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One Cut of the Dead: The Full Autopsy

As I stated in my review, One Cut of the Dead is a whole bucket of fun… but it also spoke to me on an extremely personal level. Since it belongs to that rare breed of story that reinvents itself with every scene, its various twists and surprises are best experienced firsthand. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to further dissect its central themes, if only to better illuminate exactly why it resonated with me so deeply. Obviously, there will be SPOILERS below; please proceed with caution!

First thing’s first: the entire plot synopsis in my original review? Yeah, it’s a tiny bit misleading, covering just the first half of the narrative, which represents the film-within-the-film. That’s right, this a movie about people making a movie about people making a movie. It’s deliriously meta (and for an added layer, the third end credits sequence includes genuine behind-the-scenes footage), but that’s part of its inherent charm.

Amidst the quirky ensemble cast of egotistical thespians and vapid executive producers, a clear protagonist emerges: the director, played Takayuki Hamatsu. He’s the very definition of a journeyman, carving out a modest career in commercials, music videos, and dramatic reenactments—“deliver it fast, cheap, and average” is his philosophy. When the recently established Zombie Channel approaches him to helm its inaugural project—a horror flick shot in a single take and broadcast live—he’s taken aback, knowing the ambitious undertaking is far beyond his talents. Still, he accepts, primarily in an effort to impress his estranged daughter. She’s also an aspiring filmmaker, and once idolized him; now that the brutal realities of the industry have worn him down and made him complacent, however, she refuses to even speak to him, dismissing him as a pathetic sellout (judging by her collection of shirts and posters, she prefers such uncompromising auteurs as Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma). Thus, this latest gig becomes his last shot at redeeming himself in her eyes.

As expected, disaster strikes the production almost immediately, forcing our mild-mannered hero to play the character of the psychopathic director himself. Despite his initial reservations, he soon loses himself in the role, relishing the opportunity to vent his frustrations: straying from the scripted lines, he berates his leading lady—a manufactured pop idol—for her vanity and artificiality, and literally slaps around her male costar—a “flavor of the month” heartthrob with an arrogant streak the size of Mt. Fuji—for being such a disagreeable prick all throughout the rehearsal process. Ironically, “acting” allows him to be more honest, lifting his polite, non-confrontational façade; even outside of his “performance,” he steadfastly refuses to cut the camera, meeting every mishap and setback with a quick, clever solution. The execution is rarely perfect, but he always manages to keep the runaway ship afloat by sheer willpower and determination.

And then, the unthinkable happens: the crane required to capture the film’s haunting final frame is irreparably damaged, and the end of the network’s allotted time slot is rapidly approaching. The director’s agent urges him to devise a simpler closing shot—after all, this is “just another job,” and nobody’s expecting anything spectacular from a craftsman of his caliber. He nearly relents, too, once again sacrificing his artistic integrity—until his daughter suggests a significantly more audacious workaround: a hastily assembled human pyramid.

Ridiculous? Yes—but oh-so-satisfying. Best of all, when the very same actor that’s done nothing but whine and complain since his introduction notices a P.A. struggling to maintain her balance, he wordlessly moves her aside and takes her place, acknowledging that he is her equal, rather than her superior. And he grins as he does so, proud to have played some small part in realizing his director’s vision. Like the character he portrays onscreen, he has been infected—not by a zombie virus, but by the spirit of creativity that inspires such admirable cooperation and collaboration.

That smile reminded me of why I got into the business of film production in the first place. And for that desperately needed reminder, I will forever cherish One Cut of the Dead.

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