Despite how much I love zombie movies I do have to admit that most within the subgenre have become increasingly stale. It’s hard to make a creative, refreshing zombie movie. The fact remains that the films of George A. Romero are so thoroughly conceived and executed that it’s practically impossible to make a zombie film that doesn’t in some way feel redundant. The last two zombie movies that really felt refreshing were Edgar Wright’s breakout hit Shaun of the Dead and the wild Japanese rock ‘n’ roll zombie movie Wild Zero starring the garage punk band Guitar Wolf. Once again, Japan has delivered one of the most invigorating zombie movies in years with the absolutely wild One Cut of the Dead. Even though One Cut of the Dead found overwhelming acclaim working the festival circuit, it took a while for the film from writer-director Shinichiro Ueda to find distribution in the United States. Thankfully, the film is getting a limited theatrical run (tickets available here as well as showing Tuesday, September 17th thanks to our friends at The Frida Cinema) before landing on the exemplary horror streaming service Shudder. This is not a movie to miss for zombie aficionados, nor, for that matter, film lovers of any kind.
The opening scene of One Cut of the Dead is a blistering 30-plus-minute single take of zombie insanity. While making a zombie movie in an abandoned factory on the outskirts of the city, low budget film director Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu) takes a tyrannical approach towards his cast. After more than 40 takes the demanding director aims to achieve perfection from his weary cast of Chinatsu (Yuzuki Akiyama) and Ko (Kazuaki Nagaya). Between rigorous takes, fellow cast member Nao (Harumi Shuhama) recounts the urban legends that surround the factory and how it was used for experiments to reanimate the dead during World War II. It’s shortly after that this unwitting cast starts to encounter the film’s crew turned into zombies, and the maniacal director refuses to cut as the mayhem transcends fiction and reality. He even boldly confesses that he caused this zombie outbreak as a means to fulfill his warped vision. Considering we’re in era where directors’ negligence for safety have led to serious injuries and even death, it’s a fitting riff on the horrible myth of the singularly driven auteur chasing his mad vision.
However, just as this sequence reaches its end – complete with cheap special effects that are hilariously inept – a twist awaits. I won’t dare give away what happens nearly halfway through the movie, but I can assure you that even the most seasoned horror lovers won’t see what’s coming. It is at this point that One Cut of the Dead becomes so much more than just a fun low-budget exercise in zombie fare. Instead it transforms into an unusual comedy about family and the collaborative nature of moviemaking, shattering the auteurist insanity that defined the first half. It’s one of the most clever twists I’ve ever encountered in a zombie film, and suddenly a movie that was very good became undeniably great.
When One Cut of the Dead switches gears, it becomes an entirely different movie and it’s unusual route gives you answers to some of the first half’s more bewildering aspects. Each explanation pays off in hilarious, unexpected ways. What’s most impressive about One Cut of the Dead is how it transitions from an interesting exercise in zombie filmmaking into a genuinely moving celebration of filmmaking and family, complete with a final shot that made me well with tears as the trials and tribulations culminate in a moment of collaboration leading to absolute triumph. That moment of triumph comes at a cost, a cost that isn’t exactly standard for a zombie movie.
Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly find something new in a zombie movie, One Cut of the Dead comes along and completely upends my expectations of the genre. It’s such a hilarious, lively, and thoughtful exercise in genre that it transcends genre. It’s not a great zombie movie. It’s a great movie, one funnier than expected and more emotionally resonant than thought conceivable. One Cut of the Dead is one of the best movies I’ve seen in 2019, a hilarious and rousing celebration of cinema and all the blood, sweat, and tears that go into making your favorite movie. I have never seen anything like One Cut of the Dead ever before.
One Cut of the Dead
A zombie movie unlike anything before, writer-director Shinichiro Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead defies expectations en route to becoming one of the funniest, most exhilarating, and surprisingly emotional genre films of recent memory.