Saoirse’s Cult Corner #34: Dellamorte Dellamore (1994)

In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here. 

We’ve been away for a bit while the site took somewhat of an unofficial hiatus, but we’re coming back with what I look at as a quasi Season 3 of this series. If up to the last Jodorowsky column was Season 1, then up to Fantastic Planet was Season 2. It’s an era I’m particularly proud of, but after working through the pandemic I think we all needed a break. We now return with one of Saoirse’s favourite movies, Dellamorte Dellamore, or Cemetery Man, a horror comedy from 1994.

What do you think of when you think of Italian Zombie movies? I think what most people think of is an anonymous collection of no-name actors, a cameo from someone like Ania Pieroni if you’re lucky. It doesn’t make sense, the acting isn’t great, the dubbing is awful and the budgets get increasingly insufficient. Today we’re going to talk a little but about why you might have that perception and some films that stand outside of it. 

An industry phenomenon that really influences how we look at Italian movies is the idea of the ‘filone’. Now, while there is always films of various genres being made, filone describes a phenomenon where one film of a certain genre, often a conscious attempt to tap into a foreign market, does gangbusters at the box office and suddenly that’s the film that everyone’s making. Famous examples of this are Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, an attempt to tap into the American genre of Westerns, doing incredibly well and suddenly in 1965 it was all A Pistol For Ringo, $100,000 for Ringo, and The Return of Ringo, also Dario Argento, who cut his teeth in Westerns, making The Bird With The Crystal Plumage in 1970 and by 1971 it was all  The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh, A Bay of Blood, and The Fifth Chord. Not to slant against any of those movies, I think this way of making films has produced some of the most exciting cult movies of all time. Would we get the psychedelic mania of A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin if they weren’t giving away tiny budgets for Giallo movies to whoever asked for it? No, no we wouldn’t. So, there. Anyway, Argento himself was heavily involved in the production of a little zombie film by director George A. Romero called Dawn of the Dead, you might have heard of it. Anyway, then Italian genre journeyman Lucio Fulci made a stealth sequel/prequel called Zombie Flesh Eaters in 1979 and it did stupendously well. Suddenly, the Giallo filone was out, and zombies were in. The difference is that when it came to Giallo, while there were very bad ones, that’s a very narratively driven genre and the beats audiences expect include a good story, so with the wonderful stylistic experimentation happening in that scene, you got a lot of quite dazzling mystery stories. The problems come when the movies that broke the dam for the genre revolve around not having to do much that’s too bold on a scale or story level. Enter Zombie Creeping Flesh, After Death, and Zombie Holocaust

Again, this is not to say there weren’t some incredible films made in this filone. In fact progenitor Lucio Fulci put out some of the most daring and experimental horror films of the era in the form of The Beyond and City of the Living Dead. The latter of which had a bit part by one of Dario Argento’s regular assistant directors, Michele Soavi. After directing one of the key texts in the handover of Giallo to slasher films, Stage Fright, Soavi helmed two of the best surrealist occult chillers for producer Argento, The Sect and The Church. In 1994, Soavi took his daringly original vision to the zombie film when it’s filone had well and truly died out. 

Dellamorte Dellamore, also known as Cemetery Man, is a loose adaptation of the Dylan Dog comic series made in 1994. It stars otherwise Shakespearean actor Rupert Everett as Francesco Dellamorte, the beleaguered, depressed, sardonic worker of an Italian cemetery where the dead come back to life. It happens to be one of my all time favourite movies, ever.

Okay, so, where to begin describing this movie. It’s a challenge. To start with, I’m going to quote its star, Everett. “Everything needs to be channeled into a framework, today, that is promotable… that’s, I think, the problem with our culture, is that we don’t have the mechanism to see something outside of one of those particular boxes, and this film is a very good example. It’s just on its own”. He couldn’t be more right. Even outside of Soavi’s previous most visionary fantasy horror, The Sect, this is even more of a unique tonal blend. Whereas The Sect could still fit into a post Argento rubric, this is like no other film I can think of, even today. Even without elaboration thereupon, it’s worth stating that that in itself is a unique joy. To see a film unlike anything else, that blends tones successfully in an unfamiliar way is something that just gets my blood going, gets my adrenaline pumping, and starts about reinforcing my faith in cinema as an art form. When it comes to Dellamorte Dellamore, the Dylan Dog connection is interesting because it’s sort of a 2001: A Space Odyssey situation where the movie and the source material were being developed concurrently by the same writer although the movie took much longer to appear. Therefore, it has that hard boiled, Hellboy style comic grit, and the fact that it comes from comics gives director Soavi real licence to apply his unique method of visual storytelling to something that grizzled. Soavi has a really poetic way of expressing things visually, and while the opening sting of this movie where Dellamorte interrupts a casual phone call to blow the brains out of a reanimated salesman has that real comic sensibility, there are scenes of overt sexuality that make the idea of fucking a corpse genuinely erotic while still maintaining its perverseness. The whole film exists in this place between morbidity, existential angst, horniness, and comic strip violence and it’s a truly intoxicating formula. 

That idea of existential angst is really important. In an almost Kaufmanesque way reality starts to unspool in this movie as the lines between the surreal world that can be created by putting together artificial images in a cinematic way and reality slowly blur. There’s a recurring actress, Anna Falchi, who is credited as just “she” who after an initial sexual brush in the cemetery seems to become a recurring spirit that haunts and sexually taunts Francesco, she plays several different characters and it creates this feeling of his world teasing him and reminding him of the futility of his own existence. Each iteration of Falchi, Francesco chases like a horny puppy with no sense of social boundaries only to have it come back in his face and he actually takes it to heart and starts questioning what his behaviour says about him and it adds to this absolute sense of existential ennui that pervades the film. This sense is only added to when death himself appears as if the curse death has placed upon Francesco to be perpetually miserable has gone too far and he needs a push in the direction death intended, death tells him that if he doesn’t want to kill the dead he should just kill the living, and you get a sense that Francesco has been caught in this perennial, pervading, existential trap from which he cannot escape. This sense only gets more and more unsettlingly present as reality unravels and gets more and more tenuous as the film goes on, ending in one of the most provocatively perplexing final scenes I’ve ever seen, it’s truly impressive. 

The look of the film is also super impressive. It captures the dark, grungy, dour sense that was so in the popular conscious in 1994, but combines In Utero with Disintegration. Blending grime with flights of romantic fancy and ethereal gothic beauty. It puts the world of the demonic in the world of the angelic, giving death itself this sense of beauty that ties into its sense of inevitability, that it comes for us all, and thus when death comes it should not be feared but embraced. It has a sense of gallows humour that punctures the tone with just the right perforations giving it a sense of the Samuel Beckett or the Tom Stoppard. In the same way as Beckett’s most famous play, Waiting for Godot, Francesco Dellamorte is waiting for something to save him from the hell he lives in, but no one is coming. To paraphrase another great play by Jean Paul Satre, his hell is other people, and there is no escape from it. 

Everett caries this tonal tightrope brilliantly in his performance, giving a perfect version of Clint Eastwood’s nameless gunslinger from A Fistful of Dollars if he was on quaaludes and in dire need of sertraline, but carries that sense of grizzled sexuality still. There are moody shots of him moping in a shower and you’re just looking at him like, ‘Jesus, Rupert you are a very attractive young man’, and you feel like Rupert knows it, and carries his character in a way in which that becomes part of his milieu. He has a wonderful sense of the morosely comic as well as how to shoot people in the head with maximum badassery. It helps create the movie’s superb tonal blend. 

Dellamorte Dellamore is a really perfectly formed thing. A blend of horror, gothic romance, and absurdist comedy, it’d be so easy for this movie to feel like a movie with no kin or peer, a mess with no coherent vision, but it’s held together by a deftly stylish director, an intelligent and forward thinking script, and superb performances from an excellent ensemble cast.

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