A man and woman kiss against a bright full moon, then make love on her deceased husband’s grave. Suddenly, the dead corpsegroom climbs out of his crypt and interrupts their passionate love-making. He’s hungry. He takes a fatal bite out of his wife’s arm and the man kills him a second time. This woman, his love, is now dying. The man moans as he carries her to the ossuary, “Nothing can separate us. I swear. Nothing.” The woman looks up between pained breaths and whispers “Nothing will separate us, will it?” He stares down at her, still ensorcelled by her face. “Nothing, my love. Nothing. Not even death.” She takes her last breath. “Not even death.” Then dies in his arms.
1994's Dellamorte Dellamore is an interesting remark on the human condition, one that carries with it a myriad of existential and philosophical themes that pervade the surreal, at times darkly funny, Lynchian-esque masterpiece by Michele Soavi. A rich gothic romance, a zombie satire, a buddy-cop movie – Dellamorte Dellamore embodies a multitude of genres while our hero, the titular character Dellamorte Dellamore (in a criminally underrated performance by Rupert Everett) undergoes a survey of this existential dread throughout mini vignettes in the film. But it’s the uniquely blasé, understated tone around the “necrophilic” acts in the movie that draws my attention the most. It is here where something quite interesting happens: the living have no qualms romancing with the dead. In fact, passionate kisses from a revoting zombie head or a makeout sesh with the dead girl of Dellamore’s dreams are treated like run-of-the-mill dalliances with a regular crush. It's only when the second death occurs, when these newly “returned” zombies are killed, that things really seem to take on significance and meaning.
While necrophilia, a paraphilic disorder derived from the Greek words philia (love) and nekros (corpse), and its associated paraphilias (cannibalism, vampirism, etc) have been used as storylines in the arts and cinema since – quite literally – the dawn of civilization, horror (with its monsters-as-metaphors and focus on dread both real and otherworldly), is the only genre uniquely suited to bear the weight of the necrophilia-as-love symbology. While Dellamorte Dellamore portrays it as an existential examination into the core of humanity, Jörg Buttgereit’s 1991 film Nekromantik 2: The Return of the Loving Dead uses the taboo of necrophilia as a chassis to explore the complexities of relationships and unspoken desires.
One of the last shocking taboos in modern society, necrophilia is often equated with some of the most studied and iconicized serial killers of our century. Ted Bundy, Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer were all infamous for their necromantic violations, crimes which elevated their already horrific deeds into something that spurned a gross fascination – and obsession – for society. Indeed, grimly fascinating recorded accounts of necrophilia have existed since 440 BCE, wherein Herodotus in The Histories wrote warnings against Egyptian embalmers, who were known to copulate with particularly beautiful dead women. However, not all recorded accounts and myths of necrophilia celebrated the obscene or the murders surrounding these acts. Some myths began to link the necrophilic act via metaphor with the complicated nature of obsessive love.
One such story takes place in Greek mythology, in which Achilles had sex with the dead body of Penthesilea. Penthesilea, daughter of the war god Ares, was a beautiful Amazonian queen who joined the Trojans in their fight against the Greeks in the Trojan War. Being on opposite sides, Achilles killed her in battle. When Achilles removed her helmet, he immediately fell in love with her face and was overcome with remorse and lust, eventually having his way with her dead body. The myth takes his very real and sanity-shattering feelings of existential depression and all-encompassing thirst and transmutes them into the metaphoric nekros act.
“I want to master life and death.” -Theodore R. Bundy.
The title card with the above quote flashes before the opening credits of Nekromantik 2. As the opening titles roll, a replay of the last scene in the original Nekromantik plays, wherein the tragic hero Robert "Rob" Schmadtke (Daktari Lorenz) takes his own life in the notably gruesome, repulsive manner that made the first movie so infamous: he stabs himself while ejaculating. As in the first, his death is followed by a shot of a nicely dressed woman in heels and stockings, pencil skirt, polka dot blouse and a startling red coat. She’s standing in a cemetery, in front of his grave, shovel in hand. She’s dressed as if she’s about to go on a date. And in a way, she is.
The sequel picks up from here and hones in on the woman, Monika (Monika M.), as she prepares to exhume the corpse of Rob in a long, dream-like sequence steeped in rich harmonics. She’s thorough and unhurried while she digs. There’s a feeling that something important, something extraordinary, is happening. Something special. She digs some more. Takes smoke breaks, peels off her coat. Wipes the sweat off her brow. Then brings the body home.
The scene is followed by a parallel narrative in which we meet Mark (Mark Reeder), a man on his way to work. He loops the sounds and moans for actors in porn, in a studio. Mark is jaded, his “acting” lacking passion and authenticity. The sex scenes playing in the background are cold, unfeeling. Comical. Fake.
Conversely, the scene then cuts to Monika in her apartment, gently cleaning and undressing the corpse of Rob. Soft romantic music follows Monika as she engages in gentle foreplay with the corpse, slowly caressing his body and planting emotionally-charged kisses on its mouth. She’s worshipping not only its body, but its essence. Its eyes are open, and its head rocks lightly in pace with Monika’s body as she attempts to make love to it. This dream-like sequence blurs the line between the living and the dead – it almost appears as if the corpse has been imbued with a kiss of life and is now making love in tandem with Monika.
With the juxtaposition between the sensual, simulated sex with the corpse and Mark’s lifeless moans on the job, the film asks the question – which act of sex is more imaginary?
Nekromantik 2 is a quiet, surreal, albeit disgusting, slow-burn melodrama about a woman grappling between her (depraved) sexual appetites and her desire to find true love. The first Nekromantik is shock value, a pure exploitation, a grindhouse film. Buttgereit and Franz Rodenkirchen's script is a brilliant, observant display of transgression that takes the shockingly transgressive elements of its predecessor and uses them as a vehicle to explore deep human emotion and the endless complications of relationships, desire and love.
“She’s really nice but I think she’s somehow perverse.” Mark, Nekromantik 2.
The complexities of Monika’s pathological fascination with the dead intertwine with her emotions – her fingers lightly and lovingly graze her corpse’s body, his face. She places a soft, meaningful kiss upon his putrescent, decaying lips. It appears as if this is beyond that of merely a sexual perversion – Monika loves the corpse. She takes Polaroid selfies with him, cuddles him. This corpse, Rob, is her new boyfriend. It is only when Monika hits it off with Mark that she appears repulsed by what she’s done, and subsequently “breaks it off” with Rob by chopping him up into pieces. Of course, she keeps a few mementos that she can’t bear to part with: his head, and his other head. Because she can’t help herself.
The necrophile’s obsession and desire stem from the same place as other sexualities – their sensory stimulations go beyond their will to suppress any inclination. However, this paraphilia can never be accepted because the necrophiles must transgress morality and ethical standards by committing murder and rape. The necrophile is always depicted as the villain, a mythical monster that acts as a gauge for a society to maintain a moral status quo. However, Buttgereit dares us to sympathize along with this monster, this necrophile, to challenge our idea of what makes a person monstrous. He doesn’t accuse Monika, doesn’t villainize her desires. He uses the taboo to literalize the unspoken truths in relationships people have with each other, and with themselves – the things that people are afraid to say in relationships, the things they are afraid to share, to think. He uses necrophilia as a framework to portray Monika’s unspoken needs and her desire to find true love with a partner who can satisfy her sexually.
After the theater, Mark and Monika go on a successful date at the zoo. Monika replicates the pictures she took with Rob earlier, directing Mark in poses for her to capture. It’s clear she’s trying to satisfy this part of herself with a socially-deemed appropriate partner and activities. Images of Rob flash in her mind while kissing Mark, and this is what eventually leads to the aforementioned “break up” and saved mementos, which now reside on a plate in her fridge.
This “normal” side of Monika cannot sustain her fully, however – both emotionally and physically. This love triangle between the living and the rotting eventually has to come to a close. When Mark discovers the penis in the fridge and witnesses Monika enjoying “perverted” videos on animal death, it’s clear that the relationship is doomed. Mark is repulsed, and they fight. Though he eventually calls to make up and comes over to see her, his misunderstanding is a turning point for Monika. He will never understand nor accept the whole of who she is, and she now knows this to be true.
The final shocking scene culminates in the only solution that makes sense: while making love to Mark, Monika beheads him, positions the decayed head of Rob in the open place, and sets a ring around his still erect penis. Finally, she can experience true pleasure. Finally, she is fulfilled. Finally, she is at peace.
Unlike the first installment, the protagonist in Nekromantik 2 is somehow likable, and easy to sympathize with. Buttgereit presents us with a character who holds no qualms or judgments on what is taboo – her apartment is donned with decor of death and sex, all in warm and friendly tones. She watches cruel animal death movies with her gal pals, and leaves dead genitalia lying around in plain sight. The question of who or what is actually perverse comes up when Mark accuses her of being so, and she cleverly turns it around on him and asks if what he does for a living gives him a leg to stand on. What’s considered normal in Monika’s world is the taboo.
“You know the best thing about necrophilia? You don't have to bring flowers. Yeah, usually they're already there. Isn't that nice? It's nice. It's convenient.” - George Carlin, Life Is Worth Losing
Dellamorte Dellamore also grapples with the meaning of love or lack thereof, and more serious meditations on life and death. Whereas Nekromantik 2 normalizes the forbidden to explore relationships and unspoken desires, Dellamorte Dellamore conversely uses it to confront existential dread.
Based on an Italian comic book, Dellamorte Dellamore, or Cemetary Man, is a tale of a man who lives and works in a cemetery with his mute, mentally-handicapped assistant, Gnaghi (François Hadji-Lazaro). At night, the deceased come back to life and transform into gnarly, flesh-eating zombies. Dellamorte’s second job is taking care of these “returners,” making sure that they don’t leave his cemetery, and, mostly to avoid the hassle of extra paperwork, he makes sure they stay dead. He’s bored with life, weary of the day-to-day and humdrum of chilling and killing, when the woman of his dreams enters his cemetery and “wakes” him up.
At times melancholic yet often funny, Dellamorte Dellamore is a richly layered study into the thinking man’s dramatic, existential pain. Here, necrophilia is also depicted as something accepted, even mundane in a world where zombies take center stage night after night. Soavi isn’t accusing his protagonists of committing a foul, heinous act. Rather, he glosses over their interludes and instead crafts a story where our titular hero contends with what life is, what reality is. What it all means.
“I should have known. The rest of the world doesn’t exist.” -Dellamorte, Dellamorte Dellamore
In both films, it is clear that so called “normal” relationships between the living will always be doomed, and end in tragedy – the living only represents a partial want, a partial desire for our characters’ natures. Monika is open to true love, but eventually has to break it off with both the dead corpse, and her living boyfriend. She knows that neither will fully satisfy her, so therefore neither could be her true love. Her final solution of combining the two was one that could only work for her.
Conversely, Dellamorte’s relationship with both the living and the dead will forever be doomed because he is the caretaker of both. He cannot hope to sustain a normal love while living in a cemetery, popping off zombies. Yet he cannot continue a love with a deceased, because he needs to kill them. “We can’t. I’m alive.”
Both films ultimately end with murder, a descent into a kind of madness or release. In Nekromantik 2, murder is the final act, the one thing that solidifies and makes Monika’s fantasy flesh and real. In Dellamorte Dellamore, the final murders act as a light-hearted cleansing, a barometer for playing against the edges of reality.
Though psychiatrists and behaviorists today are still grappling with understanding necrophiles and what drives them, artists, especially in horror, are using it as a vehicle to tell interesting stories. Doctors Jonathan Rosman and Phillip Resnick once posited that one of the most common motivations for necrophilia is in the possession of an unresisting, indomitable romantic partner – and that over 90% of these offenders are male. Psychiatrists could have a field day with that information (and so could the Internet). Thus, the disorder remains one of the most intriguing, appalling and interesting taboos in our society, presenting itself in many forms of media and literature over the centuries. However, it is only in horror that the forbidden act could be used as an extreme metaphor. Nekromantik 2 and Dellamorte Dellamore both eclipse the transgressive elements with this subject matter. They’re the diamonds in the rough that use necrophilia to transcendent effect to contextualize the other forms of taboo in relationships, and in our thoughts.
In Corpus, Jean-Luc Nancy writes “In the span of its lifetime, the body is also a dead body, the body of a dead person, this dead person I am when alive. Dead or alive, neither dead nor alive, I am the opening, the tomb or the mouth, the one inside the other.” Are we not all necrophiles, then?