The reasons why some films gain international recognition while others stay in relative obscurity have more to do with chance, climate and even critical prejudice than with their actual quality. Here’s a film which has nothing to envy from most Horror classics, could teach some more “serious” dramas and art films more than a few lessons and yet, if it has any reputation, it’s that of being an extremely bizarre movie, instead of a brilliant one.
Although some blurbs of the film claim it’s adapted from the Tiziano Sclavi Dylan Dog comics – possibly because the character was already visually inspired by Rupert Everett – , it’s in fact based on an unrelated novella by the same author. It’s about Francesco Dellamorte, a caretaker in an Italian villa cemetery who’s mysteriously referred to as an “engineer” by the folks in town. We learn in the first scene that Francesco’s cemetery has a peculiarity – in it, the dead constantly come back to life and have to be shot down and reburied by Francesco’s speech-challenged assistant Gnagi. From there onwards, the movie’s plot twists and the protagonist’s state of mind change so constantly it’s difficult to provide a synopsis. A key scene occurs when he meets a widow (played by Anna Falchi, too gorgeous and sexual to be for real) he falls in love with.
It’s easy to see why an unusual movie like this, if overlooked, can be condemned to the trash pile. After all, it’s about zombies, it has tons of gore and violence, delirious scenes and sex. But anyone with a trained eye can recognize this is far from being exploitation or even a bonafide B movie. This is a work of love and care, with every image being carefully composed and photograph to fit into the film’s erratic, melancholic mood. More than a few of them, in fact, are mirror images of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich – the tall pine trees and the graveyard’s opening arch being the most obvious examples. Another, very erotic, image plays off René Magritte’s famous The Lovers.
The film is one of the few 20th Century stories or work of art in general which takes Romanticism seriously. Francesco is the ultimate Romantic hero, cast away from society (at one point it’s revealed he even fabricates rumors about his own sexual impotence), troubled, introspective and hopelessly in love with a dead woman – the Spanish title of this movie being My Girlfriend is a Zombie. His strange road leads to apparent insanity and disconnection with reality, but then again, the opening scene already had him shooting down re-animated corpses. Where did fantasy start and stop for Francesco Dellamorte? The last scene, which I will not reveal here, is equal parts brilliant and frustrating and seems visually inspired by yet another Friedrich painting, the Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. Yet in this case it’s not just the visual quote, but the solving of a dichotomy that’s present in the painting. Is it a painting about a person standing tall above the landscape or being shamed by its enormity?
To keep with this film’s enormous misfortune with audiences, it seems doomed to have awful foreign titles. It’s known in English as Cemetery Man, which I guess it’s better than My Girlfriend is a Zombie but it’s also too pragmatical. Dellamorte Dellamore is a pun with no translation (literally meaning “of the death of love” while also being, as revealed late into the film, the full name of the character’s mother. At least the Australians gave it a try.