Dellamorte Dellamore (Michel Soavi, 1994)

In the second of 12 posts, film critic Neil Fulwood flies us across the globe to Italy in search of the ultimate zombie movie.

Welcome to Italy. According to Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man, “for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance”. Bringing things up to date, a contemporary Harry Lime might remark that in Italy in the twentieth century they had Mussolini and twenty-five years of fascism, but they produced Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. The hardcore fan would probably add Sergio Martino, Massimo Dallamano, Umberto Lenzi and a couple of dozen others.

Italian cinema is so steeped in horror movies that surely the only impediment to picking an exemplar of the zombie genre is that one is spoiled for choice? Actually, no. Most of the great Italian horror directors never made a zombie film. Of those who did, the results were either embarrassingly shambolic (Bruno Mattei’s Zombie Creeping Flesh) or geographically so far removed – Fulci’s zombie opuses, including bona fide classic The Beyond, were all set in America – as to be divorced from their cultural heritage. Perhaps the one true Italian zombie movie, keyed into the country’s landscape, culture and customs, is Dellamorte Dellamore.

The title is a play on words that doesn’t translate: it was released outside Italy as Cemetery Man. The action takes place in a sprawling necropolis near a rural town. For no reason that’s ever explained, the dead rise within five days of burial and it’s the job of caretaker Francisco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) to shoot them in the head and re-inter them. In this he’s aided by drooling simpleton Gnaghi (François Hadji-Lazaro). They live a simple life, left alone by the town’s administrative and political tyros as long as they take care of the undead. That is, until Francisco falls for a young widow and starts making mistakes. Arguably the biggest is his continuation of the romance after she’s zombified. Gnaghi, meanwhile, carries a torch for the mayor’s daughter but has resigned himself to his passion being unrequited. When the young lady is decapitated in a motor accident, however, Gnaghi seizes upon the old cliché that love is stronger than death.

Soavi plays out the first act as broad comedy-horror (think early Peter Jackson with subtitles) then gradually reshapes the material into parallel and equally twisted love stories fraught with the horror of impotence. As events spiral out of control, Francisco goes into the kind of meltdown that puts your average Hollywood child star to shame. Self-immolation, murder and arson ensue – or maybe not: Dellamorte Dellamore plays the “is it real or is it fantasy” card to head-spinning effect. Gore gives way to surrealism. The finale reveals the entire film as a set-up to an almost unpalatable existential punchline.

The “X is like Y meets Z” school of film criticism is generally a lazy option, but here it’s virtually mandatory: Dellamorte Dellamore is like Lucio Fulci meets Luis Buñuel by way of a key image from Citizen Kane. It’s like no other zombie flick you’ve ever seen.

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One thought on “Dellamorte Dellamore (Michel Soavi, 1994)

  1. Pingback: Doomsday (Neil Marshall, 2008) | Dawn of the Unread

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