It’s not saying very much to declare Ueda Shin’ichirô’s debut feature the best zombie comedy since “Shaun of the Dead” — no disrespect to the likes of “Life After Beth” and “Scouts Guide to the Apocalypse,” but the decomposing sub-genre has been in desperate need of fresh brains ever since Edgar Wright brought it back to life. Enter “One Cut of the Dead,” a low-budget, high-concept work of tongue-in-cheek genius that not only matches the best of its predecessors, but also lovingly articulates why people are drawn to these movies in the first place.
Unfolding like some kind of unholy cross between “Day for Night” and “Diary of the Dead,” Ueda’s self-reflexive delight honors and humiliates zombie cinema in equal measure (and also in that order). The infectious fun begins with a virtuosic but strangely casual 37-minute long-take that messes with your expectations from start to finish. Somewhere in the bowels of an abandoned Japanese water filtration plant, a young man (Nagaya Kazuaki) with bloody clothes and rotting skin — his face a vintage shade of Romero green — is about to take a bite out of his rosy-cheeked girlfriend (Akiyama Yuzuki), but she doesn’t look scared enough for someone who’s about to lose her life.
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“Cut!” A furious director named Higurashi (Hamatsu Takayuki) bursts into the frame, berating his actress for her unconvincing performance. This, we learn as makeup lady Nao (Syuhama Harumi) rolls her eyes in the background, is the 42nd take — it seems we’ve got a regular David Fincher on our hands. A few minutes later, as the actors gossip about the urban legends that came with their shooting location, they make the fatal mistake of confusing a real zombie for a member of their cast. Lots of low-budget carnage ensues, and maniacal director Higurashi is so overjoyed at authenticity of the violence that he keeps filming the whole thing. “There’s no fiction! No lies! This is reality!”
So far, so familiar. A cheap zombie movie within a slightly less cheap zombie movie — it’s been done. But then something peculiar happens: Blood splatters onto the lens of the camera, and a hand comes from nowhere to wipe the smudge away. We’re obviously not watching the action through Higurashi’s camera, but now the conceit seems to have grown confused. Who’s shooting? Why does it feel like the rules of the game are starting to break down? Since when can the walking dead use weapons? “Cut!”
Now would be a good time for the spoiler-averse to skip to the end. Jump down to the last paragraph, where this review wraps up with some more breathless superlatives and an attempt to contextualize the clarity that “One Cut of the Dead” gives to its genre. Not even a detailed, beat-by-beat plot summary could really spoil the giddy pleasures that Ueda has in store, but these hilarious twists are definitely worth discovering for yourself.
For those of you still here, we can make the rest of this quick. After it’s virtuosic first act, “One Cut of the Dead” leaps a month back in time, when we learn that Higurashi is actually a gentle, candy-sweet Bowfinger type who’s been hired to make a one-take zombie show for a fledgling TV network. His personal motto is that he’s “fast, cheap, but average,” and that sits just fine with the studio executives — their program doesn’t need to be good, it just needs to happen. Oh, one more thing: They’re planning to broadcast it live. So Higurashi, a hack with a heart of gold, finds himself in the unenviable position of having to shoot a cheap one-shot horror movie with no second takes.
Through the harried rehearsal process that follows, we’re reintroduced to the cast and crew we met in the first act. When the story doubles back to the water filtration plant, we’re a step further removed from the action, watching the making of the one-shot zombie movie we already saw at the start. The film’s uproarious finale — its entire reason for being — is essentially like having a backstage pass to a play gone wrong, as Higurashi and his motley team of ill-prepared misfits frantically try to keep their story from falling apart.
“One Cut of the Dead” is so heartfelt and hilarious that it’s easy to forgive the contrivances that hold it together, and to overlook how transparently Ueda reverse-engineers most of his best gags. Seemingly unimportant details in the film’s sluggish middle section blossom into killer jokes some 30 minutes later, as the entire second act is redeemed by what it allows Ueda to do next. If at first it’s hard to make sense of a subplot about a sound technician with chronic diarrhea, well… it all makes some glorious kind of sense by the end.
It helps that Ueda has assembled an incredible cast of newcomers, all of whom are in sync with their director’s playful sense of chaos. Hamatsu’s two-faced performance as Higurashi deserves to be a star-making role (his initial bloodlust fading into childlike glee), and Syuhama’s transformation from crew mother to method action star is a thing of beauty. Every one of Ueda’s memorable characters is rewarded with their own hero moment, each of them more absurd and endearing than the last. But all of them are ultimately in service to the shoot itself, and half of the fun is discovering what Higurashi’s crew had to do — how they had to debase themselves — in order to deliver the 37-minute take from the start of the movie. It even allows Higurashi to find a measure of pride in the process.
Drunk on its own DIY energy and deeply in love with everything it’s doing, “One Cut of the Dead” is a euphoric ode to the chaos (and compromises) of genre filmmaking; it’s the kind of movie that makes you want to pick up a camera, call some friends, and shoot the end of the world on your own terms. More than that, Ueda’s brilliant debut reveals how the walking dead have grown to be such a staple of no-budget cinema. First lodged in the public consciousness as a subversive expression of social horrors like racism and the Vietnam War, these shambling monsters reflect the worst of what we are, and give us permission to make the best of what we have left. They insist that we sacrifice the perfect in order to preserve the good. Zombies are a filmmaker’s best friend because they never let you forget that surviving a movie in one piece — on either side of the camera — is a victory unto itself.
“One Cut of the Dead” played at the 2018 Fantasia Festival, and will screen at Fantastic Fest later this year. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.