The only thing more fun than the 37-minute single-take opening is what comes next.
The only sub-genre less inspired than zombies is zombie comedies, and while there have been a handful of great ones in the past few years (Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead, Deadman Inferno, Zombeavers) far too many of them are creative vacuums devoid of thrills or laughs. The best of the bunch deliver gory fun, engaging characters, and big laughs, but they rarely carry additional weight or subtext — that changes with Ueda Shin’ichirô’s brilliant indie gem One Cut of the Dead.
A clearly distressed young woman (Akiyama Yuzuki) runs through an abandoned water filtration plant into the arms of her boyfriend (Nagaya Kazuaki) only to discover too late that he’s turned into a flesh-eating zombie. Before he can take a bite out of her, though, Higurashi (Hamatsu Takayuki) the director yells cut and loudly expresses his unhappiness with her performance. They’re just acting, but as the small crew makes small talk and wonders on the fate of the film their low-budget zombie movie is invaded by real zombies. Chaos understandably ensues, but while everyone’s terrified for their lives Higurashi sees an opportunity — keep filming and capture real fear from his cast members.
And then things take another turn.
I’ll avoid further plot details except to say that this smartly constructed matryoshka doll of a movie — a no-budget zombie movie inside a low-budget zombie movie inside something else all together — is not only the best zombie comedy in years, but it’s also the best movie about indie film-making in decades.
Ueda takes a massive risk with his film’s first act as it feels for a time like every other super low-budget, found footage-ish zombie movie, but he rewards viewers who stick around with big laughs and an engaging cast of characters. The film shows an impressive degree of confidence in that regard as it essentially spends its first act appearing to be what you thought (or feared?) it might be, but even then it’s done with heart, creativity, and a real sens of fun. The comedy runs the gamut from goofball antics — playing keep-away with a zombie’s arm brings the funny — and more subtle observations on the pressures and struggles of independent film-making.
Higurashi becomes the film’s hero in more ways than one, but he’s not alone on that front as Nao (Syuhama Harumi) moves from makeup artist to actor to ass-kicker in highly entertaining fashion. We see these two and others facing off against a zombie horde, and as tenacious as they are in that battle seeing their later fight against time, budget, mishaps, actor issues, and more makes them even more admirable and cheer-worthy. You’ll root for these people harder than you have for just about any other survivors of a zombie encounter.
One Cut for the Dead is something special, and film fans — both of zombie romps and of movies in general — will find much to appreciate here… especially if they make it past the low budget zombie attack.
One Cut of the Dead has a UK-based distributor in the excellent Third Window Films, but as of yet there are no plans for a North American release.
[Note: Our review originally ran during Fantasia 2018.]