Carolyn Percy takes a look at One Cut of the Dead, the cult low-budget comedy horror movie making waves with its irreverent take on media and film-making. (Contains spoilers)
A group of Japanese filmmakers are trying to make an independent zombie film. They have the perfect location – an abandoned water treatment facility whose history includes ominous rumours of government experimentation – but the director isn’t satisfied with the actors’ performance. Then real zombies crash the set and he sees the perfect opportunity to create the piece of art that he envisions, but will the cast and crew survive?
Written and directed by first time director Shinichiro Ueda, workshopped with unknown actors and made on a budget of just 3 million yen (roughly equivalent to about £20,000), Kamera o tomeru na! (2017), as it’s known in Japan, or One Cut of the Dead went on to take the country and, through the festival circuit, film fans around the world by storm, grossing 3 billion yen (just over £20,000,000) and being hailed by IndieWire as “the best zombie comedy since Shaun of the Dead.” Whilst your mileage may vary in terms of comparison to the first entry in Pegg and Frost’s beloved Cornetto trilogy, there’s no denying One Cut of the Dead is a brilliantly funny film that happens to have zombies in it.
The “one cut” refers to the fact that the first half hour – the film set – is genuinely filmed in one continuous take. This is a bold and innovative move that works really well, but, as a consequence means that we do get the odd awkward silence and random conversations, particularly in the beginning, as events unfold in real time. Some may think, “well it’s mean to be emulating a low budget indie film, it’s supposed to be a bit awkward” (which is true), others may think, “what the hell am I watching?” and be tempted to leave it there.
I implore you to stick with it. This initial awkwardness is soon swept out of the way when the zombies arrive and the story gears up into a campy ride that’s bloody good fun. (Seriously, there’s a lot of fake blood, liberally splashed about.) The narrative itself isn’t anything new in terms of zombie stories, and the characters are deliberate archetypes – the perfectionist, abusive director; the young female lead; the handsome co-star – but it’s solidly done and, unlike the director, you’ll have no complaints regarding the performances.
But you’ll remember that this is only the first third of the film. The second third takes us back to one month earlier, where it’s revealed that the film we’ve just seen is actually a film-within-a-film. Our director (Takayuki Hamatsu) is really a nice, mild-mannered chap, whose motto is that he’s “fast, average and cheap”, but who would really like to make art, as well as earn back the respect of his daughter. She was inspired from a young age to be a director like him but is passionate and unapologetic about making art (irrespective of whether it’s appropriate) and is disappointed in him for compromising. Takayuki is approached by the heads of a new 24-hour zombie channel – a funny invention as well as one with certain social implications; horror films are also often great social commentary, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, for example, was a sly nod to the nature of consumerism with all the zombies descending on the shopping centre without really knowing why, so a 24-hour zombie channel could be a comment on the way we now consume media – who ask him to take on the project for the channel’s inaugural broadcast: a zombie movie filmed live and in one continuous take.
Despite some reservations, Takayuki accepts. After all, what could go wrong? The answer, as the final third of One Cut takes us into the filming, is just about everything. As the layers are peeled back, it illuminates just how clever the film is, not just in a purely intellectual/technical “look how clever I am” kind of way, but in a way that genuinely enhances the material, making it even funnier. You’ll have many a light-bulb moment as you find out why and how out why certain things happened the way they did.
You’ll form opinions on characters that will change and then be changed again. Is it scary? Not really but it’s not really meant to be. It’s a comedy first and foremost with some horror elements. What begins as a traditional low-budget zombie film grows to become not only that but an appreciation of the passion involved in the art of creating art, as well as the dichotomy between making art and making entertainment, that thoroughly deserves all the hype it has gotten and all the money it has made.
After all, it’s not every zombie comedy that makes you laugh, then makes you go “aww” and leaves you with a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.
And remember, don’t stop shooting!
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Carolyn Percy is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.