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 level 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 since its release, the film’s unique twist has, thankfully, remained mostly under wraps. OK, it’s not so much a twist than a catch, but you’ll have to watch the film to fully understand the full effect of what’s been accomplished here but One Cut of the Dead 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 just when you think the final piece of the undead puzzle is finally in place there’s 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. Actors are filming a zombie story, with their director, Takayuki Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu), constantly harping on them about their performances not being authentic enough. Soon all hell breaks loose as real zombies show up and start munching on anyone in their paths, and now the cast and crew must try to survive the horror for real.
Surprise! It turns out Takayuki knew they were filming on a cursed site and invoked the undead creatures to come back himself. As the reanimated corpses chase the actors Takayuki isn’t far behind – camera in hand – trying to capture their genuine reactions.
Despite its meta premise, the actual story is pretty dry so far, with a few 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 continuous long shot with a mix between found-footage and shaky cam. The camera becomes a personality unto itself; when blood splatters on the lens we see a hand wiping them off. And at one point an actress running for her life turns to the camera and begs for its help.
But then after 37 minutes…everything changes. We go back in time one month to when Takayuki is just a struggling low-level karaoke video director and he’s approached to helm a project for an all-zombie TV network. To help kick things off, the studio heads want to broadcast a zombie film in real-time, using one consecutive take with no breaks, and aired live. It’s a tall task, but Takayuki is up to it and assembles his team, facing several hiccups along the way that will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever worked “in the biz.”
The last third of the movie shows the episode being filmed, only this time from behind-the-scenes. We rewatch the entire scenario we saw in the original segment play out, only from an entirely different perspective. 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 this unusual narrative with ease as we learn things about these characters we wouldn’t otherwise expect. We have Takayuki, a struggling director who gives passion to every project he’s assigned to – even “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. This extends to even minor characters like the spoiled celebrity or production assistants; zombie movies are often at their best with a great ensemble cast, and that’s exactly what we have here.
Ueda is able to find humor in the mundane without just relying on his reflexive-based premise. He has such a grasp on this puzzle he’s created that I can’t even begin to relate to the logic and effort it took to create a one-shot narrative. But to flip that concept on its head and choreograph a parallel scenario that exists within the original concept is almost impossible to wrap your brain around.
One Cut of the Dead is abstract in the best way possible. Often times a film that attempts to subvert a formula can feel like its only serving that purpose, but the multiple layers to this story are what make it such a blast to watch unfold. It’s almost like two films in one: a zombie film, and then we have a comedy that satirizes the film industry while simultaneously showcasing the hard work and meticulous planning that goes into bringing a production to screens. This is filmmaking at its B-level best, demonstrating that the best and most inspired energy comes from quick-thinking and how teamwork and creativity can be heightened with limited resources.