Director – Shinichiro Ueda – 2017 – Japan – Cert. 15 – 96m
The first 37 minutes *****; the rest ***1/2
A zombie film being shot in one long, single take and set in an abandoned warehouse is attacked by zombies… or is it? – on a Hollywood Edition Blu-ray on Monday, May 31st
With a title that translates literally as “Don’t Stop The Camera!”, this is a loving homage to both the movie shot in one take and the zombie movie. Or so it appears for its first 37 minutes, after which it turns into a comic drama about film making.
Let’s start where the film does, with its first 37 minutes. Chinatsu (Yuzuki Akiyama) is defending herself with an axe from her boyfriend Ko (Kazuaki Nagaya) who has turned into a zombie. However, like the girl facing a knife-wielding maniac at the start of Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981) the actress playing her is not very good and the illusion of the film collapses much as the illusion of Blow Out does when the actress delivers the most pathetic scream you’ve ever heard.
As the film delivers its first revelation – that this is not a woman defending herself against a zombie but the shooting of a movie scene of an actress portraying a woman defending herself against an actor playing a zombie – director Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu) storms into the scene to berate her for her shortcomings. After he storms off, her co-star does his best to calm her down, soon joined and aided by make-up lady Nao (Harumi Shuhama) who demonstrates self-defence moves which she has recently been learning as a hobby.
Then the film delivers its second revelation as actual zombies attack the film shoot in a manner not dissimilar to the way a zombie first appears in a graveyard at the start of Night Of The Living Dead (George Romero, 1968). Except, of course, that it’s a movie and therefore not real. Movies are perfect for playing such mind games with an audience.
Anyone paying attention up to this point in the film will have noticed that everything is happening in one unbroken take in and around the abandoned warehouse that serves as the set of the zombie movie shooting inside the zombie movie with the camera following characters up flights of stairs and in and out of doors to the outside world. While you’re wondering how characters running away from or into zombies is going to sustain in one take for 90-odd minutes, even given the highly effective film within the film set-up, writer-director-editor Ueda manages to keep the unlikely momentum going for 37 minutes, at which point, the end credits roll.
A “two months earlier” flashback then reveals that a fledgeling zombie TV channel (!) wants to launch with a one unbroken take, shot live for immediate broadcast, half hour zombie film. Every director they’ve asked has turned the job down. However director Higurashi – whose professional motto is “fast, cheap, but…average” – is unable to say no to offers of work. We glimpse his family life with wife Harumi (Harumi Shuhama), a former actress who got into trouble for immersing herself rather too deeply in her performances, and daughter Mao (Mao) who wants to be a director and keeps getting in trouble doing various jobs on film shoots and trying to sort out problems which are the real director’s job.
We watch the prep for the zombie film shoot with some bizarre problems arising among the cast. Lead actor Kazuaki Kamiya who plays Ko is full of himself, Hosoda the cameraman is an alcoholic, Yamagoe the sound man has bowel problems, the make-up lady has childcare issues. When the actors playing the director and the make-up lady are unexpectedly in a car crash, Higurashi offers to play the director himself while Harumi gets the job of make-up lady Nao, despite her husband’s reservations.
Finally, we follow the shooting of the film which turns out to be almost as fascinating as the film itself. Moments that seem like directorial misjudgements – why are we holding on this actress for so long? Why is a zombie visible onscreen as a leg and nothing more? – are explained by seeing various production personnel sorting out problems while keeping the film rolling. Mao’s perfectionism comes into its own when the camera rig for the planned crane shot ending gets broken and she improvises a human pyramid as an alternate means to realise the finale.
If the initial 37-minute film is an undeniable highlight, and what immediately follows it a let down, the shoot of the zombie film at the end with its revelations proves completely engaging. The initial film is riotously funny – something to do with the very thin line between horror and humour, dealing with primal fears by laughing at them. The latter part of the film is also funny, but in a more gently comedic and less visceral manner. The subject matter of a group coming together to complete a task to the best of their ability (the movie shoot where everything that can go wrong does) seems very Japanese: it’s hard to imagine the film playing out quite the way it does in any other culture.
One Cut Of The Dead is out on an all region, Hollywood Edition Blu-ray which also includes One Cut Of The Dead In Hollywood on Monday, May 31st.