Director: Shinichiro Ueda
Writer: Shinichiro Ueda
Producer: Koji Ichihashi
Stars: Takayuki Hamatsu, Yuzuki Akiyama, Kazuaki Nagaya, Harumi Shuhama, Manabu Hosoi, Hiroshi Ichihara, Shuntaro Yamazaki, Shinichiro Osawa, Yoshiko Takehara
Chaos consumes the set of a low-budget horror movie when real zombies begin attacking the cast and crew.
For many months, the dominant narrative surrounding “One Cut of the Dead” concerned its status as a fan favorite on the festival circuit. The microbudget movie had already made a box office splash in its native Japan. Then the international attention brought by enthusiastic screenings and audience awards out of Udine, Fantasia, and Fantastic Fest landed the fun fright flick a top spot on many future viewers’ lists of “must see” movies.
The buzz took an unexpected turn in late December 2018. That’s when “One Cut of the Dead” suspiciously appeared without any trumpeting whatsoever on Amazon’s streaming video service. Christmas wishes were being granted a few days late. The hotly anticipated title could finally be seen stateside, barely a week before its UK theatrical debut, through unexpectedly legal means. Or so it seemed.
It turned out that the version uploaded to Amazon was in fact a bootleg put there by someone presumably unassociated with the film. Many people, myself among them, never knew such a thing was possible. Apparently, Amazon streaming operates like an unregulated wild west, going a long way toward explaining how so much DTV dreck ends up on their service, even five-minute backyard movies by amateur nobodies charging $5.99 per rental.
Third Window Films, the actual rights holder and distributor for several territories, succeeded in having the unauthorized release pulled. By then, damage was done. Word had already gone out in social media circles that “One Cut of the Dead” was available, and fans flocked to feast eager eyeballs on the film.
It’s impossible to quantify how much the leak potentially hurt the movie’s market value. Some argue it’s no worse than any other circumstance of piracy, pointing out that “One Cut of the Dead” had already popped up on popular torrent sites several weeks earlier anyway.
I’d instead shift the conversation to suggest that this new asterisk regarding the movie’s release history might not be bad for how “One Cut of the Dead” is remembered historically. Maybe it results in an overhaul of Amazon Video oversight. Maybe it doesn’t. At least it kickstarts an apparently necessary discussion going forward.
In the meantime, with the focus fallen off how incredibly entertaining “One Cut of the Dead” supposedly was, discerning viewers may now see the movie with some sympathy instead of unfettered fervor for a film that doesn’t fully fill its hype. Because while it ends up showing a laudable amount of passion, “One Cut of the Dead” isn’t as entirely inventive as expectations might anticipate for a supposed subgenre savior.
Since it’s a horror-comedy featuring zombies, “One Cut of the Dead” garners a lot of comparisons to “Shaun of the Dead.” Really though, it shares more in common with the horror-comedy “I Survived a Zombie Holocaust” (review here), where an undead outbreak plagues the set of a low-budget horror film. In “One Cut of the Dead,” well, an undead outbreak plagues the set of a low-budget horror film. Or so it seems.
“One Cut of the Dead” takes its title literally, as the first third of the film features one uninterrupted take. Unfortunately, the film plays pretty poorly over this portion.
The premise puts a hack horror director on location with two underwhelming actors and a four-person crew. The abandoned water treatment facility where they’re shooting was once the site of Japanese military experiments to resurrect the dead. The director knows this. He’s using that fact to fire up his flick with a heap of undead authenticity.
I’m usually fascinated by the logistics and execution of “one take” shots. Here however, the technique acts as a limp gimmick. Riddled with sloppy handheld camerawork and only utilizing natural light, this whole half-hour seems tossed together with slapdash happenstance as opposed to carefully blocked choreography.
The film at least cleverly hides its special effect sources. Except it does so in a way that breaks the immersive illusion. The camera conspicuously keeps points of impact hidden out of frame when it should realistically cram the lens right up into the bloody action. Top off the cheap look with zombie “acting” featuring performers just scrunching their painted faces while “rahr!”-ing in the most Daffy Duck manner possible, and you’ve got the makings of a horribly homemade movie.
Then the movie pulls a switcheroo as out of nowhere as a sudden online upload. What I thought I was watching for 30 minutes turned out to be not quite the interminable trash I thought it was. Or rather, it still was, but everything I hated was revealed to have been intentional all along.
Without risking too much of a spoiler, “One Cut of the Dead” progresses to a flashback that fleshes the first act with backstory. Oddly, several other reviews whose pull quotes I’ve perused have labeled this midsection as sluggish. In actuality, this is where “One Cut of the Dead” finally struts its creative stuff to become interesting as a character-driven story.
The boringly boilerplate first act basically serves to set up, in tandem with this exposition-laden second act, the opposite end of the movie. Eventually we get to a meta layer where we go through the first half-hour a second time, but from a freshened perspective. It’s a long way to go for the gags to get so much better, too long for “One Cut of the Dead” to be anything close to start-to-finish satisfying. If you can stick it out though, the film’s infectious buoyancy pulls some late tricks out of its sleeve that you’d never suspect it has hidden up there.
Initial smoke and mirrors of awful production value blinded me like writer/director Shinichiro Ueda probably intended. The problem is that I became disengaged by the overlong distraction, requiring a redirect to finally get onboard with the vibe. In the end, the movie had more heartfelt humor and hijinx in store than I’d fooled myself into assuming. I just wish there was something more than pure stage-setting to the first 60 minutes so that “One Cut of the Dead” didn’t take forever to win me over with some surprisingly sweet charm.
NOTE: The film’s Japanese title is “Kamera o tomeru na!”
Review Score: 65