You know how it is – you turn up to make a low budget zombie movie in a disused water filtration plant apparently once used by the military for dodgy human experimentation and a load of real zombies suddenly turn up to join the fun. Then again, at least zombies don’t have over protective managers hovering on the sidelines or require catering services so in some ways they are the perfect extras. The debut feature from Shinichiro Ueda, One Cut of the Dead (カメラを止めるな！, Camera wo Tomeru na!) is a clever bait and switch, opening with a frenetic low budget zombie chase sequence before cutting to behind the scenes where just about everything is going hilariously wrong.
As the film opens, an actress is in the middle of the 42nd take of a scene in which she is attacked by her zombified boyfriend when the director yells “cut” and begins berating her for her non-existent acting skills before storming off in a huff. The actress, the boyfriend, and the makeup artist whose many hobbies include women’s self defence are enjoying a cup of coffee when a bunch of real zombies suddenly show up with murderous intent. All shot in one cut, the 40 minute chase sequence is a celebration of all things zombie with appendages flying off with gay abandon as blood soaks the screen and our plucky heroine ends up somehow in the middle of a pentagram painted on a rooftop.
Viewers who aren’t paying attention and attempt to leave after “credits” roll will be doing themselves a huge disservice – this high impact opening has been something of a ruse to take us into the real meat of the drama in the zany backstage antics in which just about everything is going just about as wrong as it could possibly go. It turns out “One Cut of the Dead” is a one camera one cut TV special made to launch a brand new zombie channel. Our director, Higurashi, who played “The Director” in One Cut, has found himself at the helm because no one else would take on such an outrageous proposal and, unlike his onscreen counterpart, is too kind and mild mannered to say no.
Higurashi’s career has perhaps become zombified in itself. The producers have chosen him for his ironic slogan – “Fast, cheap, but…average”, and he’s made his way in the minor TV film biz by keeping his head down and just getting on with the job even when it’s as “inconsequential” as a reconstruction sequence for cheesy TV news item. The chance to direct a drama is then an exciting one even if it’s for an equally cheesy TV horror show with a gimmick that’s doomed to fail.
Thus he finds himself on set with a pair of idols – she constantly worrying about what her agency will say to the various problems presented by being in a zombie movie, and he constantly rude and arrogant. Meanwhile, a previous acquaintance of Higurashi’s set to play the cameraman has a serious drink problem, the actor playing the boom operator has a series of digestive issues, and the woman playing the makeup artist is in a car accident with the man playing the director just a couple of hours before the camera rolls. Improvising wildly and making fantastic use of a set of cue cards, Higurashi manages to keep it all together despite the ensuing chaos.
The real genius of the film lies in the cleverness of the original bait and switch. The aesthetic of the zombie sequence is pure low budget horror with noticeably low grade camera quality and deliberately iffy special effects. On the first pass through there are several moments that look like shoddy direction – Higurashi talks to the cameraman who isn’t supposed to be there, the three actors witter on about nothing, the actress continues screaming for way too long etc but each of these mini moments loops back perfectly into the second half farce in which the crew is desperately trying to overcome several obstacles at once and keep the camera rolling to get through the 30-minute live broadcast without anyone noticing.
In the background, Higurashi is also facing some minor family drama with his grown up daughter who wants to direct but needs to work on her people skills. Her keen eye for detail and youthful ingenuity eventually helps the crew figure out a way to keep going, but in the end it’s teamwork that sees them through as they learn to overcome their differences and work together to get what they need. Hilarious, self aware, and filled with homages to classic horror, One Cut of the Dead is an oddly warmhearted comedy in which the zombies are the least of anyone’s worries.
Original trailer (English subtitles)