Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett), the title hero of Michele Soavi's Cemetery Man (1993), is a busy guy. Hired as a "watchman" at the Buffalora Cemetery, it's his job to dispatch the pesky rising dead who persistently pop back up seven days after they've been buried. Confronted with a newly revived corpse, Francesco is almost apologetic when he's forced to kill 'em a second time. "I know you've heard this before," he says as he prepares to split the zombie's head, "but this time it's forever: Rest in Peace!"
Based on a novel by Italian comic writer Tiziano Sclavi, Cemetery Man (a.k.a. Dellamorte Dellamore, though Anchor Bay's DVD uses the American title) is a serio-absurdist zombie flick that owes as much to Luis Bunuel as it does George Romero. In it, Everett's watchman (who other characters keep inexplicably referring to as an "engineer") sees his job as just another grind – like the intergalactic garbagemen in John Carpenter's Dark Star, his place in a fantastic setting is just one piece of a largely mundane life. "At a certain point in life," he notes, "you realize you know more dead people than living." It's his misfortune to have come to that stage in life early.
Assisted by a mute, seemingly retarded gravedigger named Gnaghi (Francois Hadji Lazaro), Franceso goes about his nights snuffing Returners until he meets a beautiful widow (Anna Falchi): "the most beautiful living woman I've ever seen," he says, and we can't help noting the distinction he's made. Giving her a tour of the cemetery's ossuary, he attempts to seduce her, first surrounded by piles of skulls and bones, then later atop the buried husband's grave as blue flames dance around them. (A sign of the era in which this movie was lensed: you occasionally can see wires on the dancing igneous lights. Nowadays, the FX guys would probably use cheap CGI.) But before the apparently impotent(!) Francesco can get too far, the pissed-off husband rises ahead of schedule and chomps on his widow. Though the bite appears fatal, Falchi's femme shows up two more times to befuddle Francesco in different womanly guises: there's more than one way to stay undead, apparently.
Soavi's film shifts from Raimi-esque slapstick (a living severed head that's capable of propelling itself across the room) to existential dread and splatterific shocks with wild abandon. Holding it all together are Everett's lived-in hero and a gorgeously constructed cemetery set that is exploited for maximum visual potential. If a few of the movie's horror moments prove unbelievable even by the loose standards of zombie tales (e.g., a motorcycle-riding zombie who bursts from his grave like something off the cover of a crappy heavy metal LP), there are plenty of convincing outlandish moments. My personal fave features a troop of zombie boy scouts who attack our hero while he's in the (of course!) shower, but the severed head that Gnaghi foolishly attempts to romance was a close second.
Though he's our entry point to the world of Buffalora Cemetery, Everett's Francesco is a fairly unreliable guide. At one point, for instance, he tells Falchi's widow that he has a degree in biology, only to later confess that he never even graduated high school, and what starts out as simple shaky background info ultimately turns into whole scenes where we're not entirely sure if what we're watching is even happening or not.
Later, our hero is visited by a personification of Death who chastises Dellamorte for taking away his job. "If you don't want the dead coming back to life, why don't you just kill the living?" Death noodges. "Shoot them in the head!" Our hero seemingly takes this strange advice to heart, driving into town to shoot a bunch of local layabouts in the town square, but since no one seems to accept his later admissions of guilt, we start to doubt if what we saw really happened. (There's a surgery scene in the latter part of the movie that most males in the audience definitely wanna place in the didn't-really-happen category.)
By movie’s end, when Francesco and Gnaghi depart their village for the literal End of the World, Dellamorte Dellamore has become so slippery that even our duo's identities prove malleable — and the only thing we know for certain is we've seen a whole lot more than just another cheesy Euro zombie flick.