Rarely does a film arrive in UK cinemas with a built-in cult following behind it such as Shin’ichirô Ueda’s Japanese zombie horror One Cut of the Dead! (aka Kamera o tomeru na!). A delicate balance has to be struck between “loyal fans supporting a film no one has heard of” and “hype machine that is going to oversell a movie”. But when everyone that sees a film describes it as the next Shaun of the Dead, you have to take notice.
While filming a low budget zombie movie in a remote Japanese World War II facility, things aren’t gong as well as could be hoped. Cast and crew have no chemistry, the director is a crazed hack and, oh yeah, there’s actual zombies outside trying to get in. As these things often do, the situation goes from bad to worse as the undead numbers are soon higher than non-zombie people and escape attempts get progressively less successful.
But then the curtain lifts and the camera rewinds a month to the preparation for a live one-cut zombie movie broadcast. Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu), a film director, trying to prove he can be more than just average, a cast of misfits that don’t seem to be able to get on or do as they are instructed and an interfering family make for a melting pot of disasters waiting to happen.
Living firmly in a sub-genre that is in desperate need of reinventing and reinvigoration, One Cut of the Dead! isn’t just unique in its premise of a mockumentary style zombie film; it is a film with several, much deeper meanings if you care to look for them.
First, we have a quirky little zombie flick that is laugh-out-loud funny for the most part. Laughs are paced very well as a rolling giggle in the opening 30 minute cut-free scene gradually becomes tear-shedding belly laughs as the film unfolds into the behind-the-scenes insanity. There is a slight lull – not just in the humour, but the film as a whole – during the second act. As the premise is explained to the audience and the foundation for past and upcoming jokes is laid, One Cut of the Dead! loses its stride ever so slightly in the scripting. This quieter, laughter-short section could have done with a cheeky and ironic edit or two to tweak it a little. It is, however, a slight sag in an otherwise exceptional and wholly original horror comedy that takes you on a brisk 97 minute ride that leaves willing participants more than satisfied.
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It doesn’t take a lot of digging through to find an equally special family drama; one that delves into the story of an almost estranged family living together, but not living together anymore and how it can take a series of ludicrous events to bring them together again.
Also not particularly well hidden is the reason Ueda’s film did so well on the festival circuit, where it seemed to find its groove. That reason is the hour and a half lesson in just how tough it can be to put together a film on no budget. Higurashi isn’t just the guy calling the shots, he’s the hero keeping the production together through thick, thin, blood, vomit, everything. The money men pretend to care for the production but hamstring everyone, only to be saved by the producers and cast. It’s a masterclass in what really goes on behind the scenes on a micro-budget horror film; and it knows just how ironic it is to do it, too.
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At first glance, One Cut of the Dead! is one of those super-cheap independent films with a very limited audience. The kind of film that needs support from everyone and anyone. You wouldn’t be completely wrong in that assumption. It’s a film with an already splendid history having made more than 1000x its original $25,000 budget after first appearing on just a couple of screens in Japan with no marketing whatsoever. It hit the festivals and did gangbusters.
One Cut of the Dead! has become something of a critical darling with (at time of writing) a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Even managing to sell out multiple screens across the country after a less-than-reputable person uploaded a stolen copy with allegedly offensively inaccurate subtitles to both US and UK Amazon Prime Video Services. It also doesn’t feel like one that you have to love zombies or horrors to get something out of. The comedy – much like those comparisons to Shaun of the Dead – is universal.
Comparable more to Pontypool than a certain Edgar Wright zombie comedy, One Cut of the Dead! is a near perfect horror comedy that deserves every single dollar it makes and thoroughly deserves your support. It is worth hunting out and seeing with a crowd.
One Cut of the Dead! is out now on limited theatrical release in the UK and out on Blu-Ray, DVD and VoD on 28 January.