“Fast, cheap, but average.”
So, sometimes in the life of a reviewer you’re called upon (or stumble upon) a film that, by all rights, should not be reviewed in a normal fashion. Films with twist endings should not have those twists revealed, even if doing so illuminates much of what makes the film interesting. This is also true with films that have secrets, whether those are plot related or not. Mysteries should not be explained beforehand.
Such is the case with One Cut of the Dead, a Japanese zombie movie from first-time filmmaker Ueda Shin’ichirô (first feature, that is – he’s made a few short films). The gimmick of the film, and this isn’t too much of a spoiler, is that it’s a zombie movie made in one long take. Gimmick is the word, here, as this isn’t some fancy attempt at art or to capture ‘reality’ like Timecode or 1917 or even Rope. (And none of those is even truly a ‘one shot’ film, anyway.)
But before we get into that, let’s have some ground rules. I’m going to go over the initial setup and action, then we’re going to get into some major spoiler territory. I think you can enjoy the film knowing the “twists,” but it’s a lot more fun if you don’t. So I’ll call out the spoiler section with big, bold letters so you can skip them if you want. (And then come back and read it later.)
One Cut of the Dead is currently streaming on Shudder. It used to be an exclusive, but it looks like Sling subscribers also have access now, and you can rent or buy it at the usual places. There is a Blu-ray, but the video quality doesn’t demand the upgrade and the thing I would most want from such a release – an audio commentary track – isn’t available. It’s basically outtakes and some other minor extras.
One Cut of the Dead follows a film crew making a low budget zombie movie at an old filtration plant. The manic director, Takayuki Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu) is disappointed in his lead actress’ performance and storms off. The actress, Aika Matsumoto (Yuzuki Akiyama) and the lead zombie (Kazuaki Kamiya) are forced to kill time with AD Harumi (Harumi Shuhama) until he returns. Unfortunately for them a REAL zombie outbreak occurs, and they’re forced to run, fight and generally do all the crazy stuff people are required to do in a zombie outbreak, all while the ecstatic director films everything – finally getting the realistic performances he’s been craving.
If you’re watching this expecting a low budget zombie picture with all that entails (and entrails), then you won’t be disappointed – though you might find yourself wondering what exactly is going on with certain parts of the film. The rules of the zombies seem pretty fluid, for instance, and there are awkward moments where the acting is – just like the director insisted – not quite up to snuff. Still, it IS an impressive feat to shoot an entire zombie movie in one take and if the actress likes to scream for a long (and I mean LOOONG) time, well, it’s still pretty fun, if not exactly memorable.
SPOILERS FOLLOW. I AM SO NOT KIDDING.
SERIOUSLY WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
OKAY. YOU WERE WARNED.
And there the movie ends, roughly a third of the way into the running time. And then movie starts again, sort of. We jump back in time to where Higurashi is being hired to film a one-take zombie movie for a new zombie-themed TV network. Not only does it have to be done in a single take, it also needs to be done LIVE. Higurashi, whose motto is the quote that opens this review, is just the hack director to get it done. This section slows things down considerably as we follow Higurashi, his family and the cast and crew as they get together, rehearse and generally get set up to follow the film we’ve already watched in the first third.
If I’m honest, while this section of the film is enjoyable it’s also pretty slow. There are a lot of character interactions, problems with producers, temperamental (or alcoholic) actors, rebellious offspring and the general feel of a soap opera, if it was soap opera about making low budget horror movies. (Which is not a bad idea, come to think of it.)
While slow, this middle section of the film is necessary – SO necessary – for the glorious final third of the film, when we finally get to see behind the scenes of the actual shoot for One Cut of the Dead. Throwaway moments in the middle – such as a sound guy who needs filtered water – pay off in hilarious ways. Moments in the initial section, like a demonstration of how to defend yourself – suddenly make sense. It might be too much to say that the final third of the movie is the sole reason to watch the entirety of One Cut of the Dead, but it’s the section that makes everything that’s come before so much better that I immediately wanted to re-watch the whole film to catch things that I’d missed.
This is a film setup in such a way that any of the drawbacks I might have been concerned about as the film progressed were washed away in a splendid denouement that gave me way more laughs than I thought it capable of. It was like listening to a long joke whose punchline retroactively made the entire wait for it worth every second.
The Bottom Line
A loving and lovable paean to low budget horror film-making, One Cut of the Dead is a joy to watch. Though parts may drag a little, they’re there for a purpose and the film as a whole is well worth the journey, vomiting zombies, endless screaming and all.