By Peg Aloi
This clever Japanese zombie film is a spirited attempt to blow up and reinvigorate the genre.
One Cut of the Dead, directed by Shin’ichirô Ueda. Screening at the Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, MA, tonight, September 17.
First, I recommend going in cold to this movie and knowing as little as possible. That said, I’ll do my best not to share any major plot spoilers here. This clever Japanese zombie film by Shin’ichirô Ueda is a spirited attempt to blow up and reinvigorate the genre. It’s also a frenetic, hilarious, and super-savvy exercise in exploring the possibilities for inventiveness and creativity in the world of low budget filmmaking.
The film opens in a way that makes it feel as if its started without us, as if we’ve walked in ten minutes late. There’s a young woman covered in blood trying to hold off a zombie who’s coming for her. There’s a fairly standard genre-informed struggle between them, and then a director yells cut. The director screams at the actress about her terrible performance and is frustrated that he can’t seem to draw anything better from her. There follows a general break from filming, as the director storms off and the actors relax with the skeleton crew of DP, boom operator, and makeup person. The small size of the production is curious: no PAs, no assistant directors, no line producers. It is being filmed in a decrepit building in a remote location. The two actors in the scene are also dating, although trying to keep this from the crew.
What happens next is straight out of any number of cheapo horror films that dabble in shine over substance. For no explicable reason, other than a vague allusion to a “blood curse,” and a sneaky look from the director, people start turning into zombies. The director is planning to use this transformation as a way to pump up the vérité and draw better performances from the actors. It becomes very gory and very chaotic very fast. The camera work in this sequence is absolutely stunning: continuous motion using one handheld camera, as the actors scream, chop, and flail their way to uncertain survival. But there’s something odd about how this narrative turn unfolds; for example, the two young actors and the makeup artist, in the midst of the weirdness, start up a casual, fairly irrelevant conversation about their hobbies. The makeup artist says she’s studying self defense and demonstrates her moves; of course, this comes in handy when fighting off the other crew members, who have turned into flesh-eating zombies. There are also what seem like peculiar directorial choices, as when the young actress knows she’s going to have to kill the young actor because he’s trying to kill her, but in the midst of the struggle hesitates in an almost dance-like fashion, via slow motion and silence. She braves three attempts to finish him off before she finally manages to do it.
The result looks like a poorly realized movie script, albeit one that engages in some masterfully shot found footage. Then, about 40 minutes in, One Cut of the Dead seems to “end” with an overhead shot of the young actress in the middle of a bloody pentagram on the roof, having apparently “bested” the curse (which remains unexplained) and become a Final Girl of the Undead.
But, of course, the film is really just getting started: we now learn that this little zombie episode was the movie-within-the-movie. The idea that the director goes off script, and tries to improvise while endangering his actors, was cooked up by some television producers. They want to make a half hour special with a continuous handheld camera, focusing on the movie-within-a movie conceit. So now we have a movie-within-a-movie within a TV show crammed into the film we’re watching. We see the producers, cast, and director at their first meeting, scripts in hand, going through several days of rehearsal. There is also a young, scrappy, and very talented crew creating the special effects. One of these crew members is the director’s daughter, a plot point that merits attention because it culminates in a glorious, and rather emotional, moment later on.
Even when I thought I understood what was happening, grateful for my fairly astute powers of observation as a film critic, One Cut of the Dead surprised me again and again with its ingenuity and brilliantly unpredictable structure. Ueda has put together a marvel of movement, choreography, and prosaic behind-the-scenes visuals. This film is a must-see for fans of the zombie genre, fans of the found footage and/or fake documentary genres, fans of Japanese horror, and just plain old fans of that sweet spot where horror and comedy meet in bloody, triumphant, heart-pounding pleasure.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes regularly for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.