One Cut of the Dead is not your run of the mill Zombie film, nor should any moviegoer make the same mistake as this reviewer and assume they’re going to go watch a Japanese version of Shaun of the Dead as they’ll find themselves completely flabbergasted by what’s put in front of them. In a very left of centre move the Japan Film Festival has made an unconventional choice selecting this as their opening film. Whilst it seems an unlikely candidate on one hand, on the other it’s a perfect embodiment of Japan’s wonderfully surprising disposition.
It’s going to be difficult to explain the genius of this film without a few *spoilers* so please read on no further if you’d like to watch this film unbiased!
The plot is simple yet effective for the outcome, a bunch of broadcasting moguls have decided the next big thing is to shoot a low budget zombie horror film at an abandoned water filtration plant where the cast actually end up being attacked by real honest to goodness infected undead. The 37 minute long feature is meant to be shot live and in one take – hence ‘One Cut of the Dead’s’ title.
In all honesty, prepare to be very confused until about mid-way through the film. The first scene really is one long 37 minute lo-fi lacklustre zombie wannabe affair. Filled with long awkward pauses, nonsensical shifts in dialogue and half hearted acting it’s not only a viewing endurance test but an exercise in paying attention to minor details. Mind you a few muted chuckles early on do turn into a crescendo of eye watering guffaws once the carefully set-up plot (just like that first domino in a chain) starts to fall in place. The payoff is huge, patience is a virtue, just wait for it.
The second part of the film is a cutback to a few months earlier when the concept is pitched to Director Takayuki Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu) who’s career punchline is ‘fast, cheap, average’ *insert two thumbs up here*. It becomes apparent that the maniacally aggressive person reducing his lead actress to tears on camera is actually quite inoffensive and sweet in reality (and a true gauge of Hamatsu’s remarkable acting chops). As the storyline delves further into the making of the show the audience gets a feel of the behavioural characteristics of each of the cast and crew adding context to gags delivered later on. This section does tend to drag but an exploration of the complicated relationship between Director Higurashi and his moody teenage daughter Mao, an at times overzealous fledgling director in her own right, serves as a sole stabilising thread of interest.
Viewers who have made it this far will be richly rewarded as the film becomes a nested statement of sorts and the realisation they you’re watching a film crew filming a film crew filming a film begins to emerge. Clever script writing unveils that what’s really going on behind the scenes is a bunch of people frantically covering up their own comical errors to amazing effect. At one point lead actress Aika Matsumoto (Yuzuki Akiyama) randomly picks up a much needed weapon and exclaims ‘lucky someone left this here’ a tongue in cheek reference to a cliched horror gimmick funny enough in its own right made hilarious when the reason for the weapon’s casual placement comes to light.
There is so much to like about this film, perfect execution between nuances in the original shoot and how character changes have come to be or why it took so damn long for a zombie to break into a room or strange shifts in camera angles are attributed to a brilliant cast and a meticulously thought out script. Any gripes of the first half of the film are easily forgiven in the brilliance of the second, the only dampening element being an overtly cheesy celebratory ending. There’s not a hell of a lot of character development but it’s just enough to serve the purpose of pulling off the laughs expected of the genre.
Most interesting and exciting thing about this film is that it literally came out of nowhere, shot with a crazy low budget of about $27k with a cast of unknown actors. Surely even director Shinichiro Ueda could not have foreseen it becoming not only a box office hit in Japan with over 2 million viewers but an international success grossing over 150 times its budget, branding it with all the marks of a true indie cult classic.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)