My experience of Plastic Bag, an online video told from the point of view of a plastic bag (watch it here), was as follows. First, amusement at the decent enough Werner Herzog impersonator who provided the plastic bag’s voice and narration. (2009 was the heyday for Herzog spoofs: Werner Herzog replacing David Attenborough on BBC nature docs, Werner Herzog advertising washroom fixtures, Aguirre: the Bath of God, and so on.) Then, mild interest in the Sesame Street premise and the overall Michel Gondry-style melancholy quirk. Then, because the progress bar on the video wasn’t visible, pleased confusion at how far this throwaway joke premise was going to be stretched. Then the realisation that the Werner Herzog impersonator was Werner Herzog; that he’d lent his voice to this obscure short film (by Ramin Bahrani), one that progressed from its animated object gimmick into a story of the bag’s abandonment and heartbreak, and concluded as a poetic eco-fable that analogised never-ending loss with never-ending plastic waste. All of which is to say it’s impossible to read about Shin'ichirô Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead without spoiling it.
An odd stance for a writer to take—stay away! this is the point of no return!—but more than most, One Cut of the Dead is a film that needs to be seen cold. (If you get to see it all: a since-removed bootleg on Amazon Prime hampered its theatrical release.) For it’s not an evaluative judgement to say certain artworks are spoiled by knowing too much in advance. It’s a descriptive statement, in the same way that a joke wouldn’t work if you told it backwards. Narrative films are constructed in the order that they are for a reason: and the piling-up revelations of One Cut of the Dead have a charm that depends on surprise, on your ignorance, and, as with Plastic Bag, on your low expectations.
From the first scene of Ko (Kazuaki Nagaya) as a pastily made-up zombie terrorising a weakly flailing and cornered Chinatsu (Yuzuki Akiyama) in a derelict waterworks, One Cut of the Dead bares its cheap production values: the scene is shot on digital video with a cheesy film grain filter. But with a yell of “cut!” we learn the scene is a film within a film, the make-up pasty because we’re watching what we are, in fact, watching: two actors in a low-budget zombie horror. Their director Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu) walks off the set, angry he can’t provoke a decent terrified reaction from his actors. As for his crew, they too start going AWOL.
The genre trappings are familiar: missing people; isolated location; young, romantically inclined hero and heroine. The only originality seems to be in the premise: a zombie film that is itself attacked by zombies. The main pleasure is the character of director Higurashi who, it seems, was perfectly aware the set might be attacked: the flesh-eating zombies will give his film something raw, what he keeps joyously referring to as “real horror.” Whenever his cast and crew find a moment of respite, there he is again, throwing zombies at them or throwing them to the zombies, all the while brandishing his camera in their terrified faces. (The Japanese title translates as “Don’t stop the camera!”) The comedy here is on the darker side, and you might even assume One Cut of the Dead hails from the same sadistic place as Rémy Belvaux and André Bonzel’s Man Bites Dog, in which an appallingly complicit film crew follow around a hitman for their fly-on-the-wall documentary (the English title for Shin'ichirô Ueda’s zombie version could’ve been Man Bites Man).
The horror of the sadistic director is effective because of, not despite, the film’s cheap production values. One Cut of the Dead’s low-fi sound and images do more than express its found footage “this really happened” conceit. They also make the horror more horrifying, matching the grubbiness of horror better, in a way that the familiar gorgeous set design and beautifully photographed actors of mainstream horror films no longer do—familiar therefore comforting rather than disturbing. (Although this isn’t a permanent state of affairs: any artistic device that feels dead is only ever so till someone figures out a way to reanimate it.)
But even granting the cheap production values, moments in One Cut of the Dead feel like particularly amateur goofs: the unexplained relent of a zombie attack, allowing Chinatsu to live; her subsequent, convenient discovery of an axe. Even the nature of the camera through which we’re watching the story is inconsistent. Sometimes the characters treat it as a camera, like the one on Higurashi’s shoulder - they look straight down its lens, and at one point it drops on the ground. Yet at the same time the camera is ignored by the zombies, as if it’s not actually there but is the omniscient audience-eye-view. We can either forgive these goofs and gimcracks as part of the rough-and-ready nature of indie filmmaking, or put them down to the shoddy workmanship of B-movies. Our B-movie ends with a particularly wobbly crane-shot, revealing dazed final girl Chinatsu stood in the middle of a hex that someone painted on the roof of the building where the zombies attacked. Cue credits, with cheesy cast member inserts. You get up to leave, thinking One Cut of the Dead was a decent enough genre piece, if borderline student film.
But what you thought was the end of a relatively short film is followed by one of those ever-popular post credit stings, with a decidedly less angry Higurashi appearing in flashback. At first it seems we’re going to watch him prepare his zombie snuff-movie. If so, this would be a needless and self-indulgent filling-in of what we’ve already learnt: that Higurashi lured his cast and crew to their doom. We know that the hex marks the spot of the zombie attack at the very least, and we’ve inferred it might also have been their cue to appear on set.
The longer the post credits sting continues, the more it reveals itself as an entire second half of the story, unfolding further and further, like Adult Swim’s great Mandelbrot Zoom of a short film Final Deployment 4: Queen Battle Walkthrough. We aren’t watching a sinister Higurashi prepare his zombie snuff-movie at all, we’re watching an affable Higurashi and his cast and crew make a fictional horror film.
That very first scene of Chinatsu fending off a zombified Ko was a film within a film within a film. When the director yelled “cut!” we were still in a film within a film: one about a zombie film that’s attacked by zombies. Then after the credits, reality shifts again, and we’re now in a wider film: one about a cast and crew making a film about a zombie film that’s attacked by zombies. (Even so, this wider film is still a story, not a documentary, starring not the real world cast and crew but their fictional counterparts.) The tone shifts as well, steadily but sharply: we go from the sadistic laughs of the zombie horror to a gentle family and workplace comedy.
For Higurashi is “in reality” a self-effacing director commissioned to make a live TV-movie for a horror channel, the sort of workmanlike job that suits his cheap standards. But as the production shuffles on, he tries harder to keep his bosses, cast and crew happy and pull off the job well. One Cut of the Dead has shown its hand at last: the story is about, and is a tribute to, filmmaking, specifically low-budget filmmaking. The zombie relent, the convenient axe, the dropped camera, these were all part of the design: One Cut of the Dead is about the inevitable goofs and gimcracks of making a film.
We are indeed going over old ground but from a fresh perspective, like Back to the Future Part II did with Back to the Future. With One Cut of the Dead, we watch the finished zombie film, then its dogged pre-production, then the cast and crew’s frantic attempts to pull off its live TV broadcast. We literally go behind the scenes and watch from the back what we saw from the front: earlier, a frenzied “crew-member” (Harumi Shuhama) decapitated a zombie; now, a special effects team behind a wall just about manages to toss in a fake head and spray the actor with red paint in time.
The live TV device provides not only the tension but the farce-like comedy for the second half of One Cut of the Dead. Higurashi, crazed and cruel when playing the director in the film within a film, is a level up nervous and polite, dashing from set to set, slipping on the grass, propping up a drunk actor whose face we previously saw through a window as a moaning zombie. Higurashi and his crew, including daughter Mao, keep having to come up with creative solutions on the fly whenever the film threatens to fall apart: that wobbly overhead of the hex on the roof was filmed by a human pyramid of cast and crew with the camera-operator on top, assembled at the last minute once the director realises he can’t get the crane shot he wants for his climax.
Alongside comedy, then, is camaraderie: the camaraderie of collective art-making, especially when that art is made live and against the odds. More specifically and touchingly the camaraderie is what brings Higurashi closer together with his fractious but resourceful crew-member daughter, and it’s what gives his wife and former actor Harumi a way back into a profession she’d abandoned; and it gives Higurashi himself a chance to excel above his low self-estimation as a journeyman director-for-hire. His live TV-movie’s triumphant ending is the film’s triumphant ending: a cinematic coup about a cinematic coup.
Comedy horror is usually thought of as juxtaposition: a vampire—in Brooklyn? Or as a way to exploit what’s already present in the psychology of a horror audience: after the jump scare comes the laughter. But what films like One Cut of the Dead and its obvious predecessor and comparison point Shaun of the Dead exploit is the comedy of horror, that fine line between the grotesque and the goofy. Shaun of the Dead found its comedy in homage to the genre, via sight gags, visual references, and the extreme stretched to the point of the absurd. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace glorified in the tackiness of horror TV and the pomposity of horror writers (“Maggots? Maggots”). One Cut of the Dead doesn’t mimic its predecessors; it finds its comedy elsewhere: in the fun, thrill, and silliness of constructing artifice. As China Mieville once said to commemorate Ursula K Le Guin:
Anyone can laugh at monster movies—it’s part of the point, I do it, we all do it. But at a moment when the sneer is becoming the default cultural mode, it takes someone extraordinary to laugh, yes, and yet still, with instant playfulness but thoughtfulness, to dignify such so-called low culture in such a kind and funny way.