If you’ve taken a cursory look at the synopsis, Shinichiro Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead starts as you might expect it to. A film crew making a zombie movie — with a pop idol actress, a shy male lead, and an overbearing and angry director (Takayuki Hamatsu) — is attacked by actual zombies midway through filming at a “haunted” abandoned warehouse. A bloodbath unfolds, and it turns out that a member of the crew might be behind the chaos.
All of the action unfolds in a long and fascinating single take, running for a whole 37 minutes of shaky-cam chaos. It’s all stuff you’ve seen before, but it’s done pretty well, all things considered. However, you should be paying close attention to how the scene unfolds, because once that 37-minute mark hits, the movie unfolds and transforms into something completely different.
You see, the One Cut of the Dead that you’ve been watching is actually a film within a film, crafted by the heads of The Zombie Network, who are looking for a big broadcast hit to kick off their “All Zombies, All the Time” channel’s debut. They’ve hired a director, Higurashi (Hamatsu, again), who says that he can do things “fast and cheap and average,” but who begins to see the project as potentially something more when his family starts to get involved. It’s an unexpectedly sweet turn for the film, which up to that point doesn’t seem very notable, and even if it occasionally feels a little sitcom-y (gags about one character having trouble drinking hard water and the family emphasis don’t totally help), it still manages to make a mark.
Ueda’s smart enough to retrace the entire shoot in almost real-time, and it lets you see how many happy accidents occur in the filmmaking process. It’s a wonderfully pleasant little film, well worth the effort it’ll take to seek out.