One Cut of the Dead (Japan, 2017) [NYAFF 2018]

Zombie movies have long enjoyed cult status amongst moviegoers and cinephiles alike but also with filmmakers themselves, often serving as a launching board for successful careers. Think George A. Romero and Edgar Wright for example. Joining this pantheon of directorial talent will be Shinichiro Ueda. Wielding a shoestring budget and a cast of unknowns, One Cut of the Dead transcends convention with a bone-shatteringly funny splatter-fest with wickedly inspiring tricks up its sleeve. Given a huge platform for its North American premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival, both film and director are set to make their indelible mark on Western audiences for the greater good of the genre.

In an isolated military facility once used to conduct human experiments, a tightly wound director struggles to arouse the level of fear from his actors required for shooting a zombie flick. Storming off in a rage his actors and crew try to connect with one another whilst just beyond the confines of the building real zombies rise from the dead attacking the crew one by one. As they fight for their lives to escape their seemingly insane director insists the cameraman keep his equipment running and exploits the situation to complete his film.

Shot in one impressive singular take, the “film” takes a distinct low-budget behind-the-scenes aesthetic grounded in gritty B-movie realism. Its gleefully grainy exterior amplifies the awkward reality the crew find themselves in as, after director Higurashi’s fiery temper raises its ugly head following an unsuccessful forty-second take, they take a deserved breather. Our fly-on-the-wall enabler lingers on the two leads and MU artist Nao into uncomfortably funny silences until, just as everything feels painfully constructed, a real zombie is seen attacking the cinematographer. Finally descending into the sort of schlocky cheese we’ve come to expect from the best the undead genre has to offer, the flight-or-fight responses reveals the utter lunacy of their situation with astounding comic brilliance.

Like some unhinged maniac Higurashi seizes this real fear to fuel his project after knowingly inciting some ritual linked to the building’s sinister past. Hacking their way through the risen dead we watch with sheer joy as the MU artist turn on everyone else; unadulterated grins take over our faces as all the campy horror goodness unfolds before our very eyes. Gonzo framing, cheap gore, over-the-top acting and axe-wielding hysteria all boil over into a blood-soaked finale. But with credits rolling just forty minutes into the film as our sole survivor blankly stares into our trusty lens it becomes clear something far more sinister is afoot: Our coverage is nothing more than TV entertainment!

As part of a plot by a TV producer to raise an all-zombie channel into the televisual zeitgeist, One Cut of the Dead is in fact the inaugural show broadcast live on air. What follows is the tumultuous build-up of the shooting from the hiring of a “fast, cheap, and average” director to disastrous script-readings and quick recovery decisions resulting in the riotous laugh-out-loud product we gawked out just moments before. The cast of this film-within-a-film feature wild caricatures of staples of acting talent in Japan including youthful heartthrobs, drunks, and agency-dictated talent whose egos threaten the entire production and ride the director and production team into submitting to their every whim. When shooting day arrives, it is in Higurashi’s newfound ingenuity and the tenacity of his wife Nao (who takes up the role of the MU artist) and daughter which save the broadcast from disaster, unravelled in a second behind-the-scenes sequence which proves equally as hilarious as the first.

What could have proved to be a tragic impaling through the film’s heart actually does it the world of good. Focusing on the trials and tribulations which had befallen the production brings to mind not just infamous stories surrounding the making-of Evil Dead and The Omen but also a wrist-straining remark made in The Simpsons episode “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show”; watching the tireless efforts of the film crew pulling off the impossible cements the jokes from the actual show whilst simultaneously adding an uproarious appreciation to under-budgeted film and TV production. But where the film truly shines is in its blurring of fiction and reality – of script and improvisation – on multiple levels at once, keeping the audience guessing and double-guessing throughout; Ueda pulls this off effortlessly without his meticulously-crafted script being skewed and lost in the process.

Two films for the price of one, the meta-humour coursing through One Cut’s veins is as much a love-letter to low-budget zombie movies as it is to low-budget indie filmmaking as a whole. Ueda’s cast of film graduates handles his smart and satirical re-examination of the undead with equal intelligence and delightfully tongue-in-cheek performances, making the most of their situation just as much as Higurashi, both with outrageously funny results. Its DIY approach breathes new life into a genre long staled by cliché and tedium by playfully flipping everything on its head and exposing the rough innards of the cinematic craft for all to see.

One Cut of the Dead is showing on July 13 at the New York Asian Film Festival.