Michele Soavi’s Cemetery Man (1994) gets my vote for the best Italian horror movie I’ve ever seen. It is the freshest and quirkiest take on the zombie genre I’ve encountered—and unlike many Italian horror pictures, the laughs are intentional. Yet, this tale of a lonely cemetery caretaker (Rupert Everett) and his odd friendship with a hulking simpleton (François Hadji-Lazaro) is also one of the more emotionally effective movies of its type. Viewers who loved Dario Argento’s Phenomena (1985) the other week at the Thursday Horror Picture Show will definitely find much to like here. But at the same time, those who found Phenomena an incoherent, noisy mess are likely to be pleasantly surprised by Cemetery Man.
There’s a lot going on in this movie and it works on several levels. You can take it as a horror picture or a horror/comedy or a story about friendship or a surreal examination of the nature of identity and reality. The fact is that it really is all these things. For once, the oft-cited excuse (that I rarely buy) that the narrative gaps in an Italian horror picture are examples of “dream logic” are actually justifiable. The story unfolds like a very weird dream and makes more sense in that mode than any other. It actually seems to take place in a world of its own—like our own world, only it isn’t quite.
It’s not just that Francesco Dellamorte (Everrett) works in a cemetery where the dead—well, some of them—have an unnerving tendency to come back to life in the zombified anti-social flesh-eating sense. That’s become almost old hat to Francesco, who thinks nothing of having to shoot the pesky things. No, the whole tone is slightly off—ranging from his friendship with the monstrous Gnaghi (Hadji-Lazaro) to his obsession with a strangely recurring (she shows up in three incarnations) woman (Anna Falchi) to his generally supposed (and never explained) impotency. Everyone and everything is peculiar. We are, after all, talking about a movie where the girl of Francesco’s dreams gets all hot and bothered when she learns that the cemetery has an ossuary. And this world gets stranger and stranger as the film progresses.
Yes, it’s gory and parts of it are just plain silly. The special effects are on the uneven side, but they work to some extent because their slightly goofy nature actually adds to the film’s atmosphere. In the end, there’s simply nothing quite like it.
The movie starts at 8 p.m., but the pre-show stuff—including “Trapped in the Flames,” chapter eight of the 1939 Bela Lugosi serial The Phantom Creeps—starts at 7:40 p.m. Be early, ‘cuz not only is this a better-than-average serial, but it boasts what gets my vote for best robot (called an “iron man”) ever. It’s also a treat to see Lugosi invest the utterly preposterous role of Dr. Alex Zorka with far more characterization than it ever possibly deserved.