“You have to see it,” I was told again and again by ardent admirers of One Cut Of The Dead. This Japanese zombie-comedy has been bouncing all over the world from one film festival to the next, picking up praise with every stop. But the breathless buzz was strangely, annoyingly vague. There were rumblings about an astoundingly ambitious long-take that lasts a whopping 37 minutes. And there was the giddy hinting of a big “twist.” Frankly, the gimmickiness this suggested was a turnoff, pushing the film further and further down my fest watch lists. But with this heralded horror-comedy headed to theaters, I finally decided to see what all the buzz was about. And I’m elated to reveal One Cut Of The Dead is far more than a one-(camera)-trick pony.
It begins with a common horror setup: A girl in a blood-splattered tank top is being chased by a merciless zombie. Just as he bites down into her soft, flushed flesh, the scene is interrupted by the bark of “CUT!” In barges the director (Hamatsu Takayuk), who hollers at the blinking ingénue that it’s been 42 takes and she’s still not giving him real fear. His voice is as loud as the Hawaiian shirt he wears with a sheen of sweat and an expression of reckless fury. Once he barges off from set, a kind-hearted makeup artist (Syuhama Harumi) comforts the chastened ingénue (Akiyama Yuzuki), chatting with her and her co-star/boyfriend (Nagaya Kazuaki). But just as morale is lifted, a horrid new problem barges onto the location shoot. Real zombies! As this terrified trio scrambles for their lives, the director reappears with a video camera in hand, commanding them to tussle with the undead to make a truly “sick” flick.
It’s a camera with an unseen operator that chases them from this first confrontation between actress and director, through fields, down dark corridors, up ladders, and onto rooftops to a final grisly showdown. This is the 37-minute single take that’s won so much praise. Watching it, I was admittedly a bit bewildered. Sure, it’s ambitious for its length alone. On top of that, the shoot choreography drags its cinematographer down and around a labyrinthine factory, chasing down an energetic ensemble as they frighten, flee, and fight, all while delivering whip-pans, tracking shots, and cheeky zooms. But then there’s the sluggish lulls, like when the central trio small talks about hobbies or the close-up of the screaming ingénue goes on for a bizarrely long time as a deadly fight rages just off-camera. Then there’s the curiosity about the camera itself. For much of the long take, it floats around the characters unacknowledged, suggesting that within the world of this film there is no camera and certainly no one behind it. However, then comes the flash of fingers wiping sprayed blood from the lens. Next, the director looks straight down that lens and demands the camera operator not cut! And you realize there’s something slicker and more sophisticated going on behind this seemingly sloppy zombie romp. These are not glitches caught on camera. These are a daring feature.
At the end of this 37 minutes, it seems One Cut Of The Dead has run out of story. And indeed, credits begin to roll. Then comes the twist that isn’t so much a twist as the reveal of the film’s actual premise. In his debut feature, writer/director/editor Ueda Shin’ichirô brings the comedy to horror by pulling back the curtain on this shaggy long take and showing the organized chaos that lies behind its making. Basically, this is where One Cut Of The Dead reveals itself to be [REC] meets Noises Off, a showbiz comedy offering a peek behind the scenes with buckets of blood.
The buzzed-about long take is just act one. Act two pulls back to a month before, where we’re reintroduced to the director, who is no longer barking or wearing horrendously tacky clothing. Instead, he’s a pleasant, polo shirt-sporting director-for-hire being pitched a unique project, a zombie movie shot all in one take in a live broadcast. Prepping for the big day, he must wrangle a cast made up of a demanding pop idol, a narcissist leading man, a fall-down drunk, a persnickety star, and handle a crew pushed to the brink by one disaster after another. In the fantastic final act, the opening is presented again, but this time cutting to the mayhem unfolding in the control room or just out of frame. The bits that felt awkward before are given explanations, but more than that they prove clever setups for outrageous gags (both comedic and gross). The plot holes are plugged with punch lines. And amid all this ghoulish spectacle, unhinged slapstick, and mad fun, Shin’ichirô builds lean yet moving arcs for much of his kooky characters, who grow through the having to band together to save the (shoot) day.
With the unanimous praise it’s received, I’d spent the first act of One Cut of the Dead a bit perplexed. It was fun in a low-budget horror way, sure. But with such bumbling in blocking and dialogue, why the raves over this long take? This is why I spill some spoilers in this review. Because I can see watching the first act, mistaking its moves for mediocrity, and maybe clocking out before that so-called “twist.” But where this zombie movie really comes alive is in the third act, where the first and second — full of fun in their own ways — pave the way for a climax that is as exhilarating as it is goofy, surprising, and humane. Shin’ichirô and his cast shift gears swiftly and expertly. The plucky heroine becomes a prissy pain-in-the-ass, while her heroic love interest turns into a scowling snob. The slack-jawed zombies become lively stooges. The bullying director tranforms into a pitiable pushover, desperate to impress his headstrong daughter (who, naturally, wants to direct). These are transformations so quick and complete, you might well do a double-take. Yet One Cut of the Dead doesn’t miss a step in setting up these contrasts, then tying them into what we saw — or thought we saw — in that funky first act. Which ultimately demands an immediate rewatching to be thoroughly appreciated.
In the end, One Cut of the Dead is a marvelous must-see for horror fans and cinephiles. It’s not much of a zombie movie, chucking those tropes as gleefully as so many dismembered prop limbs. Instead, it’s a savagely sharp comedy that uses the gleeful gore of zombie horror to accentuate the absurdity of filmmaking, where outlandish fictions are made frightfully real with imagination, teamwork, and a well-timed spurt of corn syrup.
One Cut of the Dead opens in New York and Los Angeles on September 13, followed by a special one-night event across the US on September 17. Check its site for details.
Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com