the rotund Frenchman who was later seen in Jeunet and Caro's City of Lost Children and Christophe Gans' Brotherhood of the Wolf, makes the most of every second he's on screen, including his single line of dialogue in the film's final second switcheroo. A physically amusing character that falls in love with the mayor's daughter, Gnaghi is the one person Dellamorte can confide in, mostly because Gnaghi can't interrupt him when he vainly waxes philosophical.
When the mayor's daughter dies in a motorcycle accident (Soavi has a special affinity for motorcycles), Gnaghi digs up her head knowing she'll be resurrected, and keeps her as his fiancé. This puts a rift in his relationship with Dellamorte, and proves to be a very original third act dilemma.
Visually, the only thing that holds Cemetery Man back is its modest budget, but Soavi manages to make the best of it. Several key frames are obvious representations of works of fine art from various backgrounds, including paintings, comics, and other films. The scene where Dellamorte and "She" (the character is never named officially, but does carry names in various incarnations) first kiss through a red piece of silk fabric, while the camera longingly wraps around them, may very well be the most sensual shot I've ever seen committed to film (though there are quite a few Wan Kar Wai films I've still not seen). This baroque romance in the face of graphic violence, coupled with the dreamy, avant-garde quality and loose narrative make Cemetery Man a true classic and a truly original film. There is nothing quite like it in any genre or any country.
An audience that "gets" the film will almost undoubtedly love it. Sometimes fans will dismiss criticism of the films they love based on the idea that the deterring party simply didn't "get" the film. Sometimes this is true, but quite often it's just an excuse for conflicting tastes. I think that if you understand what Soavi and company were trying to achieve with this film, you will love it. This is not to say that those who don't "get it" are in any way inferior to those you do, but they are definitely missing out. Yeah, the abstract sensibilities may be a little heavy handed at times, but this only adds to the overall humour. I'm pretty sure no one involved in the making of the film took themselves entirely seriously, and it's OK to laugh at the film as well as with it.
And then, at the top of his game, Soavi disappeared. Rumours abound, but in reality he and his wife took time off to care for their child who was stricken ill. In his absence the hope of a new generation of horror maestros died, as did Lucio Fulci and Aristide Massaccessi. In effect, Cemetery Man is (as of this writing) the last great Italian horror film. Bava has disappeared, as has Deadato, and Argento has found content in recycling the same films over and over, ad nauseum. Cemetery Man was a high point for the genre, rivaled only by a handful of early Argento work, Mario Bava's classics, and to a lesser extent Fucli's Zombie Trilogy. The bittersweet final shot is emblematic of the state of the industry, whether it was meant that way or not, and in the end the film is a heartfelt farewell to spaghetti nightmare lovers the world over. It almost makes you want to cry.
"Poor Gnaghi, on his I.D. card it reads: distinguishing marks – all. He has a real passion for dead leaves...hates it when the wind blows them away..."
I've not seen any other DVD releases of Cemetery Man, and look forward to someone putting together a comparison review in the near future. I can say, with some conviction, that this is not Anchor Bay's crowning achievement in the field of digital remastering. The film was modestly budgeted, and getting up their in age, so digital perfection was not a realistic expectation. The film is very grainy, but in a tactily pleasing fashion. I've seen plenty of atmospheric horror productions hindered by too much sharpness in the transfer. Beyond the grain, there are few artefacts, and these are for the most part forgivable.
The problem with the transfer is its uneven black levels. Soavi shot the film to have high contrast blacks and whites, and large sections of the film are almost a black and white exercise. The film doesn't revel in candy colours, but the ossuary sequence is rich in beautiful browns and yellows, and the hospital sequence is adorned with cool blues. Thankfully the disc's colour pallet is near perfect, but the black levels often appear more deep blue than actual black, and occasionally even show waves of discolouration in a single black section. For most viewers this will be seen as a minor offense, but as a fan of Soavi's vision and of Anchor Bay's previous output, I was disappointed.
Cemetery Man was never meant to be an audio assault like Argento's Suspiria or Fulci's City of the Living Dead. This is a subtle motion picture. The electronic musical score is occasionally a bit thin, but quite effective and memorable in the context of the story. The optional 5.1 Dolby Digital surround track is preferable to the surround track because of the LFE channel's ability to add some much-needed bottom to the score.
Beyond the score, the two tracks are very similar, and both are lacking when it comes to sound effects, most importantly gun shots. Delamorte blows off a lot of zombie heads in the film, and every shot is far too quiet and artificial. This was a problem on the VHS copy I've owned for the past 8 years, leading me to believe that Soavi's sound designer deliberately picked the hollow sound. Dialogue levels could use a bit of volume boosting as well, as Everett has a penchant for whispering a fair amount of his lines. Delamorte's overdubbed narration could really do with an increase. Perhaps the discs producers could've used the near perfect Fight Club Dolby EX soundtrack as a guide for the proper balance and volume of a narration track.
The sound problems are easy to ignore, but some hardcore fans will likely be upset with the lack of additional language tracks, most specifically the Italian one. Though this track would've dropped Everett’s performance, it may have improved that of the lovely Anna Falchi, whose English dubbed voice is obnoxiously high pitched. Other dubbed voices actually add to the surreal atmosphere, but the option would've been nice.
Once upon a time Anchor Bay announced an 'ultimate edition' of Romero's Dawn of the Dead, and three years later they finally delivered one of the best DVD sets in the history of the medium. As a normally impatient fellow, I learned from this (along with an earlier release of Argento's Suspiria) that Anchor Bay releases were worth their frustratingly vague release turn arounds. When the company announced their release if Soavi's masterwork I was excited, and took their release date estimates with a grain of salt. This was wise as it took years for the company to deliver on their promise. The problem was that this time it may not have been worth the wait.
These extras are not horrible ones, just disappointing. The heart of the features is a mini-documentary about Soavi and his film entitled Death Is Beautiful. Part of me wishes I'd waited to get the DVD to write the feature part of my review because most of the bases I've rounded are covered here, but I'll stand by my wordy Soavi history lesson despite this. This doc really only contained two pillars of wisdom I, a slightly obsessive fan, was not already well aware of. I didn't know that the film was based on a Tiziano Sclavi novel, as well as the writer’s comic. I'd always assumed that the "novel" credit was referring to Dylan Dog alone. I also learned that Everett approached the producers with the idea of remaking the film for American audiences after he found fame in the region. This expresses love for the film on Everett’s part, it's too bad he couldn't be included in one of the doc's interviews.
The problem with the doc is that it covers pre and post productions rather thoroughly without much mention of the actual filming. There's also little mention of the meaning of the film. I've got questions. Why do people insist on calling Delamorte an 'engineer'? Is it a joke, perhaps referring to something specific? Why is Delamorte seemingly invincible when it comes to criminal accusations? I know I have my ideas, but I'd like to hear the writer’s and the director's opinions on the matter. Soavi's commentary track should've been subtitled and brought over from the Italian Medusa release of the film.
The rest of the disc space is devoted to the American trailer and a Soavi filmography. Nothing earth-shattering to be sure. Some might say that an updated HD or Blu-Ray disc may be on the horizon, given Anchor Bay's penchant to re-release titles (i.e.: anything with the words "Dead" somewhere in the title) and their ready embrace of new technologies (they were one of the only medium level studios to release PSP movies). I'd have to say I wouldn't rule this conclusion out, especially is the studio has exclusive rights for a number of years. It's too bad they couldn't knock it out of the park at first bat, but then I remember that they never have.
Was it worth the wait? Of course, Cemetery Man is the last great Italian horror film. Even if its R1 début is in the guise of a rather lackluster disc, it's nice to have it on hand. The film itself comes highly recommended from this reviewer, especially for those with an adventurous pallet. The disc is modestly priced, so in a sense you get what you pay for. Perhaps two editions would've been the way to go, like Anchor Bay did with Dawn of the Dead and Suspiria, one for the curious at a reasonable price, and one for the collector, stuffed with extras and priced to order. Maybe next time.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 13th June 2006
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX English, Dolby Surround 2.0 English
Extras: Death Is Beautiful Featurette, Theatrical Trailer, 8-page Collectors’ Booklet
Easter Egg: No
Director: Michele Soavi
Cast: Rupert Everett, Anna Falchi, François Hadji-Lazaro
Genre: Comedy, Fantasy and Horror
Length: 99 minutes
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