‘One Cut of the Dead’ Is the Most Entertaining Zombie Movie in Years
The low-budget Japanese horror film “One Cut of the Dead” is a DIY masterpiece, and perhaps the most engaging zombie flick since “Train to Busan.”
Like Truffaut’s Day for Night but with considerably more blood and vomit, One Cut of the Dead is a gruesome zombie nightmare that doubles as a cheeky ode to the ingenuity, perseverance and can-do spirit of low-budget filmmaking. It’s far from the scariest splatterfest you’ll see this year, but it’s undoubtedly the most entertaining.
A hit in its native Japan, where it went from playing in a single theater to becoming a cult sensation (with global grosses now in the $30 million range), Shin'ichirô Ueda’s feature debut—a horror riff akin to Noises Off or The Play That Goes Wrong—is an ideal fit for midnight screenings, although seeing it in the wee hours of the morning is hardly a prerequisite for enjoying its meta thrills. All that One Cut of the Dead (opening in New York and Los Angeles Sept. 13, and nationwide Sept. 17) demands is a love of genre craziness and, more importantly, a respect for the multifaceted cinematic process, which here is lovingly celebrated via a story that begins in loopy fashion, and then continually ups the self-conscious ante.
Ueda’s film opens on the sight of young heroine Chinatsu (Yuzuki Akiyama) wielding an axe to fend off the arms-outstretched advances of Ko (Kazuaki Nagaya), who’s now undead. Her screaming pleas are to no avail, however, as Ko bites down on her neck, thus sealing her fate—and also, abruptly, ending the scene, as director Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu), the man behind this production, enters the frame to lambaste Chinatsu for her performance’s lack of conviction. “Give me real fear! The true shiver in your face!” he rails at her, prompting Ko to console her and, as they move to an upstairs level of the abandoned water filtration plant that serves as their set, ask her if she wants to share a hot bath once their day is done, to which she shushes him in an effort to keep their affair secret.
Ko and Chinatsu are subsequently joined by makeup woman Nao (Harumi Shuhama), who explains that Higurashi chose this location in part because it’s haunted; rumors abound that the Japanese Army once used it for “human experimentation.” This freaks the actors out, as does a strange noise at their door. After Nao demonstrates some handy self-defense techniques to Ko, their concerns are confirmed when another member of the crew is attacked by an actual zombie, and the victim’s hand is casually tossed at their feet. What was fake a second ago is now all too real, much to their panicked dismay.
One Cut of the Dead depicts this earlygoing, and in fact the trio’s entire ordeal, in a single 37-minute handheld take that’s a model of on-the-fly creativity. Whip-panning about with a jazzy energy that’s in tune with its harried protagonists, Tsuyoshi Sone’s cinematography places us right in the middle of the life-imitating-art action. The mayhem seems to have been caused by Higurashi performing a blood ritual on the building’s roof, and it only becomes crazier as more zombies materialize and Chinatsu, Ko and Nao are forced to take up arms—or, rather, axes—against the invading horde. Given that Ueda’s saga has already exposed itself as a movie about a movie, however, it’s hard to ignore the fact that there’s still a camera capturing the threesome’s torment in an unbroken vérité-style shot, thereby raising the question: who’s filming this?
(Spoilers invariably follow)
Suffice it to say, One Cut of the Dead has another trick up its crimson-stained sleeve, and it’s revealed approximately one-third of the way through its 96-minute runtime, once Chinatsu triumphs over her adversaries and the camera rises to the sky to gaze down on her, and the screen fades first to white, and then to a skyline emblazoned with the title card “One Month Ago.” That’s when we meet the real Higurashi, a working filmmaker—with a retired-actress wife (Harumi Shuhama, aka the woman who played Nao) and an aspiring-director daughter (Mao)—who’s hired by two producers to helm a live TV broadcast about a zombie-movie production that’s overrun by genuine zombies. In other words, the very show we’ve just witnessed.
This folding-in-on-itself stunt would be amusing enough on its own, but Ueda is interested in more than mere trickery. Over the ensuing hour, his One Cut of the Dead details the practical work that goes into putting on such a program, including casting, rehearsing, and blocking and choreography. For Higurashi, that means dealing with actors who are divas, drunkards, and pretentious blowhards, never funnier than when Nagaya’s heartthrob-lead comments that the braindead script deals with “the topic of racism discreetly.” Even getting through a table read of the screenplay proves a chore, thanks to one actress bringing her wailing baby to work.
On the day of the shoot, legitimate trouble arises when two of the actors are in an accident that prevents them from reaching the set. Since it’s being televised live, though, the show must go on, with director Higurashi taking on the role of the director and his wife assuming the part of Nao. One Cut of the Dead keeps piling on wink-wink layers, depicting the zombie-attack TV show from a detached behind-the-scenes perspective. In doing so, it delivers punchlines to random moments viewers didn’t even know were jokes the first time around—for example, disclosing the logistical-headache reasons certain peculiar on-screen events took place (say, a production assistant suddenly fleeing outside into obvious danger). And that, in turn, underlines the DIY imagination required to pull off such an endeavor.
It’s that latter vein which transforms One Cut from the Dead from merely a clever cinematic Russian nesting doll into a loving tribute to indie filmmaking and the families it creates (and brings together). Practical inventiveness is the solution to the on-the-ground problems faced by Higurashi and company, as is a willingness to band together to do whatever’s necessary to get the job done. Filled with decapitated dummies, blood-spraying hoses, makeshift title cards and phony weapons, Ueda’s gem is a comedy of errors about the egos, mishaps and mistakes that invariably thwart a production’s completion—and, in its final moments and sterling credit sequence, the resourcefulness that allows artists to reach the heights to which they aspire.