A giddy, hilarious, invigorating celebration of the spirit of movie-making, Shin’ichirô Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead cleverly plays with technique in carefully crafting a bonkers story of a micro-budget film crew tasked with shooting a C-level zombie pic in an abandoned warehouse. Things start going wrong, blood starts splattering, and the ragtag group of goofballs must come together to overcome a maniacal director, bad improv, severed arms, method acting, axes to the head, untimely slips, and zombie vomit in order to come out on top and survive until the credits roll. The result is simply one of the most entertaining movies about making movies that you will ever see.
It may not seem that way at first; the zaniness kicks off with some cringe-worthy moments as the small team of filmmakers attempts to nail a key scene depicting an emotional zombie attack. The impassioned director demands perfection from his leads, and storms off after tensions run a bit too high. As the rest of the comatose crew shuffles away and readies for the next take, the veteran makeup artist regales the two shaken actors with rumors of horrific events that supposedly took place at this cursed location. Before they know it, the trio is under siege by the (slowly) walking dead, and must both fight and flee in order to escape this nightmare of a shoot.
Impressively staged and shot in one long take, this opening act might catch viewers off guard with how little is explained before the action starts — it doesn’t take long to get to spurting neck bites, flailing hatchets, and the obligatory sprained ankle that makes sure the prey doesn’t easily outrun the predators. But they also might notice how awkward the whole thing comes off. Odd looks, wonky camerawork, jerky timing, and strange asides give the beginning of One Cut of the Dead a sort of quirky charm that works despite the clichés, though it certainly helps to be a fan of late-night horror schlock. Still, there’s no doubt that even the most gracious horror audiences will get the feeling that something isn’t quite right, and be wishing that there was a bit more. Luckily, the real fun is just beginning.
To spoil the events that take place after this first act would mitigate some of the pleasure derived as One Cut of the Dead begins to flesh itself out, but suffice to say that the ambitious (if somewhat clunky on the surface) opening pays off in such a supremely satisfying way that many viewers will immediately want to immediately re-watch it in order to spot little moments that they initially missed. There’s a bit of a puzzle that slowly unfolds here (though not necessarily a mystery to be solved), and it’s a delight to discover the pieces that writer-director Ueda has playfully crafted — especially once one can see the whole picture.
The change in perspective that brings about that realization is skillfully handled, spacing out just enough cinematic landmarks for viewers brains to remember and chew on. Eagle-eyed fans of filmmaking will likely spot several more subtler clues (a misplaced stutter here, an off-camera chopping there), but even if suspicions are raised or the jig is up, that in no way should diminish the pleasure to be had at watching the later, greater chaos unfold. The shrieks and spurts in One Cut of the Dead do more than just elicit some sly grins; a combination of subtle slapstick, sleight of camera, and infectious enthusiasm will almost certainly produce some audible chuckles, if not outright hoots.
Much of this comedic success can be attributed directly to the cast of relative unknowns. Despite the zombie facade, One Cut of the Dead is a movie in love with making movies — no matter how small — and that joy can be found in each performance. Standouts include Takayuki Hamatsu, who injects genuine soul into the maniac director trying for once in his career to create a work that rises above merely “average.” Harumi Shuhama also manages to turn heads (in addition to bashing them) with a committed take on the surprisingly lethal makeup artist. Sure, some of the other actors may come off as a bit stiff and unnatural, but that actually adds to the hokey authenticity and low-budget charm; besides, these people are performing their hearts out, and it’s hard not to be swept up in the passion.
Still, this is Shin’ichirô Ueda’s show, and he has turned an amusing idea into the kind of movie that will inspire others to go out and make movies. From the expert crafting of its revelations to the blatant love for filmmaking’s cavalcade of catastrophes, One Cut of the Dead is a wonderful treasure that needs to be seen by anyone and everyone who delights in both the magic on screen, and the passion behind the scenes.
One Cut of the Dead opens theatrically in New York and Los Angeles on September 13th, and will also screen in cinemas across the US at a special one-night event on September 17th. For more information, please visit their website.