This inventive movie-within-a-movie follows a hack director and film crew shooting a low-budget zombie movie (with an uninterrupted 37 minute first take) which turns calamitous with the advent of “real” zombies.
It’s not saying very much to declare Ueda Shin’ichirô’s debut feature the best zombie comedy since “Shaun of the Dead” — no disrespect to the likes of “Life After Beth” and “Scouts Guide to the Apocalypse,” but the decomposing sub-genre has been in desperate need of fresh brains ever since Edgar Wright brought it back to life. Enter “One Cut of the Dead,” a low-budget, high-concept work of tongue-in-cheek genius that not only matches the best of its predecessors, but also lovingly articulates why people are drawn to these movies in the first place.
Unfolding like some kind of unholy cross between “Day for Night” and “Diary of the Dead,” Ueda’s self-reflexive delight honors and humiliates zombie cinema in equal measure (and also in that order). The infectious fun begins with a virtuosic but strangely casual 37-minute long-take that messes with your expectations from start to finish. Somewhere in the bowels of an abandoned Japanese water filtration plant, a young man (Nagaya Kazuaki) with bloody clothes and rotting skin — his face a vintage shade of Romero green — is about to take a bite out of his rosy-cheeked girlfriend (Akiyama Yuzuki), but she doesn’t look scared enough for someone who’s about to lose her life.
“Cut!” A furious director named Higurashi (Hamatsu Takayuki) bursts into the frame, berating his actress for her unconvincing performance. This, we learn as makeup lady Nao (Syuhama Harumi) rolls her eyes in the background, is the 42nd take — it seems we’ve got a regular David Fincher on our hands. A few minutes later, as the actors gossip about the urban legends that came with their shooting location, they make the fatal mistake of confusing a real zombie for a member of their cast. Lots of low-budget carnage ensues, and maniacal director Higurashi is so overjoyed at authenticity of the violence that he keeps filming the whole thing. “There’s no fiction! No lies! This is reality!”
So far, so familiar. A cheap zombie movie within a slightly less cheap zombie movie — it’s been done. But then something peculiar happens: Blood splatters onto the lens of the camera, and a hand comes from nowhere to wipe the smudge away. We’re obviously not watching the action through Higurashi’s camera, but now the conceit seems to have grown confused. Who’s shooting? Why does it feel like the rules of the game are starting to break down? Since when can the walking dead use weapons? “Cut!”
Now would be a good time for the spoiler-averse to skip to the end. Jump down to the last paragraph, where this review wraps up with some more breathless superlatives and an attempt to contextualize the clarity that “One Cut of the Dead” gives to its genre. Not even a detailed, beat-by-beat plot summary could really spoil the giddy pleasures that Ueda has in store, but these hilarious twists are definitely worth discovering for yourself.
For those of you still here, we can make the rest of this quick. After it’s virtuosic first act, “One Cut of the Dead” leaps a month back in time, when we learn that Higurashi is actually a gentle, candy-sweet Bowfinger type who’s been hired to make a one-take zombie show for a fledgling TV network. His personal motto is that he’s “fast, cheap, but average,” and that sits just fine with the studio executives — their program doesn’t need to be good, it just needs to happen. Oh, one more thing: They’re planning to broadcast it live. So Higurashi, a hack with a heart of gold, finds himself in the unenviable position of having to shoot a cheap one-shot horror movie with no second takes.
Through the harried rehearsal process that follows, we’re reintroduced to the cast and crew we met in the first act. When the story doubles back to the water filtration plant, we’re a step further removed from the action, watching the making of the one-shot zombie movie we already saw at the start. The film’s uproarious finale — its entire reason for being — is essentially like having a backstage pass to a play gone wrong, as Higurashi and his motley team of ill-prepared misfits frantically try to keep their story from falling apart.
“One Cut of the Dead” is so heartfelt and hilarious that it’s easy to forgive the contrivances that hold it together, and to overlook how transparently Ueda reverse-engineers most of his best gags. Seemingly unimportant details in the film’s sluggish middle section blossom into killer jokes some 30 minutes later, as the entire second act is redeemed by what it allows Ueda to do next. If at first it’s hard to make sense of a subplot about a sound technician with chronic diarrhea, well… it all makes some glorious kind of sense by the end.
It helps that Ueda has assembled an incredible cast of newcomers, all of whom are in sync with their director’s playful sense of chaos. Hamatsu’s two-faced performance as Higurashi deserves to be a star-making role (his initial bloodlust fading into childlike glee), and Syuhama’s transformation from crew mother to method action star is a thing of beauty. Every one of Ueda’s memorable characters is rewarded with their own hero moment, each of them more absurd and endearing than the last. But all of them are ultimately in service to the shoot itself, and half of the fun is discovering what Higurashi’s crew had to do — how they had to debase themselves — in order to deliver the 37-minute take from the start of the movie. It even allows Higurashi to find a measure of pride in the process.
Drunk on its own DIY energy and deeply in love with everything it’s doing, “One Cut of the Dead” is a euphoric ode to the chaos (and compromises) of genre filmmaking; it’s the kind of movie that makes you want to pick up a camera, call some friends, and shoot the end of the world on your own terms. More than that, Ueda’s brilliant debut reveals how the walking dead have grown to be such a staple of no-budget cinema. First lodged in the public consciousness as a subversive expression of social horrors like racism and the Vietnam War, these shambling monsters reflect the worst of what we are, and give us permission to make the best of what we have left. They insist that we sacrifice the perfect in order to preserve the good. Zombies are a filmmaker’s best friend because they never let you forget that surviving a movie in one piece — on either side of the camera — is a victory unto itself.
David Ehrlich, Indie Wire, 3rd August 2018.
After wowing Japanese audiences with a small theatrical run and a screening at the Udine Film Festival in 2017, Shin’ichirô Ueda’s micro-budget zombie flick has finally arrived in the UK, giving us the best horror comedy since Shaun of the Dead, as well as a joyous, unhinged tribute to independent filmmaking.
Opening seemingly in the middle of a clichéd scene in a low-budget horror flick, One Cut of the Dead pulls to back to reveal that we are watching a zombie film within a zombie film. Along with a half-bored crew and a cast of semi-professional actors, would-be-auteur director Higurashi’s (Takayuki Hamatsu) style is characterised with obsessive bullying and a total disregard for his crew’s wellbeing. The question of whether One Cut of the Dead is a zombie film, or a film about zombie films is played with throughout the running time, as the lines between fiction and reality become increasingly blurred.
The film’s other major conceit, as one might surmise from the title, is that the zombie picture is contained within one single take. Long held up as a mark of technical accomplishment, modern digital filmmaking has made unbroken shots have become increasingly easy to fake, but there’s no doubting the raw skill on display here. The trick here is not to draw attention to the technique as a flashy gimmick, but as a device to draw us in to the film. Indeed, it is some time in to the film before we realise that it has been one unbroken shot. The characters move so naturally around the set – an abandoned factory lit entirely naturally in full daylight – that it’s easy to mistake the meticulous choreography for amateurish blocking.
Spoiler warning: Major plot spoilers are revealed after the line break.
One Cut of the Dead, however, is anything but amateurish. The first act is dominated by a giddy, adrenaline-fuelled joy as the film follows heroine Chinatsu (Yuzuki Akiyama) pursued by her zombified cast mates and the unhinged director delirious at capturing a truly authentic performance from her. But it’s the film’s second act where One Cut of The Dead really shows its hand, revealing that the first thirty minutes are actually a live broadcast TV show – another film within the film. Rewinding to a month prior, we’re introduced to the cast and crew as they prepare for the shoot.
Now shot in crisp HD video and flatly lit like a daytime soap, it’s a jarring change from the immediate low-budget thrills of the preceding half hour. Nevertheless, establishing the cast and crew’s diva-like behaviour and Higurashi’s struggles with the TV studio lays important groundwork for the third act. The final half hour of the film sees it wrap around itself with a recreation of the first part, this time shot from the perspective of the cast and crew. The sequence is so perfectly staged that it could be mistaken for the original, and is just as heart-pumping.
Like a multi-stage magic trick, One Cut of the Dead repeatedly pulls back the curtain to reveal “reality”, only to keep pulling the curtains and the rugs from under us. As much a repudiation of auteur theory as a tribute to the imperfect process of creation, One Cut of the Dead is a thrilling reminder that of the beautiful, vital lie that is cinema.
Christopher Machell, CINEVUE, 4th January 2019.
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Total Number of Responses: 12
Film Score (0-5): 4.58
47 stalwarts of GFS joined us for One Cut of the Dead and had a hugely entertaining time enjoying the film, as evidenced by the comments below:
"A thoroughly inventive film told very well on a tiny budget. I loved all the t-shirt references to other films and the geeky nature of the production, within a production, within a real film.
A brave choice by the Committee, as witnessed by the poor turn out, but those that gave it a miss were the poorer for it.
"At first I thought I had made a mistake coming to see this film as I never watch horror films, and I watched quite a lot of the first with my hands over my face....
I gradually relaxed as i became familiar with the characters even the zombies and by the end of the film was laughing at its outrageousness. My first zombie film and I loved it!"
"I hesitated about watching a zombie movie but this was so much more. Utterly brilliant and laugh out loud in the last third. I loved the layers and clever linking of back story to film (for example the mum's self-defence hobby). So much to enjoy!"
"Fan BLOODY tastic!"
"A gem and not what I expected. Although some familiar tropes, eg deliberate gaffes and errors, recursion - a film within a film within a film these were well done and fitted the overall story.
The performances were also excellent and they made a virtue of their lack of finance.
I have been strongly recommending to those members not attending.
It is difficult to give them a feel for how good it is without introducing spoilers.
Again this shows the advantages of belonging to the society."
"Very entertaining after a slow start."
"Extremely silly. Its redeeming feature was the rather pleasing complexity of construction."
"So clever and exhilarating."
"From an entertainment perspective, very much a film in three parts. I think my enjoyment really benefited from reading/hearing about it in some detail before viewing (not usually what I would choose to do). Knowing it was made on a shoestring budget, and being aware of the one-take first 30+minutes, helped the appreciation and enjoyment of the first third which was reasonably entertaining. The middle section was a bit flat in itself but in retrospect you can see its importance in setting up the final third. The final third really was the big payoff worth waiting for - very funny, very clever, very impressive."
"Not at all what I expected . Brilliant for such a low budget film. Halfway through I really wasn't sure where the film was going after the breathtaking single take sequence but the making of the film section that followed was hilarious and very cleverly done. Never expected to be so entertained by a "horror" movie! Thanks."
"Charming and heartwarming and not epithets one would normally associate with a zombie movie but this is of a different stripe. There is much for Zack Snyder amongst others to learn here. The way all the oddities of the first 37 minutes were explained to hilarious effect in the second part was very cleverly thought through. It's as least as good as 'Shaun of the dead', a film, pleasing and clever in its own way though it is, that falls to bits a bit at the end. Edgar's very good at starting films, not so good at ending them."
"What a great film One cut of the dead was. I’ve not laughed so much at a film ever. Fabulous. Thank you for a great film".