A big film festival wouldn’t be complete without a zombie movie these days. At first I thought, “Oh no, another zombie movie.” However, One Cut of the Dead has a fresh take on the genre, but it can be done only once, and it does it wonderfully. It is the funniest movie in the New York Asian Film Festival this year. This is the funniest movie I’ve seen this year.
A movie crew goes to an abandoned factory to shoot a low-budget zombie movie. The director is increasingly frustrated and abusive to the actress, who’s not acting terrified enough. The factory is rumoured to be cursed. Then real zombies show up and attack.
The director, who may have enacted the curse, is chasing after the actors and what’s left of the crew to film their genuine terror. The make-up woman becomes the only competent zombie-killer with a clue how to fight. The rest is screaming and lots of blood. “This is true filmmaking!” the director screams. What follows is a frenzied, silly over-the-top horror comedy shot in a single 37-minute take as total mayhem ensues.
And then there’s more after that, and I kind of hate to spoil it, but I have to in order to talk about this movie properly. Suddenly it’s one month before the movie, and the director is actually a real jobbing director who makes karaoke, Public Service Message, and corporate videos for a living when he’s approached by a producer friend with a job: to make a real-time half-hour zombie movie for live broadcast to launch a new zombie horror cable TV channel. Of course he takes the job. He’s a professional, after all. But he has a look of panic on his face because he knows better than anyone this could all go horribly wrong.
The rest of the movie becomes a shaggy dog story about the travails of low-budget filmmaking and a gently touching and funny family comedy. The director is married to a retired actress who will end up playing the make-up woman-turned-zombie killer. They have a moody teenage daughter graduating from school soon who’s also an aspiring movie director, having grown up watching her dad direct.
The director’s reputation as a reliable journeyman is based on his “fast, cheap, and average” credo, though he quietly nurses middle-age disappointment and faded dreams of artistic ambition. To deliver, he has the extremely stressful task of putting a cast and crew together that can pull off the zombie movie we just saw.
There’s the pop idol whose agency has gotten her the role of the screaming damsel-in-distress for acting debut. There’s the up-and-coming indie movie star who’s playing the actor playing the zombie who makes demands for authenticity and won’t stop asking questions about logic. There’s the aging character actor who’s unfortunately an alcoholic. There’s the other character actor who has major bowel problems. There’s the milquetoast actor playing the geeky cameraman. And, of course, there’s the stressed-out crew. All the characters are set up to pay off in the last half-hour of the movie.
This movie is like Michael Frayn’s classic stage play Noises Off, which had a similar structure and also deconstructs how the sausage is made in a theatrical product where backstage drama and on-stage drama intersect. The final third of the movie takes place in the half-hour it takes for the cast and crew to make the movie. And to see the utter slapstick mayhem that the director and crew have to endure to make sure the movie and broadcast actually succeed is even funnier than the half-hour one-take movie itself. Behind the scenes, everything that could possibly go wrong does, every expectation set up in the second act is met.
This, the movie suggests, is what true filmmaking is. To any filmmaker or film student, this will run hilariously true. The movie becomes a celebration of filmmaking and people who make movies. The conflict between art and business rears its head, and art narrowly wins, if mostly by accident.
One Cut of the Dead premieres at the New York Asian Film Festival on July 13th. Tickets are available at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s website.