Sunday, August 22, 2010

When good zombies go bad

Because I am going to the Egyptian at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood tonight to see two crown jewels in the zombie pantheon—Night of the Living Dead and Zombie—it put me in the mood to write about a couple of other zombie epics, both Italian in origin, but one ridiculous and the other sublime.

Burial Ground (aka "The Nights of Terror," or as it says on the screen, "The Nigths of Terror"), directed by Andrea Bianchi, is so wrongheaded on every level that it's absolutely hilarious to watch. And, fortunately, it's a snap to find on DVD in the U.S. The simple plot is this: a professor accidentally unleashes a horde of cannibal zombies from a burial ground near his countryside villa and is consumed. Later, three couples arrive, presumably to visit the missing professor but also to have sex immediately and in as many places as they can. Of course, when the zombies descend upon them, they find themselves in a battle for their lives.

Where to begin? First of all, the copulating couples are not in the least sexy. As a matter of fact, they're rather repulsive. At the beginning of the film, as you're being introduced to them two by two, you realize that you're going to have to watch at least the beginnings of a sex scene, which can include a) clumsy fondling; b) the woman dressing in sleazy lingerie that she found in the house; c) the man calling the woman his whore; and d) coitus interruptus courtesy of zombies or nosy children.

I use the term children quite loosely. The only "child" in the film is Michael, the son of one of the women, played by an adult midget actor in a bad toupee who went by the stage name Peter Bark. His mere presence is creepy enough, but Bianchi amps the icks by giving him and Mama an Oedipal relationship that culminates in one of the most famously sleazy scenes in the movie.

As zombies go, these ones are a really mixed bag. The makeup looks like mudpacks with teeth added. And since the performers' real human eyes are peering out from beneath the layers of gunk they're wearing, it gives them an added dimension of bizarreness.

Since they're supposed to be ancient Etruscans, their apparel is limited to shapeless blobs of dusty-looking cloth, although there is the occasional nod to fashion, as demonstrated by the rather natty ascot-wearing zombie pictured here.

They're not fast—as a matter of fact, they're you're traditional shuffling lot—but fortunately their victims are patient and wait to be killed. The humans could easily outrun them, get in their cars and take off, but they stand frozen in terror in scene after scene after scene. And their lame attempts to fight the creatures (including throwing paint on them!) are hilarious.

The English dubbing is all that you want and expect from an '80s Italian horror film—over-the-top performances and lines that don't make any sense, plus there a shots a-plenty of the actors staring in horror—and that's it.

Here's a good clip of the "child," Michael, coming on to his mother:

In 1972, Bianchi had directed an obscure little thriller also featuring a perverted kid, What the Peeper Saw (aka Night Hair Child, whatever that means), starring Oliver Twist himself, Mark Lester, as a sick little bastard tormenting his new stepmother (Britt Ekland). At least Bianchi used a real kid that time. Wait—what am I saying?

On to the sublime...

Cemetery Man (aka Dellamorte Dellamore), from 1994, has got to be the genre's first art film. It's packed with surrealistic sequences, multiple planes of awareness, and generous doses of gory silliness that fit well into the framework of the film. It also features a charismatic performance by Rupert Everett, who plays the titular character, Francesco Dellamorte, the caretaker of a cemetery whose residents have the nasty habit of coming back to life.

With the aid of his mentally-challenged assistant, Gnaghi (Francois Hadji-Lazaro), his job is to put them back into their graves when the return seven days after burial, and he's weary of it all—dealing with the dead on a daily basis has left him feeling like he's become one of them. But he meets a beautiful young widow (Anna Falchi) whom he finds mourning at her recently deceased (and much older) husband's grave, and a romance begins.

Unfortunately, the guy chooses to come back from the dead just as they're making love atop his tomb, and he tears a sizable chunk of flesh out of her before Dellamorte can kill him...again. Thus begins an hallucinatory odyssey of lust, longing and the living developing emotional attachments to the undead.

In one scene, a girl comes to the cemetery to welcome back her lover, who'd been killed in a motorcycle accident, and happily allows him to consume her flesh. "Leave us alone!" she cries to Dellamorte. "He's only eating me!" Even Gnaghi finds love with the reanimated head of the local mayor's daughter, keeping it housed in the shell of a broken television set and dressing it in a wedding veil.

Dellamorte's love returns as a full-fledged zombie, whom he must kill again, and this drives him over the edge. When he receives a visit from Death himself, who warns him: "Don't kill the dead. They're mine. Kill the living instead," he drives wildly through town, randomly shooting people walking along the street.

Then he meets a college student who's the spitting image of his lost love, but she turns out to be a prostitute who's just looking for money, and he furiously immolates her in her apartment building. Talk about flames of passion.

All of this sounds insane, I know, but Soavi and his writer, Gianni Romoli, keep the story comprehensible and engaging. The visuals are rapturous and dreamlike, and the conclusion is a real mind-blower.

Everett has never been better. As a matter of fact, he was cast in the role thanks to his resemblance of an Italian graphic novel character, Dylan Dog, on whose stories this film is loosely based. Falci is voluptuous (and makes a fun zombie) and Hadji-Lazaro is hilarious. Only a few performances and Italian-to-English translations are a little shaky, and Americans might find some of the humor a little broad, but for the most part, it's exquisite. Ricardo Biseo and Manuel DeSica's score is excellent, as is the cinematography by Mauro Marchetti.

Soavi worked for many of the big names of Italian horror cinema in the 1980s, including Dario Argento, Aristide Massaccesi, Lamberto Bava and Lucio Fulci, and Massaccesi gave him his first chance to direct in 1987 with the film Stagefright. Cemetery Man is head-and-shoulders above his other horrors (and, indeed, most of the Italian horrors of the period), and the work he's done since has been in other genres. I don't suppose a sequel is in the offing, but I wish he'd work this kind of magic again.

And now only half an hour to go before I leave for the Cinematheque. I can't wait...I haven't seen Night or Zombie on the big screen for ages. I hope the prints are good.


Night of the Living Dead was a digital projection from a nice-looking print, but it still looked and sounded like film, not video, thank God. Zombie was an original theatrical 35mm print that had turned pink but was still a joy to watch. How else are you going to see these gems on the big screen these days?


Alex B. said...

Dellamore Dellamore has got to be among the very finest horror-themed films Italy has produced.
Considering that it came during the period when Italian film industry was dead and former greats such as Fulci and Lenzi were sitting out of work, it's a real miracle that a film is so accomplished.
But I must admit that I watch Buial Ground a lot more frequently than Dellamore Dellamore.
It's rubbish, but unique rubbish at that.
Heck, I'd love to see Zombie on big screen.
Have a good on at the Cinematheque!

Russell Adams said...

I noted with great interest your mention of the paint-throwing scene in "Burial Ground." I know from my own experiences around the house that this is one of the very worst methods for repelling zombies.

I am encouraged to learn that "Zombieland 2" is now in the works. It's about time the walking dead had their own franchise. (I am excluding Jim Carrey movies, of course!)

WeirdMovieBuff said...

When I was watching "Zombie," I recalled that Fulci derisively referred to his zombie extras as "potted plants," because they were homeless people who were picked up off the street and caked with mud by Di Rossi. So rude.

Alex, I can see watching "Burial Ground" more frequently, especially in a party situation. There are also "potted plants" in that film, I'm afraid.

Russell, "Zombieland 2" sounds smokin'.

Alex B. said...

What is magical about Burial Ground is it's naive style, basic and straightforward almost to the point of being retarded. It's like they gave Bianchi money to film some 8-year-old's comic book about zombies.

Watching pink-hued Zombie must've been a surreal experience!


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