Friday, October 30, 2009

Cemetery Man: A Beautiful Nightmare Mess

I've always been a night owl.

It takes next to nothing for me to stay up longer and later than most normal mortals, and on weekends or days off I'll routinely stay awake until 2 or 3 in the a.m.

Writing during that time can be, in a strange way, fun. Sometimes, being up that late just turns you into a tired and punchy oaf the next day. But other times, drifting in that twilit state between consciousness and narcotic slumber stimulates great things. It's as if, when you're on that fine line, it opens up a door to untold wonders, beauties, nightmares, and imaginings.

That twilit time means so much to me that when I see a movie that truly, deeply captures it--that drowsily-heady point where dreams and wakefulness dance so closely that you can't tell them apart--I fall for it like a frilly-shirted poet gazing at some alabaster-skinned Edwardian muse. Cemetery Man is one of those movies.

Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) works as a caretaker at Buffalora Cemetery, a far-from-routine job made even less so by its interred's irksome tendency to return from the grave to devour the living. Aided by his mute sidekick Gnaghi (Francois Hadji-Lazaro), Dellamorte guns, stabs, shovels, and beats the undead back to death with deadpan workaday efficiency. Then one day, a voluptuous and sensual widow (Anna Falchi) strolls into Buffalora to bury her husband. Francesco's jaded exterior begins cracking; and he tumbles into an ill-fated romance, self-examination, nightmares, and madness--maybe--as a result.

I fell hard for this dark fairy tale, and for all of its rich and dense layers. Director Michele Soavi strikes the perfect tone between black humor, visceral horror, and strange romance. And his movie looks unlike any zombie movie you've ever seen, drawing from a palate that's equal parts Fellini, Romero, and Tim Burton.

Structurally, it works on myriad levels, brilliantly. It's funny as hell (the opening scene, with its deadpan humor offsetting the violence, is just drop-dead cool--and dig the cycle crash victim who's buried, fused to his hog), as strangely romantic as anything you'll see in a so-called chick flick, brimming with symbolism if you care to look for it (Francesco's musing on Gnaghi's love of dead leaves, Falchi's recurring reappearances as different women/different aspects of woman), possessive of a surprising vein of sweetness in places (as demented as it is, Gnaghi's guilelessly adorable romance with a disembodied head wouldn't be out of place in a warped John Hughes flick), and yet it still delivers on the chills, thrills, and gore front.

Soavi cut his teeth assistant-directing for the great Dario Argento, and it shows in the best way. His cinematographer Mauro Marchetti swoops, pans, and glides his camera across Buffalora with feline fluidity, and he captures some eerily-enchanting images, punctuating them with Argento-esque bursts of primary color and violence. Special effects wizard Sergio Stivaletti's zombies--plants, weeds, and trees sprouting from the ones that've resided in their graves for awhile--are unlike anything you've seen in a horror movie, too. All of this serves a literate script by Gianni Romoli that combines black humor, gothic romance, and sledgehammer horror shocks masterfully. This may be the first Italian horror movie I've ever seen where you actually savor the dialogue (it helps that much of it's delivered by Everett with low-key honesty). And Romoli sketches out some fascinating characters: The deadpan-philosophical Dellamorte and his sweet-natured mute of a sidekick Gnaghi make an odd but very funny pair, and the latter experiences Cemetery Man's happiest romance: Never mind that it's with a disembodied head (talk about shades of Tim Burton).

As Cemetery Man progresses, it gets more surreal, strange, and discomfiting, and the Grimm's gothic romance gives way to a bird's-eye view of Dellamorte's descent into insanity. In the last twenty minutes or so Soavi starts bending and manipulating the pocket universe he's created with the same disregard for linearity that David Cronenberg displayed in the closing reel of Videodrome. The utter insanity of the final reel initially bugged me, until I watched it again at twilight. At that hour, it all made sense: The visual and verbal cues, the final denouement, and Dellamorte's erratic and homicidal behavior all follow their own dream-logic. I haven't been led on a journey this strange, funny, and disturbing in a long time; and I want to go again...Just before I drift off to sleep.

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