Wednesday, May 20, 2009

DVD Review: Cemetery Man & Zombie Holocaust

Sunday night I decided to have myself an Italian zombie double feature: the first film, Cemetery Man, directed by Michele Soavi, is considered one of the best zombie films ever made; the other film, Zombie Holocaust, written by Fabrizio de Angelis, the creator of the seminal Italian zombie film Zombi 2, is notorious for, well I don't know if it's notorious for anything, but it's one of the few Italian zombie movies I've yet to see. My affinity for all things Italian horror, specifically Italian zombie films, is no secret -- the blog's namesake gives that away -- just click on some of the tags to see how much writing I've done on Italian horror, and specifically the zombie subgenre; but it's been a long time since I've been able to wax poetic about the genre I love so much so I went ahead and myself a double feature. Thoughts after the jump...

Cemetery Man:

Michele Soavi is one of the forgotten greats of Italian horror. Perhaps that's because he came in a little late, not making his first film well into the 80's. However, Soavi, Aregento's top apprentice, has made some of the best horror films, American or Italian, that I've ever seen. His Stage Fright is a classic hybrid of Italian giallo and American slasher (not to mention one of my favorite horror films), and his eerie The Church is a beautiful looking film with a set design and classical Italian nonsensical ethereal mood throughout. The Church, as a supernatural horror story, excelled in areas that only Argento laid claim to. Soavi then went on a hiatus from film to care for his ailing son. He returned, however, to make mobster films for Italian television (which are supposed to be really good, I'm working on getting those to review). Despite all of the kudos I've showered on the man I hadn't yet seen what was probably his most famous film, sandwiched in between Stage Fright and the mobster films is what many zombie gurus consider one of the premier zombie films, Cemetery Man.

The hype was warranted as Soavi creates a weird hybrid of comedy and classical Italian zombie elements that fans are looking for. The film isn't a gut-muncher like some of the films of Lucio Fulci; it relies more on bizarre scenarios, beautifully shot scenes, and comic violence in the vein of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn.

The story concerns Francis Delamorte (Francis of Death he tells us through narration) played by Rupert Everett who must guard a cemetery so that the "returners" (or what we would call zombies), who rise from the grave after being a dead one week, don't get out of the cemetery and into the city. Delamorte meets a beautiful woman during a funeral and tells the audience "she was the most beautiful living woman I had ever seen." It's lines like those that make Cemetery Man such a treat. Here's a film that doesn't take itself seriously at all, it has a lot of fun with the premise of zombie flick and the conventions the viewers expect; however, it flips those expectations by taking none of what happens seriously.

Soavi's film does get all meta with the major plot twist that occurs, and it's at this point that the film plays more like fairy tale. Delamorte utters this doozy of a line in his narration: "The living dead and the dying living are all the same; cut from the same cloth"; and thus kicks off his killing spree of not just zombies, but of living people as well. It's a funny take on society and how the killing spree by Delamorte and the zombies are no big deal. The joke does tend to overstay its welcome, but it's such a fun ride, not to mention beautifully shot, that I didn't quite mind that the film is kind of monotonous in the middle.

Delamorte is like Ash from the Evil Dead films: witty, weary, and always on his toes no matter how ridiculous the situation. Delamorte is joined by one of the more bizarre sidekicks I've seen, his name is Gnaghi, which is essentially the only sound he makes. Delamorte tells us that he has "a real passion for dead leaves", so we always see Gnaghi raking leaves. The slapstick element he provides is also pretty amusing as there is a great scene when Delamorte is shocked to find that the "returners" are rising well before their normal one-week time. He's outside struggling with a zombie, runs into Gnaghi's room, continues to fight the zombie without him noticing at all; he just continues eating his meal and watching television. The way the scene is blocked and executed is wonderful, and it's clear to see the influence of Soavi's film on the hilarious Shaun of the Dead. I also love how Soavi plays with the conventions of Italian zombie flicks. There's a great scene where Delamorte walks in on someone being eaten by a zombie -- he's about to put an end to the business when it seems like the girl getting eaten is kind of enjoying it as she says: "please don't, he's only eating me." There's something about that scene that got a huge laugh out of me; in fact the entire film has a wry undertone to it that is often omitted in horror. People often forget that one of the reasons you watch a horror movie is to (gasp) have a good time.

As I've mentioned already, the film is beautiful to look at; Cemetery Man,like a lot of good Italian horror, has style to spare. One thing Soavi does extremely well is light his scenes. The graveyard is a perfect setting for Soavi to work his magic, and there is rarely a scene in the film that doesn't make you realize that Cemetery Man is not your average horror film. There are some truly bizarre moments in the film that will probably turn off the most casual of horror fans (like Delamorte having some serious sex with a woman right by the grave of her ex-husband), but if you're familiar with Italian zombie subgenre, and can enjoy just a classic, cheesy, fun horror film, then this your film. Soavi's film is what I think Sam Raimi's new picture, Drag Me to Hell, will be like: nothing overly gruesome, just a fun horror movie. We need more of those as the genre as turned way too serious. The other amazing thing about Cemetery Man is that it came about 10 years after the last successful Italian zombie film. Italian horror was being phased out, and it was rare to see such a good film produced in a time when horror was middling. This is the exact same thing that happened with his slasher/giallo film Stage Fright.

Soavi is a director who you must acquaint yourself with if you are a fan of horror films. He has an amazing way of integrating haunting sets with hilarious situations without ever compromising either aspect of his film. There's a moment in the film where a motorcycle rider is killed. His friends bury him on his motorcycle, so when the week is up, and it's time for his to rise from the grave, he does so on his motorcycle; he even leaps over a tombstone and Soavi shoots the scene against the moon so all you see is a motorcycle driving zombie silhouetted against the night sky. It's a scene that is both hilarious (especially if you've seen other Italian horror films like Demons that have goofy elements like that in them, only they're played straight) and aesthetically beautiful. It's rare to find a horror director who can balance those two elements with such ease. Soavi often goes unrecognized when people speak about the great Italian horror directors like Bava, Argento, and Fulci; but he deserves mention right along side those giants of Italian horror.

Zombie Holocaust:

Crazy things happen in the jungle...that's what I've learned from Italian horror films. Also, don't mess with the natives, man. Let them do their thing -- so what if you're freaked out by them munching on your dead buddy, just get the hell out of there, don't worry about taking your stupid pictures for the newspaper! Also, if you're a doctor performing "studies" on the natives, you may want to re-think your vocation, because well, the jungle,'ll drive you crazy -- and then a zombie is bound to find you. This is what I've learned from Italian zombie movies that require their characters leave the comforts of the city to go find out what's going on in the jungle.

This film is nothing special, just your typical drive-in movie from the 80's that really doesn't even contain that many zombies. The film stars Ian McCullough as a doctor and Delli Colli as a journalist who unearth the horrifying mysteries about "zombies" in "New York City" (Italian horror directors never filmed on location). This leads the two to a mysterious island where the characters are relegated to a lot of sight seeing so all sorts of Italian horror staples can occur: stock footage, funky synth music, gratuitous nudity, cannibalism, etc.

The film is good for a laugh as you get a good sense of the type of film you're getting into from the onset. The film opens with a mysterious figure hack-sawing off limbs from a cadaver that's to be used for an Anatomy class that Dr. Butcher (yes his name is Dr. Butcher) teaches. Butcher is amazingly portrayed by Donald O'Brien who is like a low(er) rent Mel Ferrer. This allows the film to immediately begin with the usual close-ups of intestines. I swear, watching these old Italian zombie movies is like watching Discovery Health; they thought it was so neat to show you the insides of people.

This leads to Peter (McCullough) and Lori (Delli Colli) inquiring about such and such (seriously these generic zombie plots all run together) and wanting to see what Dr. Butcher is up to when they hear he is on an island "helping" the natives. The convoluted plot, the backwards logic, the amazing justification for the good doctor's "life work" -- they're all the classic bad movie elements that make these 80 minute affairs tolerable. However, they are a lot more fun to watch with a group of people than by yourself.

The film was obviously shot at the same time as writer Fabrizio de Angelis' other film Zombi 2 was. It contains two of the same actors,essentially the same storyline, and all of the same locations; however, the film is lacking in the creative gore found in Zombi 2. The gore in this film looks more like the leftovers from Lucio Fulci's famous zombie film. Most of the shots are of scalpels going through cadavers and it is some of the most laughable effects I've as it's pretty clear it's just a scalpel going through a bed sheet; the "skin" even bunches up as the scalpel goes through it. Pretty funny stuff that definitely fall under the so-bad-it's-good category.

If you're bored, and have about 80 minutes to kill, Zombie Holocaust isn't bad for a laugh. There are plenty of moments that I could go into detail about, but really, they're just the same as the moments found in much better, and funnier, Italian zombie flicks like Nightmare City, Burial Ground, and The House by the Cemetery. There's some decent enough gore effects once they get on the island, but the film really only has zombie in the title so that they could cash in on the successes of Romero's Dawn of the Dead (entitled Zombi in Italy) and Fulci's "sequel" to that film Zombi 2 that were sweeping Italy at the time. If you're a completest like me, though, then definitely check this out as there's something kind of charming about the familiarity of it all.


  1. Dr. Butcher...ha! That's wonderful. Zombie Holocaust is one of the few major zombie movies from that era I haven't seen as well and from your review it looks like I can put it off.

    I'll have to get around to watching Cemetery Man sooner than later. Curious to know how it compares to Peter Jackson's Dead-Alive, as it sounds like it's in the same vein (obviously both are indebted to Raimi's films).

  2. Yeah, Zombie Holocaust is pretty good for a late night viewing if you're really bored. But if you've seen one Italian zombie movie, then you've seen this one.

    Cemetery Man is a lot better than Peter Jackson's film. I didn't much care for Jackson's film because it was a little too slap-sticky for my tastes. Soavi's style is a lot more interesting to watch than Jackson's, too. I don't know why, but I just never cared for Jackson's horror films...the charm of them usually wears off on me about 30 minutes in (especially in something like Bad Taste). But yeah, you definitely need to see Cemetery Man.

  3. Just wanted to note that I agree with you about Jackson.

  4. God that picture there with the eyes gouged out is grisly! But that's basically what we get with this sub-genre. I have not seen either of these films, but I own almost the entire Lucio Fulci catalogue here on original DVDs, including his trademark ZOMBIE and that famous (or infamous!) "Gates of Hell Trilogy" that includes what I consider to be his best film (but hardly for those with a weak stomach) THE BEYOND, and the others, THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY and CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD. The limited edition "tin" envased set, which I have on THE BEYOND is now out-of-print. It is NOT a movie for my kids to see, but I'm sure you know it well. Believe it or not, Tarantino re-released the film into theatres at one point, and credit Fulci as "an inspiration." I am not quite that high on him, as so much of the gore is senseless and revolting, but his giallo, DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLINGis very well-made. In actuality, it vies with THE BEYOND as his best film.

    When I first came upon your review here I was somehow thinking of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, which is a rather grisly film, that I haven't quite forgotten, but I think it's overrrated.

    It's clear you much prefer Soavi's film of the two you consider here, and I am sorry to say, that while I know Bava, Argento and Fulci exhaustively and own all their DVDs (Bava is easily the best of the three, and his BLACK SUNDAY, BLACK SABBATH and THE WHIP AND THE BODY are superlative genre pieces, while Argento's SUSPIRIA is also first-rate.) but I own nothing by Soavi, so I'll have to check this out.

    I loved your campy writing for this exceptionally engaging essay like for instance this: (in your ZOMBIE HOLOCAST segment)

    "Crazy things happen in the jungle...that's what I've learned from Italian horror films. Also, don't mess with the natives, man. Let them do their thing -- so what if you're freaked out by them munching on your dead buddy, just get the hell out of there, don't worry about taking your stupid pictures for the newspaper! Also, if you're a doctor performing "studies" on the natives, you may want to re-think your vocation, because well, the jungle,'ll drive you crazy -- and then a zombie is bound to find you. This is what I've learned from Italian zombie movies that require their characters leave the comforts of the city to go find out what's going on in the jungle."


  5. Sam:

    It's wonderful to hear that you are a fellow lover of Italian horror. I too love Bava and Argento; Fulci comes with a lot of caveats, but you can't deny the man's visual brilliance when he was at his apex.

    Zombie Holocaust is your typical throw away Italian zombie film, but like I said, if you are fan of the genre, it's worth the 80 min. investment. However, since you haven't seen anything by Soavi I highly recommend you check out Stage Fright. Cemetery Man is, at times, a little too silly for my taste, but man, Stage Fright is a rare entity: a slasher/giallo hybrid that is actually tense without being cliché or convoluted. If you liked Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy, you will probably like Soavi’s The Church, which is an unadvertised sequel to the Argento produced Demons films that were directed by Mario Bava’s son, Lamberto.

    Back to Fulci – I’m jealous that you have the collector’s tin of those great bizarre, sorta-zombie Italian classics. My favorite is The Beyond, too. I don't know if you've checked out the "Italian Horror" tag on my blog, but you can pretty much find anything you want about Argento, Fulci, Bava, Soavi, etc.

    It's funny that you thought this was Cannibal Holocaust. I really hate that movie; however, I loaded up my Netflix queue last night with a ton of Italian horror I haven't seen yet or title's that I haven't seen in a while and want to review on the blog. The director of Cannibal Holocaust is attached to some of the titles I added.

    Anyway, thanks as always for the comments.

  6. Sam always gives the best comments -- it's like a blog post all on its own. I'm jealous.

    Kevin -- are you getting Cannibal Holocaust mixed up with Cannibal Ferox? Knowing that I've watched most of these films with you, I'm certain I've not ever seen the former, but we've definitely seen the latter (with the infamous castration scene...ick).

    I only say this because I was wondering if you had Lenzi films in your queue or Deodato films (or perhaps both).

  7. Oh I might be. Although I thought we did watch Deodato's version at one time...maybe I'm mistaken, though. However, I am getting both of their films. I have tons of Lenzi's crime films in my queue and I have a couple Deodato films just for kicks and giggles (although I probably won't do much giggling, just wincing): Jungle Holocaust (or something like that...another Cannibal movie) and The House at the Edge of the Park. I bet the Deodato films will suck, but I can't wait for the Lenzi stuff, which includes Spasmo!

  8. I love the photos in this blog are great, scratch that I copied for me.