FILM REVIEW – ONE CUT OF THE DEAD. With Takayuki Hamatsu, Harumi Shuhama, Mao, Yuzuki Akiyama, Kazuaki Nagaya. Written by Shinichiro Ueda and Ryoichi Wada. Directed by Shinichiro Ueda. Unrated. 96 minutes.
A surprise box office sensation in Japan that has so far grossed a thousand times its budget at the box office, ONE CUT OF THE DEAD is an unexpected delight. I honestly didn’t think I ever needed to see another zombie movie for as long as I live, but director Shinchiro Ueda takes the genre’s oversaturation to giddy new levels of meta. It’s a movie about zombies attacking the set of a zombie movie, captured in a single unbroken shot by a daredevil cinematographer who at one point discreetly tries to wipe blood off the lens. Or at least it is until it isn’t, and since the movie’s entire premise pivots on a massive perspective shift about 40 minutes in, the spoiler sensitive should probably check out now and come back after you’ve seen the film.
Still here? Good. In a terribly amusing development, this ramshackle, tongue-in-cheek one-take chase picture abruptly ends at the 37-minute mark, complete with closing credits rolling after final girl Yuzuki Akiyama vanquishes her infected boyfriend and the dictatorial director who won’t stop filming amidst all the mayhem. Then “One Cut of the Dead” fades in again and flashes back to one month earlier, employing an entirely different shooting style to suddenly become a comedy about the making of the movie we just saw.
Turns out that the tyrannical filmmaker we were watching earlier (Takayuki Hamatsu) is actually a mild-mannered commercial videographer specializing in weddings and karaoke videos. He describes himself as “fast, cheap, and average” but the artist deep inside him is stirred by an offer from executives at the Zombie Channel. (I imagine there really are enough movies about the undead to run on a network 24 hours a day, or at least it feels that way.) They want to try out a live broadcast of a one-take horror flick, but every reputable director they’ve approached has had the good sense to turn them down.
What follows is an incredibly charming backstage farce, with our meek director trying to marshal a motley crew of pain-in-the-ass actors, lazy crew members and a sound guy with irritable bowel syndrome through what should be a logistically impossible shoot, taking out his frustrations in front of the camera by playing a filmmaker who says and does all the things he’d never dare. The project also provides a chance to bond with his prickly, perfectionist teenage daughter (one-named wonder Mao) and his stay-at-home wife (Harumi Shuhama) who quit being an actress after going so Method she broke a co-star’s arm.
Despite the opening salvos of splatter, “One Cut of the Dead” turns out to be terribly sweet, reminiscent of “Waiting for Guffman” and “Bowfinger” in the “let’s-put-on-a-show” spirit that animates these characters. The structural device of showing us the broadcast before we see how it was made allows Ueda to set up his punchlines way in advance, springing surprises we should have seen coming and garnering huge laughs from what’s just outside of the frames we’ve already watched. It’s a clever conceit brought off with a bouncy spirit and great camaraderie. The exuberant ending features a J-Pop cover of The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” going behind the scenes of the behind-the-scenes footage to complete this most endearing cinematic hall of mirrors.•••
Over the past twenty years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.