With ONE CUT OF THE DEAD playing at the What The ..? Fest I'm reposting both of the reviews we ran when it played at the New York Asian Film FEstival last year. The first by Nate Hood. The second by Joe Bendel
The first thirty minutes are presented as a found footage movie about a film crew shooting a cheesy zombie film at an abandoned factory when—surprise!—real zombies attack. Filmed in one long take with a handheld camera, it’s awkwardly paced, irregularly acted, and most crucially, not scary. The whole things reeks of unintentional camp, from a middle-aged make-up artist demonstrating women’s self-defense techniques straight out of Diedrich Bader’s karate class in Napoleon Dynamite to a twist revealing the director went insane a long time ago and deliberately led the film crew to the zombie-infested site so he could film their “real fear.” (This director is responsible for the single genuinely entertaining part of the documentary when he suddenly reappears after seemingly being bludgeoned to death, throwing open one of the side doors of the car the surviving actors are trying to escape in, pushing a zombie into it, and maniacally screaming “Action!”) It finally ends with an amateurish climax where the Last Girl—an actress who’d been berated by the insane director for blowing takes with her mediocre acting skills—confronts her freshly zombified co-star and behind-the-scenes love interest with an axe. She raises it, begs him to come around, steels herself, and pauses as if she forgot her line or that she’s on a roof being attacked by a zombie. She raises it a second time. Again she chokes. A third time, and she finally manages to chop his head off. With the zombies defeated, the camera pulls back into the sky for a bird’s-eye view revealing she’s standing in a giant pentagram of blood. And then the film abruptly jumps a month into the past where we watch the producers, director, film crew, and cast get together to plan the fateful zombie shoot we just watched.
I refuse to spoil what happens next, but please believe me when I say that it’s nothing you might expect. One Cut of the Dead represents everything great about the New York Asian Film Festival: a celebration of bold new talents, unexpected genre mashing, and audacious filmmaking that leaves your mouth on the floor.
Higurashi is a bullying director a thousand times worse than Peter O’Toole in The Stunt Man. He has so little regard for cast and crew safety, he awakens the zombie curse hanging over their remote location, an abandoned industrial site, where the Japanese military reportedly staged sinister occult experiments during WWII. As crew-members turn into feral zombies, Higurashi finally gets the realistic performances he wants from his terrified thesps.
However, there is much more going on outside the camera’s field of vision. In a complete change of tone, the film goes from a Night of the Living Dead rip-off to a worthy successor to Noises Off. It is hard to explain out of context, but Ueda’s editing is absolutely masterful. You just need to see it for yourself.
One of the many cool things about Cut is how completely Ueda and his cast commit to each phase of the film. The second and third acts are so wickedly clever, precisely because we were with the cast-members when they were running for their lives during the opening set-up.
Takayuki Hamatsu could possibly give the performance of the year as Higurashi. He certainly shows phenomenal range. Yet, Harumi Syuhama arguably eclipses his lunacy as Nao, the makeup artist who turns into a berserk killing machine and also acts pretty nuts in the third act as well. Mao develops some smart but endearing chemistry with them both as her namesake, an aspiring filmmaker.
Eventually, Cut evolves into a hilarious valentine to underdog independent genre filmmaking. It would pair up nicely with Graham Kelly Greene’s criminally overlooked Attack of the Bat Monsters. In fact, at one point a character in the Cormanesque spoof rather wistfully states: “in the future, people will watch these movies and laugh, but they’ll never understand how hard we worked on them.” That sentiment also perfectly fits Cut. It is a total winner that will charm the pants off horror fans. Very highly recommended