Paste’s ABCs of Horror 2 is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in 2019’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019, nor last year’s first ABCs of Horror project. With many heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
When is a horror film not actually a horror film? Or a zombie movie not truly a zombie movie? Answer: When the film in question is One Cut of the Dead, which is both of those things, but also somehow neither. Director Shin’ichirô Ueda’s inventive 2017 comedy cuts to the core of the kind of behind-the-scenes passion that is necessary to bring an indie horror production to life, playing off both zombie tropes and filmmaking savvy to convey a story that grows mightily in the telling. It’s both a tribute to the commitment and vision of the industry’s pioneers—the George Romeros and Lucio Fulcis of the world—and a playful satire of the myriad hurdles that stand in the way of any would-be director who wants to follow in their footsteps. It’s also a pure delight; one of the most warm and instantly likable horror comedies in years.
Here’s the thing, though: You truly don’t want to know too much about One Cut of the Dead before seeing it for the first time. It’s best to simply go in expecting a comedy with horror elements and be dropped into the story as we initially experience it, observing the shoot of a zombie movie that goes awry when “real zombies” show up and throw the production into a madcap fight for survival. It’s not a spoiler to say that this segment of the film particularly stands out for its technical achievements, being shot in a single long take that runs for roughly 37 minutes. Entirely on its own, and even without context, this long take would have made for an impressive short film that any young horror director would have been proud to pull off on a limited budget. Where One Cut of the Dead ascends to another level, though, is in the rest of the film that follows that long take, which manages to significantly enrich the footage we’ve already seen.
Suffice to say, things aren’t quite as they first appear in this story, and the movie eventually becomes a behind-the-scenes effort in which we tag along with a workaday, journeyman film director as he’s tasked with the (overly ambitious) goal of producing a live, single-take zombie movie for Japanese television. Joining him in the effort are his studious daughter, who dreams of big-league directing credits as the next Orson Welles, and his supportive wife, a former actress who has long since given up on the craft to support her family. Surrounding our director is a misfit crew of cobbled-together actors and technical workers who represent every strata of the Japanese entertainment industry, from the “pop idol” turned actress, to the hard-drinking veteran extras, to the clueless networks execs who have no conception of the difficult task they’re asking the crew to accomplish. The stage is set for volatility, and things quickly begin to fall apart.
And this, in that palpable sensation of a house of cards that is collapsing all around you, is where One Cut of the Dead truly finds its beating heart and empathic soul. This is a film that gets you truly rooting for these people to succeed, investing you in the viability of a project that is constantly threatening to jump off the rails into humiliating failure. The director needs this success to rehabilitate his career and justify years of struggle. His daughter needs this success as a way to bond with him and gain newfound appreciation for the sacrifices her father makes to provide for her. His wife needs this success for her own mental health, and the headspace of her family unit. Before the viewer even recognizes it happening, we’ve been adopted into their little clan, invested right alongside them. To see the group run the gamut of unforeseen problems and somehow pull off the seemingly impossible results in one of the most well-earned moments of blissful cinematic exhaustion I’ve ever seen—the definition of “leaving it all on the field.”
The other great trick of One Cut of the Dead is the way the film continuously plays with callbacks, sprinkling in seemingly innocuous details throughout that bloom into running gags or hilarious payoffs 30-45 minutes later. It’s the rare film that you want to start again from the beginning the second you finish watching it, to better appreciate the subtle gags that were being cleverly alluded to in its opening moments. Like the early scenes of Back to the Future, nearly every line of dialogue turns out to be ripe with portent and foreshadowing. It’s only in hindsight, and with distance, that one can see the true depth of Ueda’s impressive screenplay and directorial prowess. There’s no dross here—anything that seems without point on first inspection becomes either a funny joke or emotional stunner later on.
Shin’ichirô Ueda has since followed up with a few more filmed stories revolving around these characters, but the original One Cut of the Dead is just one of those fortunate experiments that contains a spark of the divine that can’t really be manufactured repeatedly. You can try to remake it—and the French are doing that right now, in a version titled Final Cut—but good luck recapturing the earnest charm and “let’s put on a show” energy possessed by this cast. Some films, regardless of whether the “horror” or “zombie” titles are warranted, are simply one of a kind.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.