When One Cut of the Dead opened at an 84-seat Tokyo arthouse theater for a six-day run in November last year, the micro-budget zombie movie seemed destined to go the way of the 400 or so independent films in Japan every year that fail to get a full release. Made for just $27,000 (￥3 million) with a virtually unknown cast, the film is now showing on around 200 screens and growing, on course to easily top $10 million, and has sold internationally from China to Brazil.
The film's offbeat humor, 37-minute opening single take, twists and numerous riffs on the zombie genre grabbed overseas audiences when it was shown at international fests, including a standing ovation and Audience Award at this year's Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy.
The U.K's Third Window Films picked up the worldwide rights, with Japan's Nikkatsu handling Asia. Deals have also been signed for South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Germany, the U.K. and Scandinavia.
"When Adam [Torel] from Third Window brought it to me and I heard about the budget, I thought 'Oh, another indie zombie film,' but when I watched it and I fell in love with it," Nikkatsu's Emico Kawai told The Hollywood Reporter.
Director/writer/editor Shinichiro Ueda, 34, made One Cut of the Dead in eight days after participating in workshops for promising actors and filmmakers at the Enbu Seminar drama school in Tokyo, which initially distributed the film. After gaining traction and rave reviews overseas, the film was released in three cinemas in Tokyo in late June. Discounts for those in zombie costumes and repeat viewers, along with various events, helped attract attention.
As directors and other industry people began to sing the film's praises on social media, the buzz around it grew and Asmik Ace stepped in to co-distribute, giving it a wider release from July. The film has now taken around $7.2 million (￥800 million) domestically, and with it booked to open on more screens from this month through to October and heavy media coverage, a final figure of double that is being forecast.
But the movie's massive success appears to have aroused some jealousy. Director Ueda acknowledged in a July interview that the film was partly inspired by a small theater company's play he saw five years ago. The writer of the play, Ryoichi Wada, saw One Cut of the Dead in July and tweeted about how funny it was and how happy he was that his close friends had produced such a good film. However, this week Wada appeared in the media complaining about the similarities with his play and said he is consulting a lawyer.