The nature of cinema is that cinematic trends rise and fall. Some, like the western, last for decades. And others, like the young adult book adaptations, only last for a generation or two. I’ve often felt that the zombie-era is more like the latter example. After all, mainstream American TV now has five regular TV shows about the walking dead (including two that are literally called The Walking Dead!) And on the big screen things seem somewhat oversaturated too.
Thank God then for the non-American and non-European filmmaker. They still manage to find new approaches to the dead coming back to life; with a recent standout being the 2016 film Train to Busan. While One Cut of the Dead might be on the low end of even low-budget movies, there’s no doubt this newest entry in the zombie-comedy genre easily rivals anything made by their western brethren.
Director Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu) is going out of his mind. He’s trying to make a cheap zombie movie in an abandoned water filtration plant formerly used by the military. But with his lead actress, Chinatsu (Yuzuki Akiyama), messing up the last 42 takes, the stressed out director has reached breaking point.
Eventually the make-up lady, Nao (Harumi Shuhama) calls for a break to try and relieve some tension. As the director goes to blow off some steam, Nao gets into a conversation with Chinatsu and the film’s zombie actor, Ko (Kazuaki Nagaya). But as they talk, something strange starts to happen, indicating that perhaps the military left more behind than they originally thought.
Without a doubt, this is one of the hardest reviews I’ve ever had to write. Much like Cabin in the Woods, this is the sort of film best appreciated by knowing as little as possible before entering. Indeed, the above plot description is so bare-bones compared to the final product that it can hardly be considered a proper synopsis.
Nonetheless, one aspect that can be raved about in a detailed manner is the film’s opening scene, which consists of a 37 minute one shot take. Focusing on the crew being caught up in a sudden zombie outbreak, the sequence borrows numerous notes from old school 70s exploitation, reveling in the relentless splashes of claret as each crew member drops one by one. [Obvious spoiler alert: People die.]
Though mostly an intense death spree, writer/director Shin’ichirô Ueda also injects a strong thread of comedy throughout, especially through Hamatsu’s onscreen director, whose rants and raves makes David O. Russell look sane. But it’s not just the zombie genre that the film pokes fun at. The overbearing director, the demanding movie star, the bored crew member. The film almost acts as a social commentary on the stresses and strains of movie-making.
Every so often though, there appears something rather jarring. A scream that lasts a few seconds too long. A camera that stays in place for a few extra beats before chasing after the fleeing damsel. You will notice that there is something rather off about this whole sequence. But as The Dark Knight’s Joker might say: “It’s all part of the plan.”
The second act takes us back in time to before the beginnings of the movie. And it’s here that the movie does slow down a bit as well as adding in a lot more confusion as to why the story has been structured in such an unusual way. While there are plenty of jokes, I will confess that if I hadn’t been trapped in my seat by a full house, I might have got up and left.
But then the third act appears, and by god, it is glorious! Every odd take, weird camera angle and baffling dialogue that had been experienced in the preceding hour comes together in the final third. The closing 30 minutes is an absolutely astounding feat of filmmaking, explaining every puzzling aspect that had threatened to bring the movie down; while also telling the story at the breakneck speed of a Fast and Furious movie. Add in some perfectly timed slapstick comedy and this is a film that I’m not ashamed to say caused me tears of laughter.
Despite a sagging middle, One Cut of the Dead is one of the most engaging and innovative films released this year. Forget Shawn of the Dead or Zombieland, this is now the zombie/horror-comedy to beat.