One of my favorite things about low-budget filmmaking is that when you see the strings, when you feel the quirks and inconsistencies that haven’t been edited, re-shot, or focus-grouped away you get to see the people within the movie. You see them as folks just trying to bring their ideas to life. It might not be perfect–hell, it might not even be good–but there is something special about it. There’s a reward to it, a sort of bond between you and the people who made the movie that you don’t feel anywhere else. One Cut of the Dead takes that idea and runs with it, transforming that feeling into a charming and very meta love-letter to this kind of filmmaking.
One Cut of the Dead
Director: Shinichiro Ueda
Release Date: September 13, 2019 (Limited)
Our film begins as a straightforward zombie horror of the exact type mentioned above. It’s poorly filmed, oddly performed, and absolutely getting by on energy alone. The conceit here is that the film is shot in a single take on a clearly hand-held camera. This leaves our sole shot as a raggedly shaking, cheesily zooming eye that’s prone to stumble, fall, and follow a butt for like two solid minutes. It’s far from high art, but it has a carefree appeal.
The story follows a group filming a zombie movie, but the actress can’t seem to find the genuine fear her raging director demands. Luckily for them, actual zombies arrive to attack the set, and suddenly the director is whipping the ravenous undead at his cast and crew while demanding “Action!”
The script is loose, parts feeling improvised, peppered with long-takes of actors chit-chatting (not to mention one unending reaction shot) to cover up technical flubs. It’s cute and endearing, bloody and goofy at once. It won’t change your life, but it’s worth your time.
It’s also only the first thirty-something minutes of a feature-length film.
What follows is a twist that (BIG WARNING) I will spoil. I do this, because I don’t believe knowing the twist hampers any enjoyment of the film. What makes One Cut of the Dead so effective is its detail work. This is the kind of twist that intricately changes everything about the film and enriches multiple viewings. This is good news, because twists are awful devices that have left flaming wrecks of more films than they’ve helped. The real joy here isn’t in the twist itself, but how that twist ties into the first half hour. And that’s something you can only see for yourself.
So, here comes the spoiler: After the first set of credits roll, the screen fades to white, and we see our director one month earlier. He’s given the opportunity to direct a TV zombie movie–with a twist. It will all be done in a single take. Here, our meta-plot opens to reveal that our film was nothing more than a film within a film. The rest of One Cut of the Dead is about making One Cut of the Dead.
Movies about making movies come off to me by and large as cheap cop-outs, not to mention that One Cut of the Dead also wants to be a heart-felt comedy about a director connecting with his family to bring a shenanigan-filled project to life. This has all the hallmarks of a film I’d watch in stone-faced, arms-crossed agitation certain to spend the next hour miserable. And for about twenty minutes, I did. But then something magical happened.
This movie charmed the shit right out of me.
As the director, his wife, and his daughter all work to overcome technical gaffes, a drunk actor, and one sound man with a testy bowel, it shines a light on every eccentricity of the opening act, some you’re likely to shrug off or not even consider the first time around. You’re brought into the fold as they lash the film together. You become part of the process, and you feel triumphant when it’s complete. There’s a joy in seeing the film finished no matter its faults or blemishes, and to watch the film within a film again is to see the characters you’ve bonded with rather than just another bloody zombie movie.
One Cut of the Dead overflows with passion and serves as a sterling reminder that at the end of the day the most important parts of a movie are the people who make it. Its twist can be a bit deflating at first, but if you stick with it you’ll be rewarded with a film that gushes plenty of blood from its big ol’ heart.