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One Cut of the Dead: the gloriously inventive low-budget film that made box office history | Film

One Cut of the Dead: the gloriously inventive low-budget film that made box office history | Film
One Cut of the Dead: the gloriously inventive low-budget film that made box office history | Film

It almost seems a shame to tell you anything about One Cut of the Dead, given that so much of its charm comes from having no idea what you are about to watch. If you have a spare 90 minutes, close this and go watch it. If that plea is not enough to convince you, read on at your peril. Hopefully you’ll just want to watch even more – for this low-budget Japanese zombie comedy film is so startlingly inventive and meticulously constructed that, once you’ve watched it, you will probably watch it a second time just to spot how it was done anyway.

One Cut of the Dead follows an amateur cast and crew shooting a low-budget zombie film. Their set is an abandoned and possibly haunted water filtration plant, rumoured to have once been used by the Japanese army for human experiments. The film’s director, Takayuki Higurashi (played by Takayuki Hamatsu), is frustrated by his young cast’s stilted acting, so – as any go-getting film-maker would – he paints a pentagram with blood on the roof, hoping to summon the undead to inspire some genuine fear in his actors. Sure enough, we watch as everyone on set becomes zombified over a single, 37-minute-long take, guts and brains splattering on to the camera lens until just one person is left alive. Credits roll.

So far, so not funny. But – and this is where I truly spoil the thrill you will get from seeing One Cut of the Dead without knowing too much – the film then starts again, a month before that fateful, fleshy day. We watch as Takayuki – whose sales pitch is “I’m fast, cheap but average” – is hired by a TV network to make a 30-minute zombie film for live television, meaning it has to be shot on a single camera in a single take. Credits roll again. The truth is revealed: the zombie film was a film within a film about making a zombie film.

Like flicking on a light switch, the horror is over and One Cut of the Dead becomes a slapstick comedy. We watch the zombie film all over again but this time we see what is going on behind the camera. What appeared to be terrifying and violent chaos is revealed to be plain old chaos of the show business kind: there were no zombies attacking actors, only actors playing zombified actors. The horror film we have watched is actually the product of a comedy of errors: panicked improvisations, drunk actors, traffic jams, upset tummies and domestic quibbles, all of which was hidden from us.

The cast of One Cut of the Dead on the red carpet of the 2018 Tokyo international film festival. Photograph: Keith Tsuji/Getty Images

One Cut of the Dead was written, directed and edited by Shin’ichiro Ueda – filming took eight days in 2017, including two days for the six takes it took to nail the 37-minute single shot. It was made for ¥3m (about A$30,000 today), with most of the cast actually paying to be in the film, as it was a product of an acting and directing workshop.

Their efforts made ¥3.12bn at the Japanese box office, which works out to be about A$31.7m – and that is before counting the similar amount it made globally. All in all, One Cut of the Dead earned more than a thousand times its budget and made box office history.

Which is a wonderful end for a film that celebrates the creative freedoms that come with being cheap and cheerful. If you read this before watching it, I can only hope that you will still do so anyway. In my mind it sits in an odd little category with two of my favourite films, Singin’ in the Rain and The Fablemans – seemingly strange bedfellows but all love letters to film-making that will put a smile on your face.

One Cut of the Dead is on Prime Video and Shudder in the UK, Australia and US. For more recommendations of what to stream in Australia, click here

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