D: Michele Soavi (1994)
with Rupert Everett, François Hadji-Lazaro, Anna Falchi.
Cemetery keeper Francesco (Everett) is talking on the phone when there's a knock on the door. He answers the knock to find a pasty-faced zombie in a suit leering at him. Calmly he produces a large revolver, levels it at the undead's head, pulls the trigger, and goes back to his phone call. What would seem from the outset to be yet another living-dead movie proves to be much more. Francesco is half-mad from loneliness, going through life with only his obese, mute assistant Gnaghi (Hadji-Lazaro) to keep him company and one friend in town whom he sees infrequently. Of course, there's also the problem of the pesky dead who come back as zombies and need to be killed with a bullet to the head (as in every zombie movie since Night of the Living Dead). One day Francesco spots a beautiful young widow (Falchi) at her husband's funeral and is smitten. He blows his opening remarks to her, meets her again, and stumbles badly, but then finds out that she is a bit of a necrophile herself when they have a hot make-out scene in a mausoleum. They decide to have sex on her husband's grave, which understandably makes the hubby's zombie self a little upset. He emerges from the coffin and bites her before Gnaghi can come with a shovel to dispatch him. She is presumed dead, and Francesco is forced to shoot her when she rises from the morgue's exam table. Haunted by the memory of killing his lover, Francesco's life becomes even more isolated and desperate, until he becomes a bit unhinged and decides to start shooting the living through the head, thereby saving a step or two down the line. A gruesome motorcycle-bus accident means even more dead bodies/zombies to contend with, pushing Francesco even further over the edge. Gnaghi, on the other hand, gets a crush on the mayor's daughter; being unable to speak, he winds up vomiting all over her. When the daughter is killed in the motorcycle accident, Gnaghi simply falls in love with her severed head, placing the re-animated head inside a smashed TV to substitute for television. This is a strange, hard-to-categorize mixed dish of absurd black comedy, romance, horror, and melancholy that is guaranteed to stick with you for a while and holds up under repeated viewings. Everett is excellent as the lead character (a real departure from his pretty-boy roles) and his friendship with Gnaghi is touching and funny. Hadji-Lazaro nearly steals the show as the dog-like, infantile Gnaghi; it's a rare actor that can bring so much to a role that consists of grunt-and-point. Director Soavi cut his teeth as assistant director for Dario Argento (Argento's Opera has a character affectionately named Inspector Soavi) and directed segments of Terry Gilliam's Baron Munchausen. With its arthouse sensibilities and stunning visuals, Cemetery Man certainly bears the earmarks of an Argento film; however, Argento himself would never direct a film that is as strange and hard to define as this one. --Jerry Renshaw
aka La Chiesa
D: Michele Soavi (1988)
with Hugh Quarshie, Tomas Arana, Fedor Chaliapin Jr., Asia Argento.
In medieval times, a platoon of Teutonic Knights (sort of a religious/military Crusades version of the Nazi SS) ride into a town suspected of witchcraft. After deciding that all the citizens are witches, the knights ruthlessly slaughter all of them and throw them into a mass grave. It is decided that a church should be built on the grave to seal in the demons forever. A few hundred years later, a tour group is inside the church, along with a wedding party. The demons are accidentally unleashed when the cathedral's new librarian dislodges a rock in the catacombs beneath. The architect had designed the church to automatically seal all its windows and doors should the demons be loosed; the elderly bishop also discloses that the building is rigged to collapse on itself in an emergency, but he dies before he can tell how that happens. Meanwhile, all those trapped inside kill each other off or go insane. Written by Dario Argento, this fast-moving, episodic horror film would fit in nicely with Lamberto Bava's Demons films; indeed, it was released at one time as Demons 3. It's filled with over-the-top gore, insane camera work and shot compositions, and a beautifully surreal mise-en-scène. Asia Argento (Dario's daughter) appears as a victim of the Knights in the beginning of the film, then her doppelganger turns up in the modern-day segments (perhaps a nod to Mario Bava's Black Sunday?). Argento's hand also shows through in many cases; one wall is adorned with a Bosch-like mural, a theme that would later figure prominently in Argento's Stendhal Syndrome. The religious overtones of this film are hard to overlook; on the one hand, it seems to condemn the religious persecution of the Middle Ages, but at the same time the rituals of the church are the only hope to contain the evil unleashed within. --Jerry Renshaw
Who Am I This Time?
D: Jonathan Demme (1981)
with Susan Sarandon, Christopher Walken, Robert Ridgely, Mike Bacarella.
An acting tour de force in which, under Demme's skilled direction, Sarandon and Walker shine, as do the rest of the cast headed up by Demme favorite Ridgely. Adapted from a Kurt Vonnegut Jr. short story, this 60-minute film was originally produced for PBS' terrific American Playhouse series. Sarandon works for the phone company, going from town to town to set up new services. She doesn't have much of a life. Ridgely figures this out and invites her to join the local theatre group during her stay. Waiting to audition for A Streetcar Named Desire, she meets the practically autistic Walken. The audition is stunning. Walken is beyond brilliant. One thing books have over movies is that it's much easier to write of a character's startling transformation than to show it. There are a few great cinematic moments in which a character shows us some remarkable change. Broderick Crawford's great transformative speech in which he goes from hick to politician inAll the King's Men always comes to mind, as does Brando's disintegration at the end of Last Tango in Paris. This is one of those kind of performances. In his day-to-day life Walken's character can barely function. Given a script, he completely becomes any character he's playing. Walken pulls it off, and his devastating Stanley erotically energizes Sarandon's Stella. They each get their respective roles, and it goes on from audition to rehearsal to performance. The real people have to reconcile who they are with the characters they play. This was directed by Demme in his own period of transformation from the early great exploitation films -- Caged Heat (1974), Crazy Mama (1975), Fighting Mad (1976), and Citizens Band (1977) -- to the middle period of wicked Americana: Something Wild (1986) and Married to the Mob (1988). In 1980 he made the classic Melvin and Howard. The next film wouldn't be until 1984's release of the disastrous Swing Shift. Director Demme and star Goldie Hawn argued about the direction of the film during editing after the shoot had finished. The star was also producer, so she won. As Demme was doing some dread reshoots for Swing Shift, in theevenings he was shooting the Talking Heads live in concert in L.A. The result, Stop Making Sense, is one of the all-time great concert films, and was welcomed as such when it was released, also in 1984. In the years between Melvin and Howard and Swing Shift, there was this gem. Demme's love of his characters and of their lives drives this movie. The performances, especially Sarandon and Walken, make it delicious. --Louis Black