Here’s the warning before you start One Cut of the Dead: you may not like it at the beginning. You may get motion sickness from the long handheld take—the titular “one cut,” as the camera bobs around, zooming in and out on the frenzied, exciting action. You may think to yourself, “Well yes, this is all good and fun, but where the hell is it going? I mean, I love practical effects and zombies, but what’s the point?” And you’re probably going to get the urge to back out of the film and go perusing down the digital highway to find another film that might satisfy you better. But I would recommend that you don’t do that under any circumstances, because you’d be missing out on one of the sweetest, funniest films of the year.
One Cut of the Dead is the kind of infinitely charming film that comes along once in a blue moon. It’s the kind of film that’s a testament to “let’s put on a show” movies, where the people both in front of and behind the camera are reveling in the slapdash insanity and hilarity that’s unfurling for audiences. It’s the kind of gory, goofy insanity that Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi peddled in during their earlier days, where the insanity keeps ratcheting up until it reaches a fever pitch and you have no idea where the madman directing is going to take you next.
One Cut of the Dead is about a film crew shooting a one-take zombie film in an abandoned water filtration plant (which in itself is a great horror film location) when they find themselves under siege by real zombies, and folks, the show must go on. It’s Living in Oblivion meets Dawn of the Dead. When the attacks happen—early and frequently, mind you—the crew struggles to survive the horde of bloodthirsty ghouls and the mania of their increasingly insane director, who demands that they keep shooting in the midst of trying to live, because the inauthenticity of his actors’ fear has now become something more realistic and method.
From there, the film becomes an onslaught of practical gore effects and shaky cam. Where the movie takes you beyond that point is anyone’s guess, but when you get there, you absolutely appreciate the journey. One Cut of the Dead has the cleanest three-act structure that you’ll see in a movie this year; it’s broken up nicely into an “a/b/c” plot that makes it easily digestible. Beyond this, I’d prefer not to say anything else about the film, although I implore you to stay through the credits, because they show you how they pulled off the movie’s incredible one take—the equivalent of being walked through the illusion after the show.
The cast is fantastic from top to bottom, from Takayuki Hamatsu as the increasingly manic but enigmatic (you’ll see what I mean) director, who hilariously pops up during the zombie attacks to yell “action” with his camera at the ready. His wife and special effects artist, Nao, played with deft precision by Harumi Shuhama, transforms into a cold-blooded, axe-wielding, self-defense (POM!) deploying zombie killer, turning on her human compatriots in the blink of an eye. As Chinatsu, Yuzuki Akiyama starts the film as a meek woman afraid to attack her zombified loved one, but ends the film as a badass Bruce Campbell-esque warrior who easily dispatches the living dead with righteous decapitations. And then there’s the lovely Mao, who plays an integral, emotional part in the film and swiftly sells the natural progression of her story arc.
One Cut of the Dead is the zombie movie equivalent of that “When Your Mind’s Made Up” scene in Once, when the band is recording together for the first time. At first, you’re the bored record producer, reading your magazine and thinking, “When’s this over? Why did I take this risk?” Then, by the end of the film, you’ve become absolutely mesmerized by the magic trick that Shin'ichirô Ueda and his cast and crew have pulled on you. You’ll either have tears in your eyes at the absolute gangbusters conclusion to the father and daughter arc the film sneaks in on you, or you’ll be crying from the impact of a tidal wave of laughs.
One Cut of the Dead is absolutely one of the best films I saw at Fantastic Fest this year. After I finished it, I felt like I could’ve floated to space, that’s how high on it I was. Any distributor should be frothing at the mouth to pick this up, and based on the ground rumblings I’m hearing, they are. It’s absolutely got the crossover appeal akin to Shaun of the Dead, itself an international zombie film that slightly deviates from the usual living dead pack by delivering a tonally different zombie cinematic experience. Genre fans will definitely want to make One Cut of the Dead a priority once it’s eventually released.
Movie Score: 5/5
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