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 love Dario Argento will definitely find much to like here. They may also be shocked by how relatively coherent this is.
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. How seriously can you take boy scout zombies? 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. There’s an art conscious nature to the film — in both its photography and the visual references to paintings (notably René Magritte’s “The Lovers”) — and a sense of horror history when it borrows a plot device from Tod Browning’s The Unknown (1927)/ In the end, there’s simply nothing quite like it.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Cemetery Man Thursday,June26 at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.