The best Japanese filmmakers have always exhibited a talent for putting unique spins on familiar storytelling structures. The Zatoichi series was formulaic as hell, but Daiei’s stable of workhorse craftsmen consistently introduced enough subtle variations to keep each installment fresh and memorable; Yasujiro Ozu, meanwhile, famously referred to himself as a “tofu chef,” because he could utilize the same basic narrative ingredients to prepare a near-infinite number of distinct dishes.
Despite its unapologetically lowbrow ambitions, One Cut of the Dead (currently screening at IFC Center) continues this proud tradition. Zombie movies, found footage thrillers, and overwrought “behind-the-scenes” dramas may be a dime a dozen, but this madcap horror comedy feels like a one-of-a-kind experience precisely because it exploits the genres’ tired, worn-out tropes and conventions, throwing them all into a big blender and mixing them together into a deliciously pulpy concoction—one part (old-school, pre-Oscar) Peter Jackson, one part Edgar Wright, and a generous helping of Takashi Miike’s particular brand of blood-soaked, stomach-turning fun.
The plot revolves around a small crew struggling to produce an ultra low budget splatter flick akin to The Evil Dead. In a twist straight out of Shadow of the Vampire, the demented director has chosen a location that is actually inhabited by the walking dead, in an effort to wring some measure of emotional authenticity out of his amateur actors. Thus ensues a breathless, gore-drenched, laugh-a-minute roller coaster ride that unfolds over the course of a single, unbroken take… albeit one that is occasionally interrupted by very noticeable lapses in internal logic. Is the “camera,” for example, merely an omniscient, disembodied observer, or is it being operated by an unseen participant in the action? The answer seems to vary depending on what is funniest in the moment, which runs the risk of alienating viewers by shattering their willing suspension of disbelief.
Of course, One Cut of the Dead features more than just one shocking revelation, and while I don’t want spoil too much, I will say that the abrupt tonal and stylistic shift at the halfway mark completely re-contextualizes everything that precedes it, justifying all the little, nagging “inconsistencies” in a spectacularly satisfying fashion. It is, ultimately, the feel-good film I needed to see at this point in my life—a cathartic celebration of that unquenchable impulse that drives artists to create, challenges and setbacks and consequences be damned.