Viewers get three films for the price of one in “One Cut for the Dead,” a terrific Japanese horror-comedy that proves there’s somewhere the zombie apocalypse movie hasn’t yet gone. Writer-director-editor Shinichiro Ueda’s cleverly conceived and executed debut feature opens with an unbroken 37-minute shot of monster mayhem before hitting the reset button and turning into a funny satire of low-budget genre filmmaking — and eventually becoming a charming family comedy-drama. Packed with witty nods to classic horror movies, “One Cut” is a natural for genre fests and has such a warm and winning heart it could also fit into mainstream festival programs. A limited local release is planned for June 23.
Going virtually unnoticed in Japan since its late 2017 completion, “One Cut” announced itself in fine style as runner-up in the audience vote at Udine, one of Europe’s key gateway events for Asian popular cinema. The film’s crowd appeal can largely be attributed to its irresistibly bouncy spirit. Once Ueda flips the switch, it positively sparkles with the infectious “C’mon everyone, let’s put on a show!” enthusiasm that’s served the movies so well since the days of Andy Hardy.
Before the rewind-and-replay shenanigans commence, we’re in found-footage territory. A film crew is shooting a zombie schlocker in an abandoned water treatment plant that was supposedly used for “human reanimation experiments” by the Japanese army. Calling the shots is frazzled director Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu), who’s going ballistic at lead actress Chinatsu (Yuzuki Akiyama) for flubbing 42 takes of a scene in which she’s attacked by zombiefied boyfriend Ko (Kazuaki Nagaya).
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Soon after Higurashi storms off set and makeup lady Nao (Harumi Syuhama) steps in to comfort Chinatsu, all hell breaks loose with a real zombie outbreak. Thinking he’s hit the jackpot, a crazed Higurashi orders what’s left of his crew to keep shooting. “This is true filmmaking!” he screams. For viewers, that means 20 minutes of cheerfully gory and highly entertaining splatter action. The highlight is Nao’s transformation from mousey crew member to kick-ass zombie killer.
Forty minutes in, the story flashes back to one month earlier. What we’ve just seen is a live broadcast for a new zombie-dedicated television channel. Ueda’s sharply satirical script shows how Higurashi, a low-rent karaoke video-maker whose motto is, “I’m fast, cheap, but average,” landed the job and recruited a cast and crew of oddballs, drama queens, drunks and newcomers, including his moody teenage daughter, Mao (Mao).
While it could never match the fast and furious nature of what’s preceded it, this section still provides plenty of chuckles, and casts Higurashi in a new and much more sympathetic light, as he strives to achieve something spectacular in a career marked by mediocrity. Importantly, it’s also revealed that he’s married to Nao, an actress returning to the screen after abandoning her career many years earlier.
All these character details pay off handsomely, in a fabulous final segment showing how the live broadcast was pulled off. Thanks to Ueda’s meticulously mapped-out screenplay and split-second editing, the jokes are just as funny the second time around, often for delightfully different reasons.
“One Cut” captures all the craziness and exhilaration of movie-making on a minuscule budget. High-energy performances from a cast of little-knowns are perfectly tuned to the material. The outstanding technical package is a great example of how to create a Poverty Row look for what’s actually a very sophisticated filmmaking exercise.