If, like me, your instant reaction to this Japanese film is ‘oh not another bloody zombie movie’, then stick with it. I saw it without knowing too much about it, which means getting through a first act that is at once familiar in its premise (a real zombie attacks a film crew turning out a cheap zombie movie), not exactly unprecedented in its Silent House-type single take gimmick, and given to technical lapses which might or might not be deliberate before the good stuff – which pulls the rug out from under the unwary viewer and delivers an entirely different kind of film (it’s even in a different genre) with a lot of wit and heart, and Living in Oblivion-style observations about the stresses and strains of filmmaking at any level. You might well get the most out of director-writer-editor Shinichiro Ueda’s picture if you haven’t read too much about it going in … so stop reading here. But come back to afterwards for discussion.
Even in the 37-minute low-budget zombie movie that serves as a prologue there are a great many subtle touches. We open with aggravated director Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu) on his last nerve because his scream queen lead Chinatsu (Yuzuki Akiyama) has blown her lines and ruined 42 takes, which later resonates as the film-outside-the-film-outside-the-film has to plough on with its uninterrupted single-take shoot no matter what the actors say or do to foul up. In the sort of abandoned facility location familiar from dozens of low-budget horrors, leading lady Chinantsu is fending off her pasty make-up pretend zombie boyfriend Ko (Kazuai Nagaya) when a real zombie barges in, running up against Nao (Harumi Shuhama) – a makeup woman with a short fuse and martial arts training – and delighting Higurashi, who keeps filming as his cast die, dementedly screaming ‘action’ at each atrocity. We’re treated to a hysterical runaround with head-axing, dismemberment, decapitation, much screaming and stumbling (and a neat little moment when Chinatsu is terrified that she’s been bitten by an infectious zombie only to peel off the scab and realise it was make-up for the film) with a splendid final crane set-up as the camera hovers over the final girl stood in a bloody pentagram and stunned by the roll of credits appearing in the sky.
Then, we flash back a month … and find Higurashi, who sells himself as ‘fast and average’, inheriting the job of making the movie, which is due to go out on TV live, and going through a set-up process in which all the characters we’ve met appear as their ‘real’ selves, with Ko revealed as a know-all diva who argues about whether zombies would be able to wield axes, and a new family drama as it turns out Higurashi is married to Nao, an actress who’s been away from the screen for a long time because she tends to get carried away by her roles, and that their daughter Mao (Mao) is the most resourceful and dumped-on member of the behind-the-scenes team. Then, we go through the whole shoot again, pulling back to show all the crewmembers (in their One Cut of the Dead sweat-shirts) nipping in and out to facilitate the shoot. The actor playing the prime zombie is so drunk he has to be puppeteered by the crew, another cast member has irritable bowel syndrome and the script has to be rewritten on the fly around his emergency bathroom break, and Mao starts worrying that her mother is liable to do her co-stars an injury with the real axe. Oh, and the crane needed for that crucial final image is broken – forcing a real display of ‘the show must go on’ co-operation from the whole gang.
An issue for me in the proliferation of zombie movies is they tend to indulge in runaway mean-spiritedness – but this shifts from crass horror to movie bizz satire before coming up with a genuinely sweet, infectiously funny vision of a movie crew as a literal extended family going out of their way to cover each other’s asses even as that axe means the real danger has not gone away. All those flaws and non sequiturs in the first act make sense when we see them again from the other side of the camera – and we appreciate that an actor rambling on as if they’ve forgotten their lines is desperately covering for a technical crisis that’s not their fault. Having the cast deliver deliberately poor performances for a full third of the film is a high-risk strategy, but pays off as everyone changes gears – Hamatsu and Shuhama are especially deft, with their ‘offscreen’ characters feeding into their acting work to show how performers take from their real lives to give feeling to made-up drama. Also, the magic act of making a one-take film is just irresistibly amusing when we see behind the scenes – of course, I’ve always known that things like the opening shot of Touch of Evil were achieved with armies of technicians scurrying around out of camera view keeping it together, but it’s still a delight to see these serious, dedicated, putupon folk at work. And, with a last flourish, the film includes making-of the making-of footage in its end credits.