POM! One Cut of the Dead & the Sanctity of Surprise

| Chris Ryba-Tures |

A frightened young woman, looking up at an assailant off camera, covers her mouth to stifle a scream.

One Cut of the Dead plays at the Trylon Cinema from Sunday, July 7th, through Tuesday, July 9th. Visit trylon.org for tickets and more information.

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you already know something about One Cut of the Dead. If you’ve seen it, you don’t need me to tell you how special it is, nor would you want me spoiling it. An unassuming genre-bender like this, packed to the gills with heart and the unpredictable—one that out-metas the meta while remaining fun as hell to just sit back and marvel at—is a rare and wonderful thing. 

If you haven’t seen it yet, whatever you know about it, even if it’s just what you’ve read so far, is already too much. Sure, it’s part of the Trylon’s “The Long Take” series. As its inclusion suggests, it’s got a long take in it. You can know that. It’s got zombies in it. You can know that too. And, maybe the last thing that’s okay to know is that around the 20-minute mark you’re going to start wondering, “What the fuck is going on here?” That’s okay. Actually, that’s great. That intense doubt, which you’ll feel more than once, is part of the fun the first time you see One Cut of the Dead

Whatever else you know about it, whatever you’ve learned, whatever you’ve heard or read or seen or inferred about this strangely named slice of Japanese cinema, please, for your own sake, just for-fucking-get it.

Now, with that out of the way, I’ve got to get to my unenviable job of writing about a movie in which every detail revealed spoils beyond the borders of a typical spoiler; each is an outright theft of something increasingly rare, increasingly special, increasingly scarce: surprise. And I’m not talking about unpleasant surprises, like finding out you need a new roof on your house or suddenly finding that a sip of hard water gives you irrepressible diarrhea or, worst of all, [insert your least favorite M. Night Shyamalan twist here]. I’m talking about those satisfying, unexpected cinematic moments that make you sit up a little taller in your theater seat, that spread your emotions over your dumb-with-wonder face. One Cut of the Dead delivers these in abundance—and a thousand curses on the head of anyone who takes them away from you before you’ve had a chance to see it for yourself. 


A still from a self-defense video in which a woman throws off the embrace of her attacker by kneeling and raising her hands.

Unless I’m craving the comfort of a flick like Seven or Jurassic Park, or, I don’t know, The Departed for the fortieth time, my moviegoing maxim tends to be “the more surprises, the better.” I think the best movies do more than simply entertain us for a couple of hours; they allow us to simultaneously witness the drama unfolding onscreen and (sub)consciously experience how a uniquely personal drama is unfolding within ourselves. Surprise is integral to that experience. Hard or soft, sudden or gradual, unveiling something truly original or presenting the familiar in a novel new way, surprises switch moviegoing from passive reception to active engagement.

Isn’t that what everyone wants from seeing a new-to-me movie? As of late, I’m not so sure. Perhaps it’s the prevailing cultural cocktail of hyper-competence, instant gratification, divided attention, and generalized anxiety. Drunk with the desire to know, to be in-the-know, to not be the last to know, we’re trading in slow-ripening curiosity and a trusting surrender to the unknown for an in-your-face parade of the sweet, fast-burning satisfaction of spoilage. Even cautiously Googling a movie title may yield results that straighten out twists and unveil visual wonders. Trailers act more like detailed synopses than tasty samplers. Social media spills more beans than a lighthouse wickie drunk on kerosene and honey. Wikis make it easy to instantly survey all the major details of a movie, and if we don’t feel like reading, there are recap podcasts aplenty, some of them pretty entertaining, that will take us by the hand and walk us through popular, genre, and cult movies beat-by-beat. 

Even when each premature revelation feels like a tiny, completely preventable act of self-betrayal, I’m rarely strong enough to resist the allures of this spoilery territory. And when these revelations are just a few clicks away, my resolve doesn’t always hold out. I creep up to what I think is a safe distance from the nearest spoiler. Portrait of a Woman on Fire? What’s that about?!?! Do I want a first look at Austin Butler as Feyd-Rautha in Dune: Part 2? Of course, I do! Who wants to watch all the new trailers for the horror movies coming this year from Neon or A24? Me! Me! And I know that each time I give myself over to this desire to satiate my curiosity, even the smallest surprise prematurely siphoned from a movie is an absence I will feel come viewing time. Turns out that once you go looking, there is no safe distance. It’s all spoilery territory. 


Another still from a self-defense video in which a woman throws off the embrace of her attacker by kneeling and raising her hands

I’m willing to bet you can remember one or two truly, thoroughly surprising moviegoing experiences; ones where you walk into the theater knowing little more than the flick’s title and walk out collecting spilled popcorn from the carpet with your dragging jaw. I’ve only had a handful outings like this, and each of them is as vivid in my memory they were in the theater: laughing with joy as the Doof Warrior shot fire out of his guitar in Mad Max: Fury Road; being moved to tears in the swaying bamboo forest of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; the shock that overcame me as Almodóvar laid guided us through the horrible turning point of Hable con Ella in black and white. I’m confident, these movies would never have made such a profound impact and lasting impression on me had I caved to my curiosity and sought out their secrets in advance. No. I needed help achieving this.

My most surprising, and consequently most treasured, movie-watching experiences have resulted directly from the recommendations, insistences, or, most often, hand-led accompaniments of a very specific breed of friend. These are friends with whom I share a cinematic intimacy built on countless moments or hours of movie talk that is as much about movies themselves as it is about our inner lives. These are friends who have put as much time, energy, and love into our relationship with each other as we have our relationship with movies. They’re the people who’s movie recs need neither justification nor context—instant add to the watchlist in priority position. They’re also the first people I think of when I walk out of a movie that surprises me, the first people to whom I want to gift an unspoiled viewing. 

My buddy Dennis is one of these friends. And in 2020, Dennis gave me one of the greatest unspoiled movie viewing gifts I’ve ever received. After months of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, he and I attempted a “watch party” from our homes on opposite sides of the metro. Deciding how to pull off the watch party was easy: a countdown to hit “Play” on the same movie at the same time, then keeping Google Chat open as a means of hanging out.

What was difficult was deciding what to watch. I was totally out of ideas—at that point, lockdown had slowed new releases to a crawl, turned all my comfort movies into wallpaper, and exhausted any enthusiasm I had left for my watchlist. My movie lust was both dull and desperate, and Dennis, being one of those extraordinary friends, picked up on this wavelength. As is common in these friendships, his recommendation came in the form of a question: “Have you ever seen … One Cut of the Dead?” His excitement in response to my “…No…?” sealed the deal. No further discussion. No venturing into the spoiled wastes. 

“All you have to know,” he told me, “is there’ll be this point around the 20-minute mark when you’re gonna start wondering why I suggested this really bad movie. Just stick with it.” 

I was in. 

That said, being a “watch party,” I expected this to be a second-screen movie; more party in the chat box than actual watching. But within minutes of hitting “Play” I found myself speechless, first with bafflement, then astonishment, then confusion, then wonder, cycling faster and faster. Barring a few key points in the story where we passed back and forth a few lines of reflection, our movie-length chat was mostly just a sequence of a single three-letter word, alternating speakers; an onomatopoeic word of no small significance in the film; one that immediately stood as coded appreciation and joy between two friends sharing a singularly surprising movie-watching experience: 


A woman throws off the embrace of her zombie attacker by kneeling and rasing her hands. A young woman covered in blood sits in a chair and observes.

Think of that friend of yours who loves the movies the way you love the movies. The one who sees the whole person behind your Letterboxd account, who gifts you with movie recommendations you move to the top of your queue without question. The friend who delights in the surprises that only come to life on the silver screen. 

Now buy two tickets to One Cut of the Dead (playing July 7-9 at the Trylon). Invite your friend to see it with you, not telling them a goddamn thing about it, except maybe the title and what time it’s playing. It shouldn’t surprise you that, if it’s the right friend, they’ll say yes … and won’t press you for any more information.

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon

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