As a general rule, you can tell me what happens at the end. In fact, if I’m finding a book or tv show stressful, I often flip ahead or look at recaps to find out what happens so I can just relax and enjoy it. That said, every so often I come across something where the twist is so effective that watching it really is a totally different experience when you don’t know where the story goes and I’m glad it was a surprise. I felt that way about the first season of The Good Place, and it’s the same with Shin’ichirô Ueda’s zombie horror-comedy film, One Cut of the Dead. So I’m going to attempt to pull off the neat magic trick of telling you about it without, you know, telling you about it.
If you’d told me that one of movies I’d like most this year would be a zombie film, I would have been skeptical. Zombies have never been my favorite creatures, perhaps because they are so often a metaphor for literal plagues and are more amplified humans than monsters. The type of fear they touch on for me is too close to the real world fear of disease vectors, home break-ins, and human-on-human violence. But One Cut of the Dead (2017) isn’t really about the zombies. The title in Japan translates as “Don’t Stop the Camera!” and it’s about a film crew making a zombie movie at an abandoned water filtration plant who activate an urban legend and get attacked by actual zombies. The first half of the film is, anyway. The second half is something else. Something wonderful.
I was told more or less the same thing, which is probably the only reason I kept watching through the kind of strange acting and shaky quality of the first half. The film was made on a $25,000 budget with unknown actors and opened in a single theater in Japan for a short run, and it starts out looking like that’s exactly the kind of film it is. There are awkward pauses and disconnected improvisation, the camera follows people around wildly and falls on the ground, and the final shot is wobbly and strange. If that were the whole film, it would probably not have made it out of that one theater. Lucky for us though, that’s not the whole story. The second half wraps a third layer around the structure for a very funny, creative, and honestly touching metafictional sandwich.
The fictional director character in the film is hired on to make the fictional film based on his motto of being “fast, cheap and average,” but the actual film is definitely not average. One Cut of the Dead was screened at the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy where it won audience awards and enough critical acclaim to earn it a re-release in several theaters in Tokyo. It went on from there to become the seventh highest-grossing domestic film of 2018, and brought in over 1000 times its budget at $31 million worldwide. That’s got to be some kind of record, or close to it, and it shows that there is a genuine market for clever, innovative stories with actors who look like everyday people.
Part of what is so clever about it brings me back to the concept of spoilers and the value of knowing or not knowing what’s coming. There have been studies on spoilers that show they actually enhance people’s enjoyment of stories (or at least one series of studies that got consistently repeated results across multiple genres and has been quoted numerous times, as well as another study that was looking to corroborate it and got the opposite result, so take that for what it’s worth). As I understand it, the theory was that we enjoy art for the whole package not just the ending, and knowing the structure of a story in advance helps people understand it in a more complex way and be free to focus on the details. We get more and different things out of re-visiting something familiar, which is one of the reasons that people enjoy re-watching movies and re-reading books. They also pointed out that everyone knows in advance (usually) that the couple will get together at the end of a romantic comedy or that the detective will solve the crime in a mystery, and being spoiled in that way is actually part of what makes it enjoyable.
I can relate to that. I used to feel like I should never skip ahead, like somehow it was cheating or indicative of some kind of weakness or personal failing. I also used to sometimes get stalled and take forever to get to the end of a book because it was stressful. It took me an unfortunately long time to realize that although spoiling other people on purpose taps into the ethics of consent, there was no moral component to whether I spoiled myself and even if some people would judge me for it, no one was actually watching or cared if I checked the ending. I think the flaw with coming to any conclusion about whether it’s true that spoilers increase enjoyment is that while it might be true that I’d enjoy a movie more knowing what happens or watching it a second time, it’s definitely a different experience and if you find out what happens before you watch then you’ll never know how much you might have liked that first experience if you’d been in the dark.
There’s also a value to something that genuinely shifts your viewpoint suddenly in a way that you’re really aware of happening, like realizing you’ve hung a painting upside down. We all have the sense that we’re right in our thinking otherwise we’d change it – believing in our own view of the world is part of how we stay invested and motivated – but the ability of stories to convince us of one thing and then prove to us that our own brains are unreliable narrators and can deceive us is super valuable. It forces us to be more flexible, open, empathetic, and to allow for more possibilities than we might conceive of otherwise. It prevents us from getting set and rigid in our beliefs. and reminds us that even when we think we really know what’s going on, we might be wrong and there might be much more that we don’t know about or see. Our interpretation of events is always a story and that story can mean something else if seen from another angle.
In stories that have that kind of kaleidoscopic twist, the second viewing is meaningful and interesting in a different way from the first because you attach significance to different things and make sense of them in different ways. You can also compare yourself and your experience watching it the first time to the second and see the story of yourself watching it. The movie stays the same but you change because you know something now you didn’t before. That’s one of the things I love about One Cut of the Dead. Not only does it give you that experience, but it actually shows you the same thing from another angle in the film itself, and then you still have to go back and watch it a second time to appreciate it in a whole new light, making it a metaphysical triple-decker sandwich. With fries.
I had a poetry professor in university who had us write an essay on the meaning of a poem, and then immediately assigned us to write a second, different essay on the meaning of the same poem. It made a number of my classmates very crabby, but the exercise shifted my thinking and I have a lot of respect for a text that you can genuinely get more out of reading again. My assignment for you: watch this film and then watch it again.
alex MacFadyen apologizes for the use of “zombie” and “sandwich” together in the same phrase.