Ever since George Romero revolutionised horror in 1968 with his classic Night of the Living Dead, zombies have been a perennially popular movie monster. The idea of the dead rising up as a mindless cannibalistic horde continues to fascinate both filmmakers and audiences, and the past 50 years has given us zombie movies, TV shows, comic books, and video games of every type imaginable. It's no accident that The Walking Dead became one of the most successful cable shows of all time, and the zombie craze shows no sign of slowing.
Which leads to one problem--when everything has been made already, what can be done do to keep the genre fresh? The Japanese movie One Cut of the Dead takes an inventive approach to the zombie film and stands as one of the funniest, cleverest, and most enjoyable examples for years. It's taken a while to reach the US; it was released in Japan in 2017, where it became one of the most profitable movies of all time, making a thousand times its tiny budget at the box office. The film finally hits US theaters this weekend, with a release onto horror streaming service Shudder to follow.
One Cut of the Dead is divided into three distinct sections, but it's a big spoiler to discuss anything beyond the first. The opening section takes place on the set of a low-budget zombie movie, where a tyrannical director is pushing his terrified cast to get the level of intensity he wants from them. But it quickly becomes clear that not all the zombies are actors in make-up--the set is being attacked by the undead for real, forcing the cast and crew to fight back.
The title of the movie comes from this first section, as the whole thing is presented in a single, unbroken 37-minute take. It's impressive for any movie to attempt such a trick, let alone one that was clearly shot on a limited budget. For the most part, director Shinichirou Ueda pulls it off with skill, especially when the film moves outside the warehouse where the film-within-a-film is being shot and the victims are pursued up ladders and across rooftops by the ravenous living dead. But it's hard to escape the feeling that something isn't quite right. There are moments that seem strangely stilted and amateurish, with faltering performances, weird pauses, and wobbly camerawork which seem at odds with the skill clearly put into orchestrating a long single-take shot. Then, at 37 minutes in, the end credits start to roll. What the hell is going on?
At this point, it's impossible to go into further detail with spoiling the many delights of the last hour of One Cut of the Dead. Suffice to say that what we've been watching isn't what we thought it was, and as the storyline skips back several weeks, the movie transforms into a funny and clever meta-comedy about the struggles of both filmmaking and fatherhood. Viewers looking only for gory horror better duck out at this point too, but what the rest of the film lacks in severed limbs it more than makes up for in huge laughs and heartfelt emotion. There are some wonderful performances, and a level of infectious joy in watching the storyline unfold so skilfully.
It's not hard to see why One Cut of the Dead has become such a critical and commercial success. Zombies are no longer part of a niche horror sub-genre, and their appeal reaches far into the mainstream. But by making a movie that is as much an uproarious comedy and sweet family drama as it is an undead gorefest, and combining these elements in such an ingeniously effortless way, it really does offer something for everyone. And as a tribute to the dedication and madness that goes into making a movie, it emerges as one of the most inspirational films you'll see this year.