Patience, they say, is a virtue and for those who can take the time to do things right, great gifts are due to come. Never has this advice been more relevant and important that when settling down and watching low budget, Japanese, indie sensation One Cut Of The Dead, a movie that comes pre-packaged as visually innovative zombie flick but instead blossoms into something a whole lot more.
Of course, for movies like this, the less you know going in proves to yield the best results so be warned: if you haven’t had a chance to experience its wonders yet, for the love of God, stop reading and hunt down a copy, pronto, because the only way to review this film is to give up its truly joyful secrets that goes far beyond blank faced zombies and shrieking starlets and instead burrows right to the heart of low budget filmmaking itself to ultimately give you something that’s hugely funny, wickedly smart and genuinely heartwarming.
The crew of a no-budget zombie film named True Fear are shooting on location in an abandoned water filtration plant and find themselves under the thumb of their frustrated director, Higurashi, who demands real emotions from his cast and has gone to extreme lengths to secure it. Much to lead actress Chinatsu, actor Ko and makeup artist Nao’s horror, they discover that Higurashi has decided to actually raise the dead thanks to a pentagram scrawled in blood on the roof. As the crew become flesh craving zombies, Higurashi runs around filming the carnage while screaming deranged directions as he goes and the remaining crew battle for survival against the living dead, some strange blocking and some questionable plotting until only one is left alive. Roll credits.
Rolling back time to a month previous, we learn a few amusing secrets. For example, the decidedly iffy production we just watched was actually just a movie that director Takayuki Higurashi has just been hired to make, however there’s two catches: one is that the film with have to be shot in entirely one take and the other is that it’ll be a live broadcast, something that rightfully makes the humble filmmaker panic but his supportive wife and cinephile daughter convince him to go for it.
Cast and crew are hired, but as the filming day arrives, some issues arise with the lead actor needing constant motivation, while another has a secret drinking problem, but matters get even more stressful when the actors playing the director and the make up artist are injured on the way to set forcing Takayuki and his wife Harumi to take the roles themselves. Thus we run through the entire movie again but this time from behind the scenes as an endless parade of farcical happenings force the entire crew to think on their feet to thwart such disasters as freak injuries, on-the-spot rewrites and a particularly nasty case of diarrhoea in order to get to the end.
I genuinely had no idea of the nature of the twist when watching One Cut Of The Dead (something of a minor miracle in this day and age) but the movie admirably has the balls and confidence to make you earn its deliriously sweet payoff. A movie of three parts, the first ingeniously plays up to expectations by making you believe that you’re actually watching an ambitious but ultimately trashy zombie flick that contains a strange number of bizarre gaffes and timing issues that make you wonder what all the fuss is all about. It’s not that the film is bad, I mean, it is, but actual writer/director Shin’ichrõ Ueda is cheekily lulling you into a false sense of familiarity as the awkwardly staged gore and ludicrously long shot of people screaming makes you drop your guard.
And then the film ends on a shakey crane shot and is held as the credit roll and immediately we realise that we may have been magnificently had as the time jump reveals that we’re not watching a cheap zombie film after all but in fact we’re watching the making of a cheap zombie as amiable filmmaker Takayuki and his loving family prepare to take on a potentially disastrous project.
While the first third is a bizarre fake out, the second gets to work building the characters, exposing their quirks and idiosyncrasies. Takayuki Hamatsu brings a sense of the everyman to a director who shares a love of the nature of film with his willful daughter, Mao and his hobbies obsessed wife and their supportive unit is what makes the movie’s heart beat so strong. It doesn’t matter what movies they make as long as their making movies and the often infuriating nuts and bolts of filmmaking is sent up beautifully as the movie drip feeds the various mines that will got off when filming finally commences.
If I’m being truely honest, while i was intrigued by the complete 180 the plot had taken, even by this stage I was still wondering exactly why One Shot Of The Dead got so much vehement praise, but as we finally head into the closing act, all becomes clear as we get another run through of the opening zombie film, but this time from the point of view from the actual crew as all the weird acting, unexplained pauses and bizarre moments all finally start to make sense as the film finally lives up to its promise and becomes utterly hilarious.
The belated punchlines come thick and fast. One of the actors is utterly blotto before action is called means the frantic Takayuki has to physically puppet his lifeless form to get anything remotely close to a working performance. Takayuki, now in the film, gets carried away in the very first scene, actually striking his self-important star as his frustrations bubble to the surface. The cameraman is laid out mid filming leaving a terrified assistant to take over and an actor waylaid by a seriously bad case of the shits causes the entire plot to be re-thought on the fly by the resilient Mao. However, arguably the best running joke is that of devoted wife, Harumi who, when cast, turns out to have rather a disconcerting habit of taking her role way too seriously and who starts inflicting some genuine pain on the hapless zombie actors.
Every joke requires an adequate set-up to make its punchline zing and One Cut Of The Dead does this with aplomb, rewarding patient viewers with a story that pulsates with genuine and unabashed love for the grind, innovation and bedlam that often comes with low budget filmmaker.
If the final shot of the crew, enraptured by finally pulling off the final shot and the collapsing in a heap doesn’t fill you with a warm glow, check your pulse – you may be dead yourself.