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One Cut of the Dead

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/08/18 00:18:21

"A terrific showbiz comedy hiding behind a terrible horror movie."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: It's not unusual to have a conversation about a television show and have someone say that the first year isn't very good, but if you hang in there for something like fifteen hours, it starts to get good, but also occasionally have the same people say that they turned a movie off ten minutes in. "One Cut of the Dead" is an odd movie because is more or less counts on at least part of the audience cutting it the same slack they would a serial whose early segments aren't actually that good. A risky play, but one that is eventually rewarded.

It opens in fairly conventional manner, in some sort of abandoned factory setting with a zombie attacking his girlfriend - a scene ruined by the boom operator (Hiroshi Ichibara) being caught in the shot, but by actor Kazuki Kamiya (Kazuki Nagaya) apparently not not committing fully to his part as the zombie, for which director Takayuki Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu) excoriates him after yelling cut. But the camera keeps rolling, capturing makeup artist Nao (Harumi Syuhama) telling Kazuki and co-star Aika Matsumoto (Yuzuki Akiyama) that the director is just high-strung, and there are actually legends about the place where they are shooting - legends which appear to be all too true, which means Higurashi will have a heck of a one-shot zombie movie, at least if anybody survives the shooting.

How much a viewer likes cheap, cheesy zombie movies is an important factor in how much they will enjoy One Cut of the Dead, because while that description above is not the entirety of what the movie has to offer, it is a long unbroken stretch where filmmaker Shinichiro Ueda is not spoofing sub-streaming zombie movies or presenting it with any sort of irony or wink at the audience - it is effectively what it appears to be, with the long-take gimmick feeling like an overreach. Some folks go for that, and they'll probably dig that first half-hour or so on its own merits, but if that's not your thing, it is a lot of pretty awful set-up to get to a hilarious last act - you have to dig through three layers of bad to get to the good stuff, and that good stuff doesn't really work without the bad. Throw some bland flashback material in, and It is a slog for nearly an hour to get to 30 minutes of good material.

But... It is a genuinely great last act. Ueda has maybe not played things completely straight up until then, but he's done a fair enough job of not tipping his hand that when he drops the first big comedic payoff by revisiting what looked like the film's first big twist, it's explosive and gets the same reaction from the audience, and from there he's able to do something brilliant: The film stops being about "which of these characters will survive?" versus "how do they get out of this corner?", and it's in many ways a more satisfying form of suspense, especially with a ticking clock and more benefit to ingenuity than ruthlessness. It's fast-paced, frantic, pays a bunch of other stuff off in rapid-fire fashion before spitting out something else funny, and turning a dumb zombie flick into an upbeat family story. It's a heck of a good finish.

The twisting of who has the best and most important parts works to the film's advantage, too - Kazuki Nagaya, Yuzuki Akiyama, and Harumi Syuhama are amiable enough as we see them in the beginning, but the younger actors are mostly placeholders until things get changed up, while Syuhama gets to add a couple of layers to her comic performance, as does Takayuki Hamatsu, whose seemingly-insane director gets to add layers to his performance when the audience understands how much he would like to escape being seen as the most blandly useful sort of professional (reliably fast, cheap, and average). The film gets a nice little jolt midway through when Mao joins as the director's daughter.

It's funny that the director character laments being average, because his film is never once that; it's a roller-coaster from dreadful to terrific. So how do you rate it - on how you feel coming out of it or how you feel for the majority of the running time? I say it's a fine showbiz comedy hidden behind a pretty bad horror movie, but I can do that because I saw it in a crowded theater from which I couldn't easily consider escape, and I might not have had the patience to get to the payoff were I watching it at home, and that's something the folks eventually discovering it online are going to need to be aware of.

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