Is there anything that has yet to be seen in the zombie film genre? You might think there isn’t, but One Cut of the Dead, which earned itself not only a standing ovation from the audience in Udine, but also missed winning the festival audience-favourite title by a handful of votes, landing on second place, is a case to point out otherwise.
It is unbelievable that the film, which received such an amazing response, is actually a workshop film by a first-time feature-director, albeit one of a steadfast reputation as a director of short films. Before One Cut of the Dead, Ueda Shinichiro made 12 shorts – and won 46 prizes at festivals in Japan and abroad. He joined the ENBU Seminar workshop and with its participants (several of whom were first-time actors!), he created a project that may be his debut feature, but is already making festival rounds at the global scale – and earning awards as it travels.
(SPOILERS AHEAD!) Right off the bat, the story jumps into an abandoned water filtration plant – the legend goes that military used it for human experimentation. With that scary vibe in place, we follow film director Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu) and his team in a single, 37-minute shot as they attempt to shoot a zombie flick… that goes terribly wrong when the crew gets attacked by real-life zombies. Instead of trying to survive, Higurashi goes crazy, ordering his crew to keep on shooting since he sees the situation as the real-deal filmmaking. The story reaches new comical/crazy heights as the lead actress Chinatsu (Yuzuki Akiyama) and actor Ko (Kazuaki Nagaya), along with the spirited makeup lady Nao (Harumi Syuhama), try to survive, being chased all over the place with the camera never shifting its focus and Higurashi popping up during the attacks screaming “Action!” – as one by one, the other crew members get attacked and zombiefied themselves.
After a fair share of laughter – mainly due to Nao and her “action” heroine skits with her catchword “Pom!” – and occasional yelps due to the gory parts, the first cut ends… And then, things skip from the audience feeling amused but with a hint of what-the-hell-are-we-watching to “this is brilliant” in about a nanosecond; we suddenly find ourselves a month in the past, learning that we just watched a single-cut live broadcast on a zombie-themed TV channel. The high-risk project of a single-cut zombie film got thrown into the lap of Higurashi, who is famous for doing his work “fast, cheap, but average”. In an effort to execute the project, he brings together a cast that will obviously turn out to be a headache already during the first script reading – and somehow, the satire takes on a new level when his retired actress wife Nao and daughter Mao (Mao) get involved in the production. Zombie horror comedy takes a witty, but critical turn into a TV-making comedy with elements of family dramedy… then turns around again and matches all of its elements in the third act as we witness the insane making-of of the first act, and it is even better from what one could imagine.
One Cut of the Dead is brilliant on all possible levels; the writing is solid, the comedy perfectly timed, with every slip from the beginning turning into a strength at the end. The force of the satire is strong, but it never ventures too far; it is always balanced out with slapstick comedy or mild character drama. The characters were created to suit the workshop members and as such, they were delivered with extra authenticity – and this film, even if Takayuki Hamatsu’s Higurashi is at its center, makes use of the entire cast in brilliant ways. With a cast almost entirely composed of amateurs, things could have gone incredibly wrong, but their united front can be felt on the screen – no matter how small the role, each of the characters is key to the plot-line working out the way it does… even if Harumi Shuhama especially pops (ok, poms) out with her zombie-fighting moves.
All in all, if there is one zombie film you want to watch this year… of if there is one Japanese/Asian/comedy/genre film you want to watch this year… make sure it’s One Cut of the Dead, because you won’t be sorry – even if you wake up the next day, feeling sore from laughter. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant!
Written by Sanja Struna
All photos © ENBU Seminar