The most impressive part of Shinichirou Ueda’s ONE CUT OF THE DEAD is its first 37 minutes; it has all the zombie mayhem that we’ve come to expect from a low budget undead-fest, and it’s all presented in one single take. This technique is usually reserved for artier fare than the common low budget zombie flick, but leave it up to the Japanese to make it happen.
The plot sees a crazed, tyrannical movie director dragging his cast and crew to an abandoned filtration plant where human experiments are rumoured to have taken place. Before long, ashen Dawn of the Dead-style zombies are shambling around and attacking the protagonists in hopes of eating their brains.
The frenetic whipping of the camera and the undeniable energy involved in keeping the unbroken shot unbroken is a thrill to watch. There’s sport in it – how far can they go? It’s like a cinematic game of Jenga. How long until someone flubs a line and brings everything that’s already been successfully captured on film tumbling down on top of them?
As a 37 minute short, it’s a gleeful exercise in handheld, low budget zombie action. But then, as the credits roll, you remember this is a feature, and there’s still another hour left on the clock. The gimmick is up, and what follows is a conventionally shot but unconventional “prequel” of sorts showing the production of the short film we just watched. Yes, it’s a fictional account of making a fictional short film. We learn the short was made at the request of TV executives that wanted a live, streaming zombie flick to air as an event. Are you still following? It makes more sense when you’re watching it, trust me.
It’s all incredibly meta, and while I’ve certainly not seen anything like it, I’m not convinced this section of the film works. There’s a rule that I’ve heard repeated over the years, and that’s “Don’t make a film about filmmaking.” It’ll be too self-aware and distracting for the audience, but ONE CUT OF THE DEAD doesn’t care about any of that. It’s throws the rules out the window and is a film about the making of a film that’s about the making of a film.
Actually, the more I write about it, the more I appreciate how bonkers it is.
Still, the middle section slumps, feeling stretched out and redundant as the cast and crew goes about (fictional) rehearsals and pre-production.Things don’t pick up until the last half hour when we see what happened on the other side of the camera during the filming of the short. It’s a bit like watching Marty McFly watching himself at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance in Back to the Future 2.
And with this, ONE CUT OF THE DEAD transcends meta, and I kept expecting the camera to pull back even further to show the film crew filming the film crew filming the film crew, and then the film crew filming them, and so on until there’s an infinite universe of film crews filming each other in a perverse hall of mirrors that makes your head explode in a rainbow of fruit flavors.
The “making of” segment reaches Benny Hill levels of slapstick as the crew moves frantically from set piece to set piece, trying to make things work despite mishaps involving broken equipment, drunken actors and poopy bums. Yes, poopy bums.
I’m of two minds about ONE CUT OF THE DEAD; it’s as shallow as a puddle of zombie blood, and I’m not quite sure what the ultimate point is exactly… but it’s ecstatically energetic and original, and as far as the zombie genre goes, I guess that’s the highest accolade I can give. ONE CUT OF THE DEAD opens in NY and LA September 13 with one-night screenings across the country on September 17, 2019 and will be coming to Shudder soon.