Author Tiziano Sclavi is a man of incredible imagination. From The Planet Putipoo to Mostri, he knows his way around a page. The supernatural threads itself throughout his works, most notably in his two lasting pieces of fiction: the novel Dellamorte Dellamore, and the comic series Dylan Dog. Both contain heroes that battle the supernatural whilst providing sociopolitical commentary typical to Italy. Naturally, as way often leads to way, these works made their way to the silver screen, with 1994’s release of Cemetery Man and 2011’s Dylan Dog: Dead of Night. Interestingly enough, the film adaptations have been met with varying success: one on hand, Cemetery Man has a cult following, while Dylan Dog didn’t even crack the box office, let alone break even. At first, this seems to be a head-scratcher. After all, Dylan Dog has so much going for it: a continuing plot (the comics are still in production to this day), a cool hero, some interesting criticism on the modern world, and a cult following that many a writer would kill for. This one should have knocked it out of the park because it had all of the right ingredients. So what happened? Why did Cemetery Man succeed in the mid-90s whereas Dylan Dog failed in the new millenium?
On paper, the two works bear a far greater resemblance to each other than not, particularly when it comes to their leading men: both were based physically on Rupert Everett (thanks in part to artist Claudio Villa), and both hold similar personality traits with rather Italian sensibilities, including a love of music and an appreciation for solitude. Both characters inhibit an existence that straddles the sheltered waking world to which we’re accustomed and the seedy supernatural underbelly and its scores of possibilities of wonder and horror. This includes either making sure that the dead stay down (as Francesco Dellamorte does) or cracking the case of supernatural crime with the help of comic-relief sidekick. Both love women and see the world through a fascinating lens of antibourgeois commentary. In fact, Dog and Dellamorte meet up with each other in print at one point in time – one could easily make the argument that they’re one and the same.
And then we get to the films.
Here’s where the deviation starts: Cemetery Man is rooted heavily in the fundamental traditions of Italian cinema, making it a far more competent adaptation. In Michel Soavi’s work, the basic themes of the story and characterizations are retained. We get our hero Francesco (the afore-mentioned Everett, which was so fitting), the sullen, resigned caretaker of a cemetery that sees its tenants rising from the grave seven days after burial. Francesco is aware of this, and makes sure to patrol the grounds at night. Not only that, but he’s achingly cool. Dressed completely in black, he struts around with a cigarette dangling from his pouty lips and an air of don’t-fucking-care that’s immensely appealing; after all, these supernatural events unfolding happen to be just another day at the office for him, and merit no emotion.
In our first onscreen meeting of him, he’s chatting on the phone when he gets interrupted by a Returner mid-call; calm as anything, he nonchalantly puts the receiver down, shoots the zombie, then picks up right where he left off. For Francesco, he does not wrestle with the fact that this was someone’s father, brother, or uncle – he cares about preserving the natural order, as life has to continue even in the face of death. This is a theme that threads itself throughout Italian cinema, in everything from Suspiria to Life Is Beautiful. Like our main character, the theme of life and death marching on does just that: it marches on. It’s the style that gets associated with it that matters.
So when Francesco falls for the beautiful woman known as She (Anna Falci) in this film, it’s with unbridled passion and steadfast determination to hang on to her. It’s sweaty sex and declarations of undying love, even when She is killed multiple times. It’s pure fire. Like so many torrid on-screen Italian love affairs, Francesco is in it for the long haul with She, and even gets three chances to be with her. Even then, each incarnation of She contains points of failure that address hallmarks of Italian cinematic passion: extreme lust (the graveyard attack by She’s dead husband), the loss to a more active suitor than a passive one (the rape of She by her employer, which… yeah, I’m not going to rant here today), and the sting of deceit and jealousy (the torching of the prostitute She’s apartment). What started as a fun supernatural jaunt takes a turn onto the road of lost love and continual screw-ups.
From there, it’s a smooth segue into chaos and destruction of social convention, as Francesco commits multiple murders and eventually reaches the end of the world, only to realize that it’s nothing. That is a lot of heavy material in one film, and yet Soavi packs it all into his film without once making it feel like an overfull can of sardines. It’s not salty, it’s not cramped, it’s not over-done. It’s the perfect progression of fun to failed love to the questioning of existence. The Italian title – Dellamorte Dellamore – translates roughly to “About Death, About Love.” We’re whacked over the head from the minute we’ve purchased a ticket, and we’re treated to images of sweeping leaves across the ground, dank mausoleums, and gorgeous snowfall at the end of the world. Classic Italian cinema right there.
Dylan Dog, though… Yikes. If you’ve never read the comics and enjoy cinema that I label “good enough” (think pizza from a bad corner shop: it’s not good, but it’s good enough and you just want pizza), then the American film is right up your alley. For anyone that can appreciate the Italian roots of this film, run fast and run far. By all means, this had a good recipe going into it: excellent source material, some potential for comic relief, and a damn fine leading man. First up, the source material: the character Dog is so cool it hurts. He was named for Dylan Thomas, he has 12 identical outfits, he bills himself as a nightmare investigator, he hates cell phones, he loves music, and he’s loaded with phobias. There is more than enough material for a script, both in character development and in terms of comedy – hell, all you have to do is copy from the comics! Nope, writers Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer went in a different direction, and it shows. That breaks my heart, as Brandon Routh would have totally been great had he been in a Michel Soavi adaptation.
Gone is the Dog that hates modernity and all of its trappings, the man that can only play one song on a clarinet, the guy that refuses to carry an umbrella because it wouldn’t look right with the rest of his attire. Instead, the on-screen hero we get is a guy that wants to avenge the death of his wife. That’s about it. Yes, he romances his client as he does in the comic, and he loses her in prompt fashion as he does in the comic as well. However, that’s it. It’s a story with a sidekick that screams at the drop of a hat and there’s no moment of sheer awe when it comes to the cinematography, no great existential crisis no matter how heavily veiled. There’s no deeper meaning there. There’s no commentary on the uselessness of the modern world; there’ no passion for a uncovering the greater truth of the universe. There’s an overwrought sense of mourning for another person, and that just ain’t Italian cinema. It’s overcooked pasta with too much sauce.
In comparing the two pieces, it’s like sitting down to a bowl of ziti from the Olive Garden after you’ve returned from a splendid vacation in rural Italy. And that goes so far off the mark from everything that made these characters great: their interconnection, their likeness in characterization, their questioning of the world around us. That is what makes Italian cinema so grand: it goes for the broad gestures with style and beauty to make you gasp. You don’t realize that you’ve sat through something so deep. It’s a lullaby with the bite of a folk tale. It’s commentary. It’s zest, it’s sex, it’s death. It’s Italy.