Sometimes, when you least expect it, you stumble upon a movie which is so strange and so wonderful that it just lodges itself in your affections and refuses to budge, come what may. Sure, the warm afterglow of the first viewing will fade somewhat, but the impression overall remains – even if you become aware of any flaws which the film has, and even if you hear justifiable criticisms levelled at it. For me, Dellamorte Dellamore is one of those films. I came to it as a rather jaded zombie horror fan about to see – as she thought – a certain type of Italian zombie movie, and I came away drunk on a viewing experience which incorporated everything from projectile vomit to existentialism, all underpinned by sex, loss, glorious aesthetics and mordant one-liners.
It’s not too surprising, then, to hear how pleased I was with Shameless Screen Entertainment’s decision to give this movie a UK release, and I can only come clean about my enthusiasm! Still, for those of you not in the know about this 1994 film, here’s what you can expect…
Francis Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) is the custodian of Buffalora Cemetery, which is situated somewhere on the outskirts of a remote Italian town. When not indulging in his own brand of pithy misanthropy, Dellamorte is pondering the fact that some of the buried dead return to life after spending a week underground. Hmm. Oddly, Dellamorte and his faithful assistant Gnaghi can take zombies (pretty much) in their stride, but the arrival at the cemetery of, as Dellamorte describes her “the most beautiful living woman I’ve ever seen” – a young widow, in mourning for her husband – sends him into self-doubt and, frankly, a loneliness he normally staves off by being offhand, sardonic and efficiently crossing all the dead folk out of his copy of the local phonebook. But, as he also says, you can’t live on memories alone, and he knows there must be a life out there somewhere, beyond the cemetery gates.
He is determined to woo the forever-nameless woman (Anna Falchi) with this hope in mind – but, this doesn’t end happily, to say the least. When Dellamorte makes love to her on the grave of her deceased (they weren’t big on having secrets from each other), hubby comes back to outraged life and bites her. If Dellamorte was losing his grip on the world before, then this precipitates a nightmarish course of events at just the moment he seemed to be craving some meaning. All his brief romance with her shows him, though, is the inescapability of the death which surrounds him, literally or figuratively, and his love for her sets him on a collision course with the world which he wants desperately to sit up and notice him.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the world of Absurdism. This is the idea that the world is vast, chaotic and devoid of meaning, and that people will at last come to realise this: faced with an unknowable, unquantifiable world, Dellamorte makes one last-ditch attempt to overlay some sort of meaning on his existence, to find love,and he fails – in glorious shades of black comedy and horror. It’s one man against the world – it just happens to be a very warped world, but his plight is very human. If I may be self-indulgently wanky for a minute, and bear with me, but look at this quote from Absurdist philosopher Kierkegaard, discussing what it is to realise you’ll never make sense of it all: “I must act, but reflection has closed the road so I take one of the possibilities and say: This is what I do, I cannot do otherwise because I am brought to a standstill by my powers of reflection.” If you’ve seen the film, that may well remind you of a certain scene…and Dellamorte has reached this point. The result is a curious blend of laugh-out-loud humour and real pathos which I don’t think has ever been matched for me, not anywhere else.
All of this might have collapsed in a heap, albeit an aesthetically-pleasing heap, were it not for strong performances from the cast, and it’s hard to believe that Rupert Everett was ever second in line for this role behind the American actor Matt Dillon. Perhaps Dillon would have made a good fist of it, I can’t say for sure, but there’s something really pleasing about the circularity of Everett appearing in this film in the lead role, as his looks were the inspiration behind Tiziano Sclavi’s comic book character Dylan Dog – Sclavi being the author of the novel on which Soavi based his screenplay. Everett is on fine form here too, and even manages to make a very Italian film feel very British in places: no one from anywhere else in the world could or would dourly refer to a young woman throwing herself at an undead biker as a “silly cow”. The film is pinned together with these one liners, many of which might have sounded trite coming from just anyone, but Everett manages an earnestness which is compelling.
There’s an artistic eye at work here, one which can offset Italian café culture one minute with bloody death the next, but which perhaps most importantly sets up the whole tone of the movie with one scene: the moment when Dellamorte catches sight of the gorgeous Anna Falchi for the first time is juxtaposed with the coffin of her husband sinking into the ground, only we’re shown this from a coffin’s eye view – even without the Italian title, death and love are tightly linked, and you just know the relationships at the movie’s core are always going to be problematic. Still, I don’t want to make this sound like a Bergman spin in the zombie genre – it isn’t, and every stroke of existential angst is matched by more conventional horror, some of it very funny and very grisly. This is a film which strives to do a great deal and, for me, succeeds. It’s horror with a heart and a brain, and its atmosphere is quite unique. Sure, some may find Soavi’s breadth of tone and style here bewildering, and in some circumstances perhaps I would have, too, but Dellamorte Dellamore works so well because perhaps it shouldn’t. If you fancy a movie which uses death (and zombification) to examine life, then look no further.
The Shameless release gives us a good quality print, with rich blacks, rich colours and good levels of contrast, while the audio track is crisp and clear. In terms of extras, I have to admit I was hoping for a bit more, but nonetheless the option of viewing this film in Italian with subtitles rather than in English is a boon. There’s also a photo gallery, a Shameless trailer reel (slightly redundant, I’d quibble, as trailers run automatically before you reach the main menu) and a commentary from director Michele Soavi and writer Gianni Romoli. The full release will also have a booklet containing Alan Jones’s on-set memoirs. ‘A real nice ossuary’ sadly not included.
Dellamorte Dellamore is out on Region 2 DVD on February 27th, from Shameless Screen Entertainment.