[Blu-ray Review] ‘ONE CUT OF THE DEAD’ – Japan breathes life into the popular horror subgenre

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

ONE CUT OF THE DEAD

Not rated, 96 minutes
Director: Shin’ichirô Ueda
Cast: Takayuki Hamatsu, Yuzuki Akiyama, Harumi Shuhama, Kazuaki Nagaya and Mao

ONE CUT OF THE DEAD is best to watch blind. That’s how I saw it back in 2018 as part of North America’s largest genre film festival, Fantastic Fest. I saw it on the program, read the synopsis, and picked a screening. I didn’t know anything else. The emcee came on stage and did his spiel, thanking the festival sponsors and the volunteers before going into his introduction. It came with a warning: When he received a screener copy months beforehand, he didn’t think he could finish it. The first 30 minutes were excruciating. This wasn’t the ringing endorsement you’d expect when festival programmers love to amp up a crowd before the lights dim. 

Looking for the nearest exit – in case I wanted to slip out early – I composed myself. The movie starts as a girl shrieks. She’s begging for her life as a male lurches forward with a slow gait, arms outstretched. He is a zombie, and she is set to be the next victim. And then the director yells, “CUT!” Oh. We aren’t watching a zombie movie. We’re watching the making of a zombie movie.

Even with 42 takes, the director still verbally tears into the actress, trying to get her to deliver a reaction that is best suited for a zombie victim. Higurashi (Takayuki Hamastsu) is a filmmaker seemingly inspired by Stanley Kubrick doing take after take to get the perfect reaction. But actress Chinatsu (Yuzuki Akiyama) is so exhausted that her cries for help may be real and not saline eye drops. Her co-star Ko (Kazuaki Nagaya) is a pretty boy star on the rise that raises questions about his character and whether or not a zombie should be able to wield a weapon. I’m sure Marlon Brando would have had similar thoughts had A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE been re-envisioned as a zombie melodrama.

The production takes a break— Higurashi storms off the set. Makeup artist Nao (Harumi Syuhama) steps in and comforts Chinatsu. And then all hell breaks loose. The pretend zombie movie becomes a full-scale zombie outbreak. Higurashi is ecstatic, yelling, “This is true filmmaking!” He wants the crew to keep shooting. The camera operator obeys, and we witness twenty minutes of uninterrupted action. The crew tries its best to survive and not be eaten. The highlight is Nao ditching the makeup kit and wielding an ax, surprisingly. That’s the first cut (or act, rather) of Shin’ichirô Ueda’s debut feature. 

The other two acts of this Japanese horror-comedy have their incisions probe deeper into combating a zombie apocalypse. (Eh, just kidding.) Ueda, instead, accomplishes a rarefied trifecta. The first is a crash course in budget filmmaking where he pays homage to the horror subgenre that George Romero created 50 years ago with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Bear in mind that the opening scene will test your patience. I started to fidget in my seat; I could feel others begin to wonder if they made the wrong selection and would have been better off somewhere else. Rest assured, you’ll stop writhing and start laughing. 

Parts two and three of the trifecta, I will shroud in mystery. But the combination of all three in a traditional three-act structure provides us with a small zombie outbreak, some comedy, and the magic of what we witness when experiencing a movie. Ueda’s blueprint for story and editing creates a delightful, blood-soaked comedy. 

I’ve seen Shin’ichirô Ueda’s ONE CUT OF THE DEAD multiple times now, and it remains an absolute blast. Share it with friends who haven’t seen it, and make sure they don’t read up on it first.

Special Features:

Playing exclusively on Shudder since last September, the zombie comedy arrives on Blu-ray and DVD in Steelbook packaging courtesy of RLJE Films, who also handled the horror network’s release of TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID. Although an existing international edition offers higher-quality extras, RLJ gives us an affordable alternative. All features are worth a look, particularly one just out of curiosity. 

Outtakes (4:37) – a brief collection of very short deleted and alternate scenes.

Photo Gallery – a collection of on-set stills.

POM! Instructional Video (0:59) – this is a self-defense program that Nao uses to great effect in avoiding zombies.

GoPro Version of ONE CUT OF THE DEAD – raw footage from the opening scene from director Ueda’s POV. Not the best audio, but worth checking out right after the movie.  

Movie Grade: A

Extras Grade: C

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