Halfway through One Cut of the Dead, I was ready to bail.
Sold as a one-shot zombie film about a film crew making a one-shot zombie film, One Cut sounds like an unbearable mixture of not one, not two, but three cinematic red flags. It's a craft-gimmick movie, a zombie movie, and a film about filmmaking all in one. How could such a film possibly succeed?
For a long time, it doesn't. Only sporadically entertaining in their own right, the first two acts wear thin quickly, but that's because One Cut of the Dead is playing a long con. Director Shinichirou Ueda has delivered a masterclass in setup and payoff, trusting his audience to stick it out until the end. And boy, does that ending pay off.
One Cut’s structure is a bizarre one, but split cleanly into three acts, each more meta than the last. The first act is presented as One Cut of the Dead: it’s a film within a film, one unbroken shot lasting about half an hour, about a zombie film crew, shooting in an abandoned WWII facility, that gets attacked by zombies. That’s been done before, in films like Diary of the Dead or New Zealand’s I Survived A Zombie Holocaust, and honestly, this version isn’t much to write home about. Shot on a low-quality SD video camera, it’s full of poor acting, weird pauses, shaky camerawork, obvious effects workarounds, and “meta” jokes that lack sufficient context to make them work. It plays out, then the full credits roll (!), and despite a couple of good moments everyone’s left a little bit deflated by the experience.
Then the second act lurches to life, and we’re met with a blessedly clear image, as we witness the conception and pre-production of the film within the film (which itself is revealed to be a live TV broadcast). It, too, is bizarrely devoid of overt entertainment value, focusing on setting up seemingly superfluous character backstories. It’s got the tone of a comedy, but not a single goddamn joke, leaving the audience silently bewildered at what’s going on.
At this point, the audience is likely flagging. What is the point of all this setup without any punchline, they wonder.
Finally, we get to the third act: a sequence that mirrors the opening film but pulls the ripcord on joke after joke that we never even registered as jokes to begin with. Saying too much would spoil the delight, but suffice it to say that all the weird non-jokes and seemingly meaningless content from the first two acts get reincorporated and combined in spectacularly entertaining fashion, recontextualising just about everything we've seen. I’ve rarely seen an audience laughing so consistently, for so long, as in the final act of One Cut of the Dead. The ending is a whirlwind of action, comedy, and heart that will bring a smile to the face of anyone who’s engaged in a collaborative creative effort - especially if they’ve seen things go wrong in the process. It’s fucking funny - and almost brought a tear to my eye, too.
Then, somehow, the credits sequence manages to add another layer of meta storytelling. This movie is goddamn nuts.
One Cut of the Dead is a hilarious ode to creativity, family, perseverance, and the challenge of filmmaking, that’s almost - almost - too clever for its own good. The first two acts test the audience almost to breaking point, but the ballsiness of that choice is all worth it for the machine-gun blast of payoff that comes next. Audience members near me were literally slapping their thighs with laughter. It's that damned good, that damned life-affirming. Patience, in the case of One Cut of the Dead, is the greatest virtue of all.