Review: One Cut of the Dead (2017)

I’m not sure when I first heard of Shinichiro Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead (2017) but it One Cut of the Dead Posterquickly grew to be one of my most anticipated Japanese films, and I watched it creep up the UK from London festival by festival until it finally arrived in Leeds. I’d heard all kinds of good things about it: that it was an excellent zombie comedy, that it featured an extremely long single take shot – the ‘one cut’ of the title. The praise was so effusive I was determined to see it, but I still didn’t really know what to expect. The rough plot outline that I had heard, and that I will share here again, is that a low budget zombie horror film is interrupted by actual zombies and the director is determined to incorporate the real attacks into his film – in Japanese, the title is カメラを止めるな! or ‘Don’t stop the camera!’. While that’s a wonderful title, it only scratches the surface of what makes One Cut of the Dead great.

The film opens with that impressive single take shot within an abandoned water treatment plant that the cast purports was used in clandestine military experiments. When real zombies interrupt the filming of an incredibly low budget, delightfully poorly acted zombie flick being put together on location by a tiny crew, the aggressive, Hawaiian shirt-wearing director (Takayuki Hamatsu – an unknown, like the rest of the cast) immediately tries to use the situation to his advantage, insisting that the camera keep rolling even as things grow ever more out of hand. What follows is a remarkable mix of low budget horror comedy somewhat like a fourth wall-breaking found footage film. The whole sequence is built around a clever meta joke with an enjoyable payoff that would be a pleasant enough experience even if One Cut of the Dead was only that opening shot. As it came to a close, a few members of the audience even murmured “is it over?” and “is it only a short film?” Indeed, as I started to see the climax of the single take section approaching, I couldn’t figure out how the film would continue – it seemed to have achieved exactly what it had set out to achieve, and had turned out to be a lot of fun in the process. And yet, more than half the running time remained.

One Cut of the Dead 1
Ueda cast more-or-less unknown actors on a budget of only around 3 million yen (~£20,500). L to R: Aika (Yuzuki Akiyama), Harumi (Harumi Shuhama), Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu), and Kazuaki (Kazuaki Nagaya)

It’s that second half where things really get wild, and I had no inkling of what would actually happen or what it would even look like. Given that no small amount of care has gone into maintaining some secrecy about the remainder of the film I have no wish to spoil it now, but I will simply say that One Cut of the Dead is not at all what it appears and is a much more interesting film for it. The second half rewards a patient audience with an increasingly hilarious series of events that build in intensity like some kind of sprawling, meta, Rube Goldberg machine-like piece of filmmaking. To say anything further would be to ruin the surprise, and I already fear I’ve said too much; catch the film now while it plays at festivals if at all possible, or keep your eyes peeled for any wider screenings or, fingers crossed, Third Window Films putting it out on disc.

For those who’ve seen it or are less shy of spoilers, I will continue – you have been warned!

Once the credits roll on the fake ending of the single take film-within-a-film, a title card flashes up that it’s now “one month earlier”. Suddenly the cinematography, which up until this point has been grainy and often blurry handheld camera work, is back to ‘normal’. Indeed, it looks shockingly mundane, almost like a Japanese television drama. We’re introduced to Higurashi, the director within the single take film, who appears to be scraping a career together with a reputation for being “cheap, fast, and average”. He’s approached by producers looking for a standout event for the launch of their new “Zombie Channel”, and ask him to produce a short film that will be broadcast with two gimmicks: live and shot in a single take. This, of course, is the single take film that One Cut of the Dead opens with, and is referred to by the title “One Cut of the Dead” within the film itself (I was quite charmed by this fact, as I had until then assumed that this was an English language titled pawned off on it in lieu of the more poetic Japanese “Don’t stop the camera!” or “Don’t stop filming!”).

One Cut of the Dead 2
Takayuki Hamatsu (right) gives an unexpectedly diverse performance, just as perfect as the misguided, over-enthusiastic director of the zombie film-gone-wrong as he is as the hardworking shepherd of the ‘real’ production

What follows is a bluntly hilarious look at the trials of low-budget filmmaking as Higurashi struggles with every aspect of the film, from the producers’ mad idea that a live, single-take horror film shot on zero budget is even possible, to drunken actors, a preening leading man, last minute casting changes, and a symphony of on-set disasters. Every bizarre choice, weird line delivery, and awkward pause in the single take section of One Cut of the Dead is explained. It’s high farce, calling to mind the very best Frasier episodes – particularly “Ham Radio”, where Frasier hubristically tries to stage a live radio drama. It’s also remarkably touching as Higurashi fights to keep his film afloat in the face of a producer who insists “it’s television, not art”

I would describe One Cut of the Dead as eccentrically paced, to the point that I really began to worry. The initial single take film is clever (and the actual closing credits include behind-the-scenes footage of how they pulled it off) but if it stood alone would be more of a film festival curiosity than a classic. The middle section of the film, when it takes an aggressive left turn into the humdrum daily life of Higurashi, his family, and his filmmaking process, immediately begins to drag before the audience starts to put together what’s really happening. An attentive viewer will be rewarded, however, with some serious laughs as every minor detail in both the single take opening and the preparation-focused middle comes into play during the finale as the film-within-a-film goes out live, with cast and crew frantically keeping the production going.

I went in expecting a zombie horror comedy, perhaps the Japanese Shaun of the Dead, but the end result is more like This is Spinal Tap or oddball stories about filmmaking like Adaptation. It’s a comedy masterpiece, even if there isn’t an actual zombie in sight.

One Cut of the Dead / カメラを止めるな!

Director: Shinichiro Ueda

Japanese Release Date: 4th November 2017 (Limited)

Version Watched: 96 min (LIFF2018 Screening, Everyman Cinema)

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