One Cut of the Dead

Shinichiro Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead is the little zombie movie that could. Made on a shoestring budget of about $27,000, the Japanese film turned worldwide festival favorite has since earned back a whopping 1,000 times its budget. Its box office numbers would be a victory by any measure, but they’re especially vindicating for a movie that initially opened in just one small Tokyo theater for a six-day run. They’d also have to be vindicating for Ueda, a 34-year-old first-time feature filmmaker who assembled a cast of unknowns for this project and only spent eight days shooting it.

In late September, One Cut of the Dead took home the Audience Award and the award for Best Director (Horror Features) at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. /Film’s own Jacob Hall was there and he called the movie “the best zombie comedy in years.” Others have mentioned it in the same breath as Shaun of the Dead. I was curious to see this film because of all the buzz surrounding it, so I jumped at the chance to be in the theater when One Cut of the Dead made its homecoming at the 2018 Tokyo International Film Festival.

It seemed like the perfect venue. The only catch? The movie was screening on Halloween night, when Tokyo turns into a street party on par with Times Square, New York City, on New Year’s Eve.

The title One Cut of the Dead comes from the set-up revealed in the movie’s first act. A director and his film crew are shooting a zombie movie on location in an abandoned water filtration plant. From the beginning, there’s a thin layer of artifice over this movie as the acting we see is obviously meant to be bad, so much so that the director, Higurashi, starts browbeating his leading lady for how fake she is.

Higurashi storms off the set. Next thing you know, a real zombie attack starts to occur, leading to a long, uncut scene where the cameraperson is running around and following the real-life action as it unfolds, found footage style.

The one thing people, especially horror fans, should know about One Cut of the Dead is that it isn’t so much a zombie comedy as it is a comedy with zombies. Though it’s a crowd-pleaser, comparing the movie to Shaun of the Dead or even Zombieland doesn’t really do it justice.

Shaun of the Dead nurtured some tonal shifts, having Simon Pegg emote, without irony, like a dramatic actor at times. It sought to wring pathos, serious grief, out of certain deaths, whereas One Cut of the Dead struck me as having a more consistent comedic tone throughout its 97-minute running time. There is really only one moment where the movie descends into the kind of horror where you feel like the bottom has dropped out from under you.

Having said that, the film does undergo a seismic shift after its first act concludes and its title finally appears on-screen. That 37-minute uncut opening scene is a cold open for the ages. In a Q&A following the movie’s Halloween-night screening at the Tokyo International Film Festival, Ueda cited films with non-linear structures like Memento and Pulp Fiction as influences.

To say any more than that would risk ruining the wonderful surprises the movie holds in store. This might be one of those films where it’s better to know as little as possible going into it. Maybe it’s enough to say that the movie starts out as one thing before morphing into something else entirely.

Rather like this article is about to do …

At the Q&A, I found myself studying Ueda, the film’s writer, director, and editor. He’s actually quite the character, an individual with a very expressive face and animated voice. He was dressed in a bright yellow hoodie with One Cut of the Dead’s movie logo on it. His hair curled out from under a bowler cap and even though he was sitting, the nonchalant way he held the microphone and made the audience intermittently bust up with laughter reminded me of a stand-up comedian.

During the photo session at the end of the Q&A, Ueda would strike zombie poses for the media photographers lined up with cameras in the theater’s front row. After the post-screening event with him adjourned, I exited the theater and moved through the lobby doors, out into the night air.

Leaving the midtown venue where the Tokyo International Film Festival is held, I saw a woman walking down the sidewalk toward me while looking at her smartphone screen. The light from the screen illuminated her face with a sickly blue pallor.

A zombie. I evaded her with a sidestep and headed for the subway station.

My destination on the subway would be the Shibuya district. Shibuya’s Halloween street parties are the stuff of legend…not all of it good. This district was one of the filming locations for Lost in Translation and its famous scramble crossing is often used in Hollywood movies for establishing shots of Tokyo.

I would have liked to make a beeline to get where I was going, but that’s impossible, I imagine, in any crowded city. You have to walk defensively. That’s my mantra: walk defensively, zigzagging past pedestrians like you’re running a zombie obstacle course.

That kind of footwork will come in handy when you’re navigating around puddles of vomit in the subway station. It worked for me. Seeing where a person (presumably, a drunken Halloween reveler) had thrown up on the floor in the station tunnel reminded me of a scene in One Cut of the Dead where there’s a kind of spitting zombie who does, in fact, spray vomit on people.

In Shibuya, I exited the station with about 45 minutes to go before the last train of the night (the one I would need to be on if I wanted to make it home). Almost immediately, I was greeted by the sight of a guy in the best-looking zombie costume I would see all night.

The prize-winning zombie posed for a picture, and this reminded me of an argument in One Cut of the Dead about whether zombies are capable of wielding axes. Did they have a will? If so, were they capable of posing on cue, too?

These were questions for another night. For now, it was all I could do to squeeze through the crowd and make my way into the heart of darkness that is Shibuya, Tokyo.

I saw glimpses of geekdom — people in movie character costumes — everywhere. More importantly, there were zombies.

I saw zombie doctors, zombie nuns, voodoo zombies, and other zombies whose overall costume theme was not always easy to ascertain. It’s a common sight in these street parties to see people in random costumes with a dash of zombie make-up on their faces. Later, on the train home, I would find myself seated next to three zombie nurses.

At one point, a guy walking behind me on the street, some drunk, put his hands on my shoulders like we were in a conga line, doing the Electric Slide. I was so alarmed that I forgot to do the “Sliding Pom” move, like in One Cut of the Dead.

There’s a scene in the movie where one character demonstrates her defensive ability by sliding her arms straight up as a zombified assailant tries to lay hold of her from behind. She gives voice to the utterance, “Pom!” as she does this. It’s the key element of her defense.

If I had remembered that move, I would have slid my arms straight up and been out of that drunk’s grasp in no time flat. However, it was all I could do just to wiggle out of his grasp.

Never forget the Sliding Pom move. It’s essential survivalism for the zombie apocalypse.

The street party was rowdy, but it wasn’t raging unsupervised because the police were out in full force, doing crowd control with megaphones and yellow police tape. Some of them were standing on top of armored police vans like zombie wranglers.

I imagined what it would be like if a full-on zombie outbreak hit this raucous crowd. How long would it be before the whole thing turned and rabid zombies started piling on top of each other like the ones in World War Z?

Trash littered the street. I caught sight of volunteers tonging the trash into white plastic trash bags. These were piled up in places, and I knew from previous years that these volunteers, the unsung heroes of Halloween, would have all the litter picked up by morning.

That’s the Japanese team spirit for you. Come tomorrow, the streets would be clean enough that anyone who missed the memo about Halloween in Shibuya could pass through the area and maybe never know there had been a street party the night before.

The thought of that magic trick — the unseen heroism taking place — seemed to perfectly mirror the spirit of One Cut of the DeadI’ve been deliberately vague about the movie – it might seem as though I’ve gone way off-topic here – but just roll with it. That’s what you’ll need to do if you’re going to enjoy this film.

By the time I got home after all this excitement, it was well after midnight. Technically, November 1. Halloween was over and the film festival was over for me. I wouldn’t be attending any more screenings this year.

When I got home, my wife was already asleep, but she had set a small trash bag out by the door since it was trash day tomorrow. Remembering those kind volunteers doing clean-up in the street, I took the trash out before going inside.

What stayed with me most from One Cut of the Dead — my takeaway from this comedy with zombies — was that it’s a movie about teamwork. A group of people from different backgrounds come together, and for the benefit of the greater good, they try to make it through an increasingly ludicrous ordeal, one which unfolds, layer by layer. That’s a very vague plot description, but it’s the best logline I can come up with that won’t spoil the viewing experience for other people.

Hopefully, One Cut of the Dead will be coming soon to a theater near you. The movie might also lend itself well to a streaming platform. Wherever this film lands, seek it out and watch it at the first available opportunity. It’s a special one.

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