Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: One Cut of the Dead

October is back. You know what that means.

Playoff baseball?

No, not playoff baseball. 31 Days of Halloween! It’s right there in the title of this article. Why would I call this “31 Days of Halloween” and then write about baseball?

I guess that is odd. Whatever. Who ya got in the World Series? Because I don’t see anyone beating the Astros or Dodgers.

I’m just going to ignore you now, undefined other person. I need to explain to the reader how 31 Days of Halloween works. You see…

Then again, the Yankees are pretty legit.

Again, stop that! So, 31 Days of Halloween is where you watch a…

But it’s a mistake to ignore the Cardinals when it comes to October baseball.

Well, you see that’s where you’re wrong. If the Cubs hadn’t imploded, the Cardinals wouldn’t be where they are. Sure, they have pitching, but what about their offense?

Hey, weren’t you talking about horror movies?

Oh, right. Right, right, right. So, horror movies, 31 of them, one a day, all October. That’s…well, that’s pretty much it.

So which one did you watch today?

A little treat from Japan known as One Cut of the Dead!

What Is It?

One Cut of the Dead is a challenge to write about because what makes it so great is actually a completely premise-altering spoiler that doesn’t happen until over a third of the way into the movie. So, I’ll start by saying One Cut of the Dead is a zombie movie unlike any zombie movie I’ver seen before and I loved it. Everything after this, however, comes with the following warning: SPOILER

So, Really, What Is It?

A 2017 Japanese zombie movie that’s not actually a zombie movie. Instead, it is 37 minutes of one-shot zombie mayhem followed by an hour of fictionalized behind the scenes peeks into how they pulled it all off. It’s like a movie immediately followed by a “making of” except the making of is infinitely more entertaining than the movie.

Why I Watched It

In the old days, horror fanatics got their viewing recommendations from Fangoria, Rue Morgue, or just picked the movie with the best box cover at the local video store. These days, they increasingly gravitate toward the internet, social media, and podcasts. In that latter category, I have yet to find a horror podcast as valuable as Shock Waves. It’s a weekly show hosted by four former Fangoria/Blumhouse.com staffers who have since moved on to teaching college courses and making their own horror movies. For weeks now, the hosts have been talking up One Cut of the Dead as one of their best finds of the year. Rebekah McKendry even showed it to her USC film class. So, once I saw Once Cut of the Dead pop up on Shudder I had to check it out.

Did I Like It?

I am an absolute sucker for movies about movies. I don’t know if that’s a “me” thing or “all cinephiles feel that way” thing. I suspect it’s both. Either way, throw something super well-known at me (Boogie Nights, Singin’ in the Rain, Ed Wood, Inglourious Basterds) or incredibly obscure (Stuntman, The Dirties) – doesn’t matter; if it’s about people making movies, you already have my attention. The horror genre is by no means immune from this. Shadow of the Vampire, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, and Scream 3 stand out as obvious examples.

Yet, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything quite like One Cut of the Dead. It opens with its movie-within-a-movie but never lets us know what it’s actually up to. As far as we can tell, we’ve been dropped into the middle of a low-budget Japanese production with a pretty clever plot:

A handful of actors and a small crew are filming a zombie movie in the Japanese countryside. When an actual zombie outbreak pops up in the middle of their shoot, the maniacal director just rolls with it and energetically pushes zombies at his cast, yells “Action!” like a madman, and points his camera at them to get their real, terrified reactions on film. Sure, some of them die in the process, but at least that’s real, dammit.

The thing about this opening, however, is it’s really not that scary. Sure, it’s a zombie movie on steroids, but it never looks real. The acting is insanely over the top. The zombie makeup and prop blood never look like anything other than movie make-up and fake blood. At one point, one of the actors runs into the unseen cameraman, and you’re not sure if it’s intentional. You can see the low budget dripping off the screen. It’s more technically impressive than anything else, particularly the longer it drags on and the more you realize they’re just going do all of this in one, long continuous shot.

When the twist finally happens and we time jump to a month earlier to meet the fictional cast and crew responsible for what we learn is actually a live TV movie, One Cut of the Dead turns into a lovely and often quite funny ode to the “overcome all obstacles” spirit of low-budget filmmaking. Every little quirk or “what was that about?” part of the 37-minute opening – such as why one of the characters instantly loses her mind – turns out to have an amusing backstory. Almost nothing, we learn, really went according to plan, but they pulled it off because that’s what you do when ambition and determination meets limitations and adversity.

That makes One Cut of the Dead the rare zombie movie that doesn’t really trade in metaphor. Romero and Night of the Living Dead’s commentary on racism set the template for how to make a zombie movie with big ideas. Others, such as Fulci, ventured off into pure gore instead of social commentary. Since the late 90s, largely because of the influence of the Resident Evil aka Biohazard video games Japan has produced its fair share of genre-mashup zombie movies – a musical here, a Yakuza crime drama there – that don’t really say anything but certainly entertain.

One Cut of the Dead follows in that tradition. It combines the movie-about-movies strand of storytelling with zombie movie tropes and allows us to flinch when one character ends up drenched in blood and later laugh when we see how there was a crewmember just off-camera squirting prop blood at her the entire time.

So, did I like it? No; I loved it.

Did It Scare Me?

No, but this isn’t the type of movie which is really meant to scare you.

Random Parting Thought

Be sure to watch the closing credits. It quickly shows the making of this “making of.” In other words, there was a real crew following the movie’s fake crew, and clearly, in some cases, there was even a third crew filming it all to show how they did it. It might just be the most meta thing I’ve ever seen.

Where to Stream

Shudder

Next Up: Another horror movie about horror movies.

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8 comments

  1. I’ve heard lots of good things about this one. Have you Maybe I’ll check it out this month while I’m doing something similar for The Terror Test. I started with Lords of Chaos (2018). https://www.theterrortest.com/lost-in-arkham/halloween-horror-binge-day-1-lords-of-chaos-2018

    Have you heard of Effects (1980)? It was a lost film for a while and has some of the movie-in-a-movie stuff going on.\: http://www.dantenet.com/er/ERchives/reviews/e_reviews/effects.html

    1. It’s hilarious you would mentioned Effects. I am literally watching it right now. It’s what I’m going to write about for tomorrow. So far, so good. Not scary, though. More interesting than I expected. So low budget but kind of ahead of its time. I’ll check out your lords of chaos review now. That’s one I missed last year.

      1. What? That’s weird! I wrote about Effects sometime in 2005-07. It felt ahead of its time. It’s rare to get scares, spectacle, and story all in one film, so I’ll take one of the three. Lords of Chaos isn’t technically scary, but some of what it leaves you with is. It’s also unflinching in terms of gore, which is not going to be for some people.

        I’m watching Jess Franco’s Count Dracula (1970) for tomorrow. It’s a duck.

      2. Re: Lords of Chaos. I am somewhat squeamish when it comes to extreme gore. For example, I started watching Incident in Ghostland and Belzebuth on Shudder and had to quit pretty quickly. The gore just wasn’t my taste.

        I was just strolling past Count Dracula on the Night Flight app this morning. At least I think I did. Is that the one with Christopher Lee that was promoted as the most accurate Bram Stoker translation to date? Ah, screw it. I’ll just head over and read your review right now.

  2. I understand not liking gore. I have a stomach for it. I tried my hand at fx for a while and love them. Harryhausen and King Kong sent me down that road.

    I also worked in a body donation program.

    Just curious, does your distaste extend to The Thing or Society or Dead Alive? Or do those have enough fantasy (or humor) to alleviate that?

    Yep, it’s that Count Dracula. Wowzers.

    1. And I guess there does feel like a difference when the gore/violence is based on real events. It’s not like a Freddy kill. I’ve never thought about it all that much, but it makes sense.

    2. It’s weird with me and gore. There are very few older movies that have messed me in that way. For example, by the time Dead Alive reached its lawnmower scene, I’d been pushed just a little far, but I love The Thing and I laughed all the way through Society, though that might have been because I was watching it via Joe Bob Briggs’ The Last Drive-In on Shudder. #Shunting was trending on Twitter during that episode for a reason. I can generally cope with gore which is clearly fake or movie magic and/or lightened by humor. It’s really the more recent stuff, from House of 1,000 Corpses to Incident in Ghostland that messes with me. Platinum Dunes horror remakes also don’t sit well with me. There’s a nastiness to some of it as well as just a general ugliness to the cinematography that rubs me the wrong way. I usually go in more for horror-comedies anyway. Even if they’re as gory as Re-Animator or Evil Dead 2 or even, to some extend, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, I still love ’em.

  3. I haven’t seen any of the remakes. Just haven’t gotten there and I’ve seen the originals so many times, I’m just not in a hurry for them.

    I agree about the nastiness. I guess that’s what I didn’t connect with on Devil’s Rejects, but I don’t even remember gore in it. I definitely feel like a minority on that one. I wanted to like it, but just didn’t. It’s a thin line and it’s subjective. I could try to justify it by individual film, but I guess it comes down to taste. Zombie’s films look good, but I haven’t seen the Halloween remake either, that could be a part of that group you mention.

    The violence in Dead Alive and Society have made me laugh since I was a kid, though the latter was definitely more disturbing to me. I don’t think I totally understood the social commentary when I was a young teen.

    I’m a monster kid at heart, so I tend to gravitate towards those elements rather than realistic gore for its own sake.

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