Flesh-eating creatures and farcical meta-comedy meet in this refreshing, delightful riff on the zombie genre.
While I’m generally averse to spoilers in reviews of new releases, I’m especially wary of describing the twisty, genre-bending turns in Shinichiro Ueda‘s One Cut of the Dead. Alas, to describe even the basic premise of the film – one of the neatest, riskiest turns you could give a horror-comedy like this – would ruin the surprise. So if you haven’t seen it, turn away from this review after the first few paragraphs. The only warning I’ll give is this: Don’t turn it off after the 37-minute mark.
Okay, now onto the review for those who don’t care about spoilers, or who (like me) read reviews after they watch stuff to help process their feelings on a film. If so, welcome! And holy crap wasn’t that delightful?!
For the first thirty-seven minutes of One Cut of the Dead, Ueda’s horror-comedy premise feels inventive enough. We open on a single, uninterrupted thirty-seven-minute long take of a low-budget zombie movie being filmed at a Japanese water treatment plant. The director, Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu) is an abusive, manipulative auteur type, who shouts at his actors – played by Kazuaki Kamiya and Yuzuki Akiyama – before storming off in a huff. Before long, though, real zombies end up attacking the cast and crew, leaving the actors (and the surprisingly hell-for-leather makeup artist Nao (Syuhama Harumi)) to fend for themselves.
In a darkly funny twist of fate, Higurashi reacts with glee to the zombie apocalypse before him – he can get the real fear he’s been craving from his actors! Blood spills, girls scream, and zombies moan and shuffle towards the camera; there are a few false starts and more than a couple of confusing decisions made by the characters, but there’s a homespun charm to the proceedings.
And then, 37 minutes in, the credits roll. It’s at this point that Ueda reveals his true design, and the real charms of One Cut of the Dead are revealed: all the one-take zombie mayhem was just a live short film played on Japan’s new “Zombie Channel,” and we’ve just flashed back to a month prior to see how the whole chaotic process came together. You see, One Cut of the Dead isn’t a zombie comedy, not really; it’s a showbiz farce at its heart, and what a charming one it is.
For the film’s remaining hour, Ueda switches from oversaturated, shaky-cam DV to clean TV lighting and sprightly incidental music (the kind that wouldn’t seem out of place in a detergent commercial). Rather than an insane tyrant, Higurashi is a kind, gentle family man, a low-budget director known for reenactments and the like; his slogan is “fast, cheap, and average.” Nao’s his wife, a former actress who gave up the job after throwing herself in her roles too much. Now, they share a modest apartment in Tokyo with their daughter Mao (Mao), who also has directorial aspirations but ruffles feathers for being too detail-oriented. Higurashi’s asked by the Zombie Channel to film the short (one half-hour take, and completely live), and from there we get to watch the process unfold.
It’s incredible to see the way Ueda turns his setbacks and limitations into features. The first act, the zombie film itself, is no great shakes; unspoiled audience members might shake their heads at the cheesy effects and the herky-jerky pacing. It kinda seems like everyone’s just making it up as they go along. But as we flashback to see the process behind the film, subtle gags pay off in invigorating ways – turns out they were making it up to a certain extent, dealing with problems on the fly and running around to adjust for drunk cameramen or boom operators with diarrhea. The punchline comes before the setup, so we don’t even know it’s a punchline yet – it’s a Russian nesting doll approach to comedy that’s incredibly rewarding to see.
One Cut of the Dead isn’t a zombie comedy, not really; it’s a showbiz farce at its heart, and what a charming one it is.
To a certain extent, One Cut of the Dead is all about its final act, a riveting and hilarious recounting of the actual filming of the first act’s zombie drama. Actors drop out, crew swaps in, and Mao gets to live out her dream of being a director. Predictably, Nao gets swallowed in the role and goes off script, adapting her love of Internet self-defense videos (remember: you have to yell “Pom!” as you pull off a move) into the proceedings. There’s a Bowfinger, Ed Wood feel to the frenzied showbiz energy on display, that kind of put-on-a-show exuberance that’s infectious to watch.
It’s difficult to say if One Cut of the Dead is a great movie, or if its surprises are simply that novel. For one thing, the constantly-shifting narrative perspective and low stakes mean we don’t really get to know these characters. (The closest thing to a character journey we get is Mao’s directorial aspirations, and we don’t even meet her till forty minutes in.) But the characters are just a vehicle for gags both short- and long-form, and the point is to admire Ueda’s freewheeling structural experimentation. We may not know these people very well, but it’s a joy to watch them scramble to salvage a rinky-dink zombie movie with no room for error. By the time they pull the whole thing off by the skin of their teeth, you feel that relief right along with them.
One Cut of the Dead may not be a zombie movie in the strictest sense, but it does something truly new with the genre, throwing out the rulebook and proving that there’s life in the old girl yet. If you’re patient enough to get to minute 38, you’ll see what I mean, and you’ll clamor to see that first act in a whole new context.
One Cut of the Dead throws the script out the window and puts on a face-chewing show in one-night presentations all around the US September 17, and hits Shudder soon after. Its also currently playing in select theaters.