In the middle of shooting a zombie film, the cast and crew find themselves fighting off an actual zombie attack. This is the premise for the 2017 release One Cut of the Dead from director Shin’ichirô Ueda adapted from the play “Ghost in the Box!” from author Ryoichi Wada. This description is clear, straight-forward, and tells you everything you need to know about this zombie flick before you press play. But, like any good horror film, there’s more to know than what you read in the synopsis. So, while everything appears more low budget than the Godfather of Zombie Films’s Night of the Living Dead, a closer look reveals something distinctly original, heartfelt, and brilliant, instigating a need to rewatch the film to see what One Cut looks like with experienced eyes.
Since its premiere in Tokyo in November 2017, One Cut has screened in festivals around the world before a variety of limited theatrical releases and home viewing opportunities. With each screening, word of mouth spread further and further until notice was bleeding out from the horror community and into the film community at large. For lucky subscribers to horror service Shudder, September 2019 brought streaming access to U.S. members. But what about those who long for the physical gratification of discs? YOU GET NOTHING. That is, until Shudder partnered with RLJE Films to release two options: a Blu-ray/DVD Combo Steelbook and a sole DVD option. Each one comes with three different bonus materials, so the main difference is the packaging and on-disc film quality. This is the second recent film the two companies have partnered up to release (May 5th saw the physical release of Tigers Are Not Afraid) and, though the offerings in the bonus materials are significantly fewer, it’s hopefully the beginning of a lengthy relationship where horror fans are the big winners. With storage space becoming an increasingly difficult problem, streaming films is becomes ideal for the avid cinephile as it gives them great access without having to concern themselves with running out of shelf space. However, there’s something to be said about a physical release that digital can’t beat. No worries about which films are available via your service, licensing rights, corporate contracts, or weak Internet signals, not to mention that most digital copies don’t come with any bonus features (though Disney+ and Criterion are changing the game with that). For the majority, though, if you want the total cinematic experience of the film, bonus materials, and free access, you’ve got to pick-up that physical copy.
The review copy of One Cut is a DVD, so this review can’t speak to the design quality of the Steelbook or the Blu-ray. That said, there’s something rather perfectly in-tune with watching One Cut upconverted that makes the experience somehow elevated. The style of One Cut is purposefully low-rent as it plays into the micro-budget indie feel of the type of film the unnamed director of the in-movie film, played by Takayuki Hamatsu. So, visible artifacts which come from upconverting most films feels intentional. Playing the DVD on my decades-old surround sound was not the most impressive cinematic experience, but it certainly was immersive. The bonus features, as mentioned previously, are minimal but fun. There’re over four minutes of outtakes, but the name is misleading. Outtakes are typically bloopers or a gag reel, but these are better described as deleted or unused scenes. From watching them, you can see why they didn’t make it into film as they don’t really add to anything the audience doesn’t already know or experience more eloquently from the final cut. If you haven’t seen the film, the “POM! Instructional Video” will be a bit confusing, even if a touch charming. Once you’ve watched the film, of which a portion of the video is shown, then the one-minute video is more endearing. The last bonus feature is a photo gallery featuring stills from the film. Not particularly exciting, unless watching stills on your TV moves you, in which case, get ready to go nuts!
If you haven’t seen One Cut of the Dead, stop here and go no further. You know what you need to about the home release to determine if it’s worth it to purchase and it’s best to go in knowing as little as possible.
**There will be spoilers moving forward.**
One Cut of the Dead is a truly singular experience that cinephiles of all stripes will love. The first 30 minutes is exactly what you expect from a film with this title. It’s a zombie film shot entirely as one cut (this means one camera and zero edits), so everything that works sings and everything that feels off belts out loud, too. In short, audiences are treated to a zombie film that’s more of a morality play than anything else. See, the fact that the director brings the cast and crew to an abandoned World War II science facility makes sense in a low-budget, schlocky way, but it’s finding out that the director *also* purposefully incited the zombies to return is what makes what we see of the initial 30 feel like a comeuppance for the asshole (director) and a true Final Girl victory for the survivor, Chinatsu (Yuzuki Akiyama.) The cinematography, direction, performances, make-up, and fx in the first 30 scream low-budget indie, and the audiences accepts it. This makes the first 30 a thoughtless kind of fun, even if a tadbit prolonged, especially as knowledgeable audiences revel in the silliness of the obviousness of the fake hands, blood, and physical tasks the crew undergoes in order to mimic the impact of crane shot. But then the credits roll and the actual movie starts. Truthfully, the majority backend of One Cut makes that first 30 magical. Why? Because the entire movie is about making a low-budget television program intended to be shot without cuts and guess what: it goes pretty wrong. This takes everything that the audience saw in the first 30 and shifts how they saw it. Why was the producer zombie barely moving in one scene and then suddenly flailing about in another? Answer: super drunk in the first scene, less so in the second. Why does Chinatsu scream for an extraordinarily long period? Answer: because sometimes stuff happens behind the scenes that takes way too long to set-up.
Some films are called “love letters” to a genre because of the subject matter, the narrative approach, even the direction. Films like Abe, Avengers: Endgame, Triple Threat, and The Disaster Artist acutely love everything about the story they’re telling and the medium they’re using to tell it. This becomes particularly obvious within One Cut once it shifts into the actual filming of the production, when the audience gets to see how the first 30 are made. Amid the tonal shift into comedy is a shift into deep affection for both the difficulty of movie-making (highlighting the creativity required to make a production work) and also cinema itself. Where Akiyama is the lead in the in-film movie, Hamatsu’s Higuarashi is the audience’s lead for the remainder. He’s not just “the Director” but the director of the actual production, having been selected for the job and putting long hours into getting everything nailed down perfectly. Compared to the unhinged Director, Higuarashi is timid and people-pleasing, so the act of improvisation requires him to set out of his comfort zone, creating the kind of character journey audiences find deeply satisfying in stories. Additionally, the fact that any kind of “improvisation” is required by the story just speaks to how fluid the creation process of storytelling is: incumbent on the tools, the crew, the cast, the timing, and that ephemeral thing that makes movies wondrous. Going from the straight horror of the first 30 to the comedic horror of a film shoot going wrong celebrates the filmmaking process while also allowing the audience to see many of the odd moments in the first 30 brilliantly explained away. And keep in mind, all of this is going on while telling a heartwarming story revolving around Higuarashi’s family. In truth, the entirety of One Cut is profoundly satisfying because it never lowers its nose at either the audience or the material. It knows it’s doing the best it can with what it has, and you can’t help but root for it the entire way. Thanks to RLJE Films and Shudder, you can relive the fun and schedule your own deep-dive into that first 30 whenever you want.
One Cut of the Dead Blu-ray/DVD SteelBook and DVD bonus features:
- Outtakes (4:37)
- POM! Instructional Video (0:59)
- Photo Gallery
Available on Blu-ray/DVD Combo Steelbook and DVD beginning June 2nd, 2020.
Available for streaming on Shudder now.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.