One Cut of the Dead
Roger Ebert once famously said, “It's not what a movie is about, it's how it is about it.” It’s an idea that I ascribe to when talking about movies, particularly when discussing spoilers.
Sure, there’s a joy in experiencing a movie without knowing anything going into it, but sometimes it becomes difficult to review something without talking about the “what” it is about.
As such, I’m going to do the rare thing and put a big caveat on the review. I’m going to talk about a specific moment about 35 minutes into the film. I personally don’t think it’s a big deal, but we’re in such a spoiler adverse culture right now that, instead of getting hate mail, I’ll just say:
Thar Be One Specific Spoiler Here
In 1982, a play called Noises Off opened to tremendous acclaim in London. I personally won’t know it exists until the late 90s, when a theatre friend introduced me to the kind-of-maligned movie version (which starred comedic stalwarts Michael Caine and Carol Burnett, among others). And while critics called it an imperfect facsimile of the stage production, I was entranced.
A play within a play, the story follows a theatre troupes’ performance of a sex farce called Nothing On. The first act of Noises Off is the technical rehearsal of the play. The second act is a performance of the same play, but from the perspective of the backstage. The humor comes from the viewer knowing how the play is supposed to be performed, but seeing the actors as they struggle with alcohol, rivalries, lovers’ tiffs and the deteriorating relationships between the cast. It was inventive and funny, partly due to the dramatic irony the audience brings to it.
One Cut of the Dead operates on the same principle.
It begins in an abandoned Japanese water filtration plant, where Ko (Nagaya Kazuaki), recently zombified (in the early Romero, low budget way), lumbers toward his former girlfriend Chinatsu (Akiyama Yuzuki). Chinatsu just doesn’t seem scared or traumatized enough and when Ko takes a bite into her neck, she seems to sigh in orgiastic delight.
“CUT!!” shouts the director, Higurashi (Hamatsu Takayuki), as he storms into view and unloads on Chinatsu. Higurashi seems a little too angry and has to be pulled off the cast mates. Meanwhile, in the background, Nao (Syuhama Harumi), the casts’ makeup artist, complains to the viewer and anyone who will listen that this is the 42nd take.
After they cut, the camera follows Nao, Chinatsu and Ko as they relax between takes and talk about the mysterious legends surrounding the filtration plant they are filming at. They mistake a real zombie as one of the cast and bloody mayhem ensues, all captured by a long, one-take camera shot that stays with them for the entirety of the story. But something seems a little off. Awkward pauses. Characters appear out of nowhere and look as confused as we are. At one point, the camera is splattered with blood and a hand appears to wipe it off. Who is operating the camera? Who are we following? And what is really going on?
Then the credits run and the title of the movie is finally plastered on the screen.
After the credits, the tracking shot structure disappears and we’re reintroduced to Higurashi, who has just wrapped production on some kind of drama. The producers, happy with his work, tap him to shoot a one-take zombie mini feature for a newly launching zombie TV channel. The cast has already been provided. They just need a director who is able to shoot quickly and cheaply. It doesn’t have to be good. It just has to exist. Oh, and it has to be filmed live.
Turns out, the first 37 minutes was the mini movie Higurashi has been hired to film. And much like Noises Off, the rest of the movie recounts the filming of what we just watched. This is where the humor really shines, as you see Higurashi fight with his unruly cast. You have Ko, the heartthrob of the moment, who wants to be taken seriously and interjects himself in the writing process. The pop starlet Chinatsu, who has so many caveats in her contract, like she can’t be filmed vomiting, that require rewrites. A cameraman who struggles with alcoholism.
And this is where the beauty of writer and director Shin'ichirô Ueda’s ingenious structure of setup and payoff truly shines. Small moments of the relatively unfunny but incredibly energetic opening mini-movie become huge laughs, as you see both the “how” it was pulled off but also the why. The awkward pauses and surprise appearances suddenly make hilarious sense. Both sections operate at a breakneck pace, but when we hit the actual filming, it truly becomes a laugh a moment.
Ueda utilizes a cast of newcomers, who attack the work with gleeful abandon. In particular, Syuhama has a magnetic screen chemistry as Nao. Seeing her journey, both inside the mini-movie and out, was a delight and provided some of the strongest character beats. But watching Hamatsu’s descent into zealous madness, as he fights with his cast and the constant technical hiccups is a complete joy.
One Cut of the Dead embraces the chaos of DIY genre filmmaking in such an infectious way so that even when you’re not laughing (and, if you’re like me, you will be laughing), you’ll still have a smile plastered on your face. What’s an even bigger laugh is that, as the credits run, you see how the makers of the movie went about actually…well, making the movie. It’s entertainingly meta; a movie within a movie that had to be filmed by a third crew. I found myself shaking my head in appreciative disbelief that they managed to pull this off.
This is the spirit of indie filmmaking. The joys. The failures. The need to push on, even as everything seems poised to collapse. And the ultimate triumph when everything somehow comes together, however faultily. I loved this movie and I think it’ll only get better with multiple viewings.