Playing With Zombies in ‘One Cut of the Dead’

The past decade has seen an absolute boom in the zombie genre. Blood, guts, a message of “humanity is the real monster,” you know the drill. The genre has, frankly, been exhausted and finding a decent film about the undead is difficult. It seems that perhaps the time of the zombie has passed. But, Shinichirou Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead says otherwise. While it is not the typical zombie movie, this film questions and makes fun of popular zombie tropes and finally made me excited about the subgenre again. It starts as one seemingly-mediocre thing and then becomes something else entirely.

One Cut of the Dead opens in the well-known found footage style. A crew is making a zombie movie in a secluded location, then all hell breaks loose. Each member of the crew falls into a well-known figure of the zombie film: the screaming girl, the attempting-to-be-masculine boy, the wise, older character who seems to know exactly why everything is going wrong. The found footage style and stereotypical characters look like any other zombie film, especially George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead. However, after an exceptional 37-minute long take, this film completely flips tone, style, story, everything.

The first half of the film was actually a film-within-a-film, also called One Cut of the Dead. The second half of the film is takes the form of behind-the-scenes footage of how that meta-narrative was made. The zombie film is actually a live event that TV executives want shot all in one take, hence the title. What ensues is a series of complications, stumbling blocks, and hijinks all in the name of trying to obey the wishes of the watchful eye of the executives.

As the film shifts in tone and style, I realized just how much One Cut of the Dead was playing with my expectations and interrogating how I judge a film. For the found-footage zombie portion, I found myself critiquing odd choices, such as non-diegetic music and how this is just a subpar zombie movie that isn’t saying anything new. I also was praising some of their choices, such as the camera staying on the female protagonist, rather than showing violence, thinking that was making a statement about female spectatorship. However, the critic’s cap was snatched off in the film’s second half. All of these moments I initially critiqued or praised were given careful explanation, from needing to improvise or fix a mistake. The non-diegetic music was added by the show’s production team, seemingly-intentional moments of the camera lingering on a character for too long were merely improvisations while trying to fix a hole in the script. 

The 37-minute long take is the film’s crowning achievement. A take that long is a painstaking effort, and the film makes sure the audience knows that. The camera’s dynamic movement is engaging, and even distracts from the fact that this is all one long take. Despite the camera never cutting, it moves throughout multiple spaces, follows every character, and never really stops moving. While the take is part of the movie-within-a-movie, it offers a new way to think about creating horror narratives and the power of the camera in such narratives.

One Cut of the Dead is not really a horror movie. Rather, it is a movie about horror movies, their ridiculous gimmicks, and the painstaking effort that goes into their production. It is about teamwork, creativity, and coming together to try and make something great, no matter how difficult it seems. The film deftly mixes genre to continuously defy expectations and give viewers an absolutely entertaining experience.

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