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Cleveland International Film Festival: One Cut of the Dead

Shin’ichirô Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead is the funniest—and most endearing—zomcom I’ve seen in quite a while. Equal parts gory and sidesplitting, it’s a smart horror-comedy that plays with form and reminds us why we love zombies.

Okay, what you just read is the type of brief paragraph that I normally conclude with. That’s because I wanted to offer at least a concise assessment of the film before issuing this warning to the spoilerphobes: Continue at your own risk. Because there’s a reason why most descriptions of this film only mention the first half-hour.

One Cut of the Dead is comprised of three distinct acts. Each has a tone and kineticism that builds upon the last in order to toy with our expectations. The film boldly opens with a 30-minute hand-held long take that immediately introduces us to an axe-wielding woman named Chinatsu (Yuzuki Akiyama), who’s face to face with her newly undead boyfriend Ko (Kazuaki Nagaya), who craves a bite of her throat.

One Cut of the Dead

Chinatsu does not use the axe, however, nor does she flee. She just stands there… and screams. And rather insincerely to say the least. Off camera, a frantic Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu) shouts “cut!” and jumps into the scene to aggressively coach Chinatsu, an actor, like the zombie guy. We gather from the surrounding crew’s chatter that Higurashi, the maniac director of this film within the film, has shot forty-two painful takes of this scene. And to everyone’s relief, a thirty minute break is called. The two actors, the director, and the bare-bones crew—an AD, a sound guy, and a makeup artist—disperse to take a load off.

“For the bulk of this opening, things play out like a pretty standard low-budget zombie flick.”

While Nao (Harumi Shuhama) fixes the actors’ makeup, she reveals that their shooting location used to be a water filtration facility that, according to urban legend, the military converted into a makeshift hospital during World War II to experiment with bringing dead soldiers back to life. Meanwhile, the AD enjoys his break out in the sunshine, when a real zombie, who he mistakes for an actor, materializes as if on cue. And the schlocky bloodshed begins! Higurashi, delighted by the genuine violence, reemerges with his camera in hand to capture all the gnarly footage.

For the bulk of this opening, things play out like a pretty standard low-budget zombie flick. But midway through, a bit of runaway blood strikes the actual camera lens, and a hand belonging to someone unfamiliar promptly wipes it away, granting this mystery cinematographer some kind of agency.

One Cut of the Dead

Now, it had already been established that the opening scene with the fake boyfriend and girlfriend had been a movie within the movie. But now it would appear that the attack of the crew—what we thought was the real movie—is in fact… a movie within another movie? I’m not going to give away any more of act one except to confirm that, yes, the whole 30-minute opening is essentially one big and brilliant narrative device.

Act two jumps back one month in time. And the visual distinction is stark. While the first act had a low-res video quality to it, the second act is expensive HD. No more hand-held shots. And now there’s editing, too!

“One Cut of the Dead concludes on an incredibly hilarious—and unexpectedly heartwarming—note.”

Here we meet the real-life Higurashi, the same man as before, only now he’s much quieter and kinder. In this reality, he’s a competent though uninspiring television director. Known in the industry for completing projects fast and cheaply, he’s hired to helm a 30-minute zombie program to be broadcast on live television. The challenge the network presents to him is that it must be done in one continuous, uninterrupted take. No commercial breaks. No re-dos.

One Cut of the Dead

Higurashi accepts the job, and the rest of the middle section mainly focuses on his efforts to cast and rehearse the project presented to us earlier, aptly entitled “One Cut of the Dead.” We meet the crew and the actors out of character (so to speak) and watch them struggle to mount this highly anticipated television event.

The second act drags a bit in terms of the film’s overall excitement. But it’s entirely essential for setting up what’s to come in the final section of the film. Since it’s here that we learn character eccentricities—like irritable bowel syndrome and extreme method acting—that will undoubtedly lead to hijinks later on during shooting.

Because in act three, we have front row seats to how “One Cut of the Dead” got made. We revisit that opening epic one-take, only this time our perspective isn’t limited to what the camera sees. And everything that can go wrong absolutely does indeed. And it’s hysterical. One Cut of the Dead concludes on an incredibly hilarious—and unexpectedly heartwarming—note. And if it feels like I’ve given away too much, I assure you I haven’t. I left out a whole lot, believe me.

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