★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★ A quirky, Italian horror/comedy with its oddball roots in French philosophy.
Directed by Michele Soavi.
According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a cruel and crafty king who pissed off the gods with his trickery. Consequently, the gods came up with a unique punishment for him in the afterlife: the king was forced to push a heavy stone up a hill. Once he got it to the top, the stone would roll back down and he’d have to push it all the way back up again. Over and over. Rinse and repeat.
In “The Myth of Sisyphus”, French absurdist philosopher Albert Camus explored the psyche of poor ol’ rock pushin’ Sisyphus; condemned to repeating the same futile action over and over. Fast forward fifty-two years later to 1994 and, once again, we get to explore the absurdity of of living a life of pointless repetition. Just replace the heavy stone with a bunch of zombies, swap out the Greek king for a graveyard caretaker named Francesco Dellamorte [Rupert Everett; The Madness of King George (1994) and “Prince Charming” in the Shrek series], and you’ve got Cemetery Man.
Known in Italian as Dellamorte Dellamore, the movie was based on a book sporting that same title written by Tiziano Sclavi. Sclavi was no stranger to the horror genre in 1994 having created the insanely popular Italian horror comic series, Dylan Dog, nearly a decade before. However, while the Dylan Dog character actively seeks out things that go bump in the night as a paranormal investigator, Cemetery Man‘s Francesco just has to deal with them.
You see, Francesco is the caretaker of the Buffalora cemetery. He and his simple-minded assistant, Gnaghi [François Hadji-Lazaro; Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001)], are there to maintain the grounds, dig graves for the recently deceased, and occasionally kill them again when they climb out hoping to feed on the living. “Returners” he calls them.
And that’s not the only repetitious part of Francesco’s life. As the film rolls along, he meets the love of his life, “She” [Anna Falchi; C’è Kim Novak al Telefono (1994)]. In fact, he meets her a few times over the course of the film. Each time, Anna Falchi is playing a different character but is always known as “She”.
While it sounds pretty strange (and it is), Cemetery Man does a great job keeping all this repetition interesting. The film moves along at an easy pace with a decent amount of zombie encounters to keep the viewer awake. Yet it’s still all in service to the absurdity of repetition. Francesco’s life is defined by it, but rather than taking a dark path when confronted with this futility, the movie stays true to its core philosophy. As Camus pointed out in “The Myth of Sisyphus”, when you realise your life is an absurd waste of time, suicide is not the answer. It’s time to revolt.
And Francesco does revolt. Actively and violently.
I tend to lump Cemetery Man in with a number of quirky, surreal movies that came out right around the same time. Things like:
Track 29 (1988)
How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)
Highway to Hell (1991)
Not that those are all horror movies. They just have the same flavor to them. Oddball stories with unique characters in crazy situations.
While movies like that tend to be low-budget affairs, Cemetery Man makes the most of what it had to work with. A lot of that has to do with Mauro Marchetti’s cinematography. Having cut his teeth as a cameraman on Last Tango in Paris (1972) and Apocalypse Now (1979), Marchetti elevates the look of the movie immensely. Couple that with a beautiful score partly written by Grammy nominee, Manuel De Sica, and you’ve got a highly polished low-budget movie. Sure, the special effects aren’t super astounding but hey, they had to cut corners somewhere, right?
Cemetery Man is definitely more arthouse than action. It’s also definitely not your usual zombie film. Francesco spends a lot of time monologuing when he’s not shooting zombies in the head or having sex in the graveyard. But if you’re in the mood for a slower pace and an unpredictable storyline full of weirdness, I encourage you to visit the Buffalora cemetery and check in with Francesco and Gnaghi.
Just watch your step if you’re there after dark.
Cemetery Man is tricky to find these days. Happily, a remastered version of this wonderful film was released on bluray by Shameless Studio last October!