Of all the basic cable channels whose mission statements have morphed and twisted over the years, few paths are more disheartening than that of Bravo. Younger readers, who know Bravo only as the home of the Real Housewives guilty pleasure media empire, may be surprised to know that the channel once branded itself as “The Performing Arts Network.” Far from the assembly line of enjoyable kitsch that it is today, the Bravo of yore served as a 24-hour font of arthouse cinema, Cirque du Soleil performances, and interviews with the likes of Lili Taylor and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Inside the Actor’s Studio is perhaps the last vestige of this original incarnation, with poor James Lipton reduced to interviewing Bon Jovi and the cast of The Walking Dead). As a budding teenage film snob in the sticks, the channel was an invaluable supplement to my weekly video store digs: it introduced me to such luminaries as Werner Herzog and Jim Jarmusch, afforded me my first glimpses of pre-Hairspray John Waters, and allowed me to make my way through Twin Peaks long before it was available on DVD or streaming (there was a time when one of my primary functions in life was dragging my home-recorded VHS tapes to friends’ houses to introduce them to the Log Lady). It also served as my late-night gateway to some deeply strange films that I may never have seen otherwise, such as Michele Soavi’s arthouse zombie masterpiece Dellamorte Dellamore, better known stateside as Cemetery Man.
Loosely inspired by the popular Italian horror comic Dylan Dog, Cemetery Man stars a pre-fame Rupert Everett as the wonderfully named Franceso Dellamorte Dellamore, the put-upon cemetery caretaker in the small town of Buffalora. For reasons never explained, the dead buried in Buffalora tend to rise as murderous zombies shortly after interment; Francesco knows that this is a problem, but can’t be bothered to fill out the reams of paperwork necessary to report the “returners” to the authorities, so he opts to simply shoot them in the head and rebury them. Beyond that, the plot is largely episodic: Dellamorte pines over a mysterious stranger (Italian supermodel Anna Falchi), who appears to return from the dead in a less cadaverous fashion; his mute assistant, Gnaghi (City of Lost Children’s François Hadji-Lazaro), falls in love with the severed head of the mayor’s daughter; and the grim reaper periodically appears, asking Dellamorte if it wouldn’t save a step if he just started shooting the living.
On its face, Cemetery Man would appear to fit nicely in the “splatstick” vein of such ‘80s/’90s horror comedies as Dead Alive and Re-Animator (this is almost certainly what drew me to it as a pimply eighth grader). But when you sit with it for more than a few minutes, it becomes apparent that Soavi has more up his sleeve than simple shocks and yucks. For starters, Everett’s take on Dellamorte is perhaps the most world-weary zombie hunter in cinematic history; imagine if Evil Dead’s Ash Williams was the protagonist in a François Truffaut film. That same incongruity applies to the film itself, which mixes legitimately horrifying effects makeup with a lyrical, dreamlike sense of magical realism. Any wacky zom-com could present a freakish man-child in love with a rotting, severed head, but how many would present a pastoral tableau in which he serenades her on the violin? Soavi’s CV sheds a light on his approach: prior to helming Cemetery Man, he served as assistant director to Italian horror maestros Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava, as well as on Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
In other words, Cemetery Man is a wonderfully strange little film for those who don’t mind a little art in their gore (or vice versa). Alas, the day when impressionable young minds could stumble across this kind of high weirdness on basic cable is probably gone– but, as I’ve stressed countless times in this space, anyone reading this within the Hassle’s home radius has a leg up on the vast majority living in our national cultural hellscape. Catch Cemetery Man tonight at midnight on the Coolidge’s largest screen. Nyah.
dir. Michele Soavi
Screens Saturday, 7/20, 11:59pm @ Coolidge Corner Theatre
Part of the ongoing series: They’re Coming to Get You!