The ‘90s often get a bad rap with horror fans. After the numerous successful slashers and creature effects films of the ’80s, the ‘90s offered a different variety of horror fare. Though there were plenty of hits, hidden gems, and misunderstood classics, the ‘90s usually don’t get the kind of love that other decades get when it comes to horror. It’s time to change that.
We often talk about creative people that were “before their time” as a way to indicate that they were brilliant minds who weren’t appreciated because of the standards of their era. But, what about the artists that were after their time? Those who would probably be hailed as vital voices if their output had happened only a decade or so earlier.
One such case is Michele Soavi. A protege of prominent Italian genre directors like Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, Soavi’s directorial efforts weren’t nearly appreciated enough during their initial outings. However, his films feel like they would have been horror landmarks had they been released during the big boom of Italian genre cinema in the ’70s through the mid-’80s. Thankfully, time and the always gracious horror community has begun to reevaluate Soavi’s work and recognize it as unique and fascinating. His run of horror films from 1987 to 1994 are all worthy of attention, dissection, and discussion. And I think many would agree that his streak ended with his absolute masterpiece, Cemetery Man.
The story centers around Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett), a graveyard caretaker who is stuck in something of a rut. He’s a lonely, uneducated man that would love nothing more than to escape his lot in life. Unfortunately, he’s been tasked with tending to a cemetery where the dead rise from the grave. Francesco and his assistant Gnaghi (François Hadji-Lazaro) have to deal with the reanimated corpses by shooting them in the head. However, Francesco falls in love with a mysterious widower (Anna Falchi) and things begin to spiral out of control.
What makes Cemetery Man so extraordinary and entrancing is the way it manages to balance two very disparate tones: over-the-top zombie comedy and a dreamy arthouse mood. These seem like they’d be constantly clashing with each other, but Soavi casts a spell that carries throughout the entire movie. The wackier elements and the more meditative atmosphere actually blend together to create an experience unlike any other.
The comedic parts of the movie are a real riot, with flying zombie heads and a subplot about Francesco’s penis being hilarious highlights. There’s also a ridiculously inept investigator (Mickey Knox) that can’t even begin to suspect that Francesco might have something to do with all the bizarre events going on. This culminates with a moment in a hospital that I won’t spoil because it’s so absurd that it should be experienced fresh. If all you want out of Cemetery Man is a good laugh, there are plenty to be had.
But, it’s the film’s whimsical attitude that takes Cemetery Man to the next level. Soavi’s camera floats through Francesco’s world like an observing angel, ever curious and befuddled at the actions that humans engage in. The film’s original title, Dellamorte Dellamore (roughly translated “Of Death, Of Love””), gives a better insight into what the movie is examining and even satirizing. Love and death are considered the two prime motivators for human urges, and Cemetery Man takes those two drives and ramps them up to eleven.
What anchors the movie is Everett’s performance as Francesco. He is delightfully weary and could be the poster child for ennui. His lackadaisical take on the character makes him incredibly funny, but it also makes him somewhat off-putting when the story takes a turn and Francesco begins murdering the living instead of the returning dead. Oh, that happens because Death himself appears to Francesco and tells him to stop killing the zombies because they belong to the realm of the dead and that’s Death’s jurisdiction. Yes, it’s this kind of movie.
Honestly, Cemetery Man is one of those movies that you simply have to see in order to best understand why it’s so special. And plenty of respected filmmakers would agree. Demon Knight director Ernest Dickerson praised it on Trailers from Hell and Cape Fear’s Martin Scorsese called it one of the best Italian films of the ‘90s; not just Italian horror films but one of the best overall pieces of Italian cinema from the entire decade. I’m inclined to agree. Cemetery Man is a true one-of-a-kind flick that should have ushered in the arrival of a new horror maestro in Michele Soavi.
While it’s a shame that didn’t happen, we’ll always have Cemetery Man to remind us just how great Soavi’s contributions to horror were. And the film is also yet another reminder that genuine genre masterpieces frequently came out of the 1990s.