A low-budget sensation when it hit limited Japanese theaters back in 2017, One Cut of the Dead (originally Kamera o Tomeru na!) made its rounds on the festival circuit, winning awards and fans along the way. But somehow the film missed taking a bit out of the US market, perhaps the most zombie-friendly destination in the world. Well, better late than never!
Here is that rare film that operates – and succeeds – on multiple levels, managing to showcase an almost unprecedented amount of pre-planning and pure ingenuity on a budget smaller than most films spend on craft services. It also seamlessly crosses between multiple genres and styles, often blending them when necessary, to upend our expectations of what a zombie film should be.
Building up a cult following the last couple years, the twist has remained mostly under wraps. Okay, so it’s not really a twist, but more of a catch. You just have to watch the film to get the full effect. But trust me when I say this is the most fun a zombie movie has been since 2011’s Zombieland. It makes you laugh while keeping you guessing to figure out where it’s going. And once that’s solved, there are still plenty of surprises left.
One Cut of the Dead is divided into three parts. The first third of the film plays out as a pretty standard zombie narrative, but with a slight twist. The actors are filming a zombie story, with their director, Takayuki Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu), constantly getting on them about their performances not being real enough. When all of a sudden real zombies show up and the actors now must try to survive for real. It turns out Takayuki knew they were filming on a cursed site and invoked the zombies himself. As the undead creatures chase the actors, he’s running at them with a camera trying to get their genuine reactions.
Despite its meta premise, the actual story is pretty dry so far, with a couple comedic moments sprinkled in. We start wondering how the real filmmakers can keep this chase scene up for 90+ minutes. Fortunately the camera work is extremely engaging. The entire sequence is filmed as one long continuous shot. A grey between found footage and shaky cam, the camera gets a personality itself. When blood splatters on it, a hand is seen wiping it off. And at one point the running actress turns back to the camera and begs for its help.
But then after 37 minutes, that story ends and we go back in time 1 month, to Takayuki, a low-level karaoke video director, being approached to helm a project for a zombie TV network. The episode will be one consecutive take with no stoppages, and will be aired live. It’s a tall task, but Takayuki is up to it and assembles his team, facing several hiccups along the way.
The last third of the movie shows the episode being filmed, but this time from behind the scenes. We rewatch the scenario from the beginning of the short film as a third-person point of view. We see all the problems that happened the first time around and it’s revealed why certain odd things happened that were left explained the first time around.
Writer/director Shinichiro Ueda handles the unusual narrative with ease as he teaches us about our characters in a way we would never expect. We have Takayuki, a struggling director who gives passion to every project he’s assigned to–even the “tacky” ones like this zombie soap opera. His wife, Harumi (Harumi Shuhama), is a former actress who is being urged by her daughter to give the industry another shot.
Ueda finds humor in the mundane without just relying on his reflexive-based premise. He has such a grasp on this puzzle he’s created. I can’t even begin to relate to the effort it takes to film a one-shot. But to flip that concept on its head and choreograph a behind-the-scenes scenario that parallels the original shot is nearly impossible to wrap your brain around.
One Cut of the Dead is abstract in the best way possible. Often times a film that subverts a formula can feel like its only serving that purpose, but the several layers to this story are what make it such a blast to watch. We have a zombie film, and then we have a comedy that both satirizes the industry while simultaneously showing us all the hard work that goes into making a finished product, paying homage to that team effort.
Even at the B-level, there’s a lot of creativity and quick thinking required. We see how beauty can come from accidents, and how teamwork and creativity can be heightened with limited resources. A film that’s two times meta requires so much meticulous planning and dozens of people buying into one common goal that One Cut of the Dead helps to pay homage to itself as well.
Originally published on September 21, 2019 at https://www.popzara.com/movies/movie-reviews/one-cut-of-the-dead-2019/