Word-of-mouth has made the Japanese-language film One Cut of the Dead a big box-office hit and a topic of much water cooler discussion. If you haven’t heard of the movie, it’s one that will likely get an instant reaction from your Japanese friends if you name-drop its Japanese title, Kamera o tomeru na! (literally: “Don’t Stop the Camera!”). Even retired folks seem to know this movie. The story involves zombies, but that’s not what it’s really about.
So what is it about? Why exactly is this low-budget Japanese movie with cheesy zombie effects turning into such a phenomenon, both domestically and on the film festival circuit abroad? Well, since the movie itself is divided into three distinct sections, maybe an appropriate way to break it down would be with a list of three reasons. Here’s what you should know about One Cut of the Dead and why it’s taking the moviegoing world by storm.
1. The entire first act is one unbroken camera shot
In a vacant facility used for water filtration, a blue-faced zombie closes in on a screaming and crying girl. She’s laying it on thick and we’re clearly meant to see that she’s not the best actress. In fact, her director, Higurashi, soon yells, “Cut!” on the whole dreadful scene.
They’re shooting an independent film on location. Higurashi at first comes off as a tyrannical director. He gets right up in his leading lady’s face and upbraids her about how he wants to see “the true shiver” in her face. “Why don’t you peel off that lie-infested mask?” he vociferates. Taking a page out of William Friedkin’s directorial playbook from The Exorcist, he even turns around and smacks the other actor who’s playing the zombie.
After Higurashi leaves in a huff, the camera follows his actors up the stairs. It’s here you might start to notice that the camera isn’t cutting away. One Cut of the Dead puts its own innovative spin on the traditional three-act structure for a film narrative. Its whole 37-minute first act unfolds in a single take. That’s what gives the movie the “one cut” in its title. The camera doesn’t stop rolling till the film’s genre-busting second act.
As it turns out, the abandoned water facility is the subject of urban legends about bringing the dead back to life. Predictably, cell phones can’t catch a signal inside the facility. Pretty soon, the movie shoot gets hit by a real zombie outbreak.
Higurashi seems just as elated to make an impromptu snuff film. He orders the cameraman not to stop filming, even as people start losing limbs. If any of this sounds cliche or not worth watching, rest assured, there are some hidden, genius layers to the cross-genre hit that is One Cut of the Dead.
2. It’s a feel-good movie, not a horror movie
One Cut of the Dead is a movie that defies neat categorization. In the same way that romantic comedies, or rom-coms, make up their own film genre, so too do zombie comedies, or zom-coms, inhabit their own niche sub-genre. It’s usually one that hybridizes horror and comedy. There might be funny moments but there might also be scary or gory moments in a zom-com.
Stateside film reviews of One Cut of the Dead have used Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s acclaimed British “rom-zom-com,” Shaun of the Dead, as a point of comparison. That comparison might arm viewers with the wrong expectations, however, because One Cut of the Dead isn’t really a zombie movie. It’s a comedy about the making of a zombie movie.
This is a film that appeals to a wider audience than J-horror. If you’re squeamish about the sight of blood on-screen, you might want to look away a few times during the film’s first act. After that, the movie takes a surprising turn that puts its audience on more stable footing. To explain precisely how might qualify as a spoiler. Suffice it to say, horror buffs who crave gruesome imagery and are desensitized to it might actually come away feeling disappointed, like One Cut of the Dead isn’t the least bit frightening. Everyone else is in for a laugh riot.
What makes this movie so funny is its characters and the situations they find themselves in. At times, Higurashi seems surrounded by idiots. There’s the self-serious zombie actor who thinks the movie’s script “deals with the topic of racism discreetly.” There’s the kooky crew member who makes diva requests for soft water because any other kind makes him sick.
These characters and more must soon weather a ludicrous confluence of events. To survive the apocalypse (of filmmaking, with zombies), actresses draw hilariously from self-defense videos. The Japanese onomatopoeia of “Pom!” may well enter your vocabulary after this.
3. The film’s real-life success story is part of its charm
As of this writing, One Cut of the Dead has a 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. What’s more, it’s a movie that’s already seen a 1,000 percent return on its meager budget of ¥3 million. From humble beginnings, the film rose to become the major critical and commercial success that it is now. While it’s currently playing in theaters all over Japan, its original theatrical run consisted of a six-day stint in 2017 at a small arthouse venue in Tokyo.
Writer-director Shinichiro Ueda, who also served as his own editor, cut his teeth on his first feature film with this project. After taking part in workshops at Tokyo’s ENBU Seminar — a training school for acting and directing — he put together a cast of unknowns. They spent just over a week shooting the movie. You can very much see their improvisational energy reflected in their characters, the guerrilla band of zombie filmmakers led by Higurashi.
The film’s depiction of painstaking group effort has helped it connect with Japanese audiences. However, in 2018, One Cut of the Dead has also gone global, showing at over sixty film festivals and winning numerous awards. After touring internationally and building buzz, it recently made a homecoming of sorts at the 2018 Tokyo International Film Festival. In Roppongi, Ueda and his cast walked the red carpet on the festival’s opening day.
The festival is over now, but if you read our list of 6 reasons why should visit, then you know that it’s worth checking out any year. Two of the highlights this year included a stage appearance from actor Ralph Fiennes and the world premiere of Netflix’s new anime Godzilla movie. But perhaps the most memorable night of the festival was the screening of One Cut of the Dead on Halloween. After watching Ueda’s zombie comedy in the theater, you could emerge into the night and see real people in zombie costumes walking the streets.
Intrigued to go see it? Check out the trailer with English subtitles below.
One Cut of the Dead is now in theaters nationwide. Have you already watched it? If so, what did you think? Share your spoiler-free thoughts in the comments section below!