In 2019, there was a viral Japanese film called One Cut of the Dead which featured a single-take short zombie film, but the film’s scope pulls back in the second and third acts to show the making of it. We see the various meetings, casting choices, rehearsals, and family drama that wind up creating more harrowing and hilarious circumstances than the short film itself. One Cut of the Dead is a joyous experience, which contrasts the more serious Project Z (original Norwegian title: Prosjekt Z), a film that takes a similar tact, as both the movie-within-the-movie and the making of it are terrifying and suspenseful.
Here, edited and scored footage is interspersed with found footage, as opposed to keeping the metafilm – titled The Dead Awaken – separate. In the hinterlands of Norway, a film crew is creating what looks to be a very good student film about a vacationing couple being attacked by zombies. The line gets blurred between the metafilm and what’s going on behind the scenes, with director Julie (Eili Harboe) seeing her cinematographer boyfriend Felix (Vebjørn Enger) paying a little too much attention to lead actress Iben (Iben Akerlie). Between Julie’s assistant and best friend Maria (Regina Tucker), Felix’s goofy social media partner Leon (Jonis Josef), here-for-whatever actor Arthur (Arther Berning), and seasoned pro Dennis Storhøi (playing an amped-up version of himself), Julie’s got her hands full, which is leaving more time for Felix to get face time with Iben, merely one of the factors making Julie believe that she’s losing control over her vision.
Project Z comes at you from several angles to keep you off-balance and engaged. It’s easy to tell when the metafilm footage ends, as you hear “Cut!” from off-camera, thus transitioning to behind-the-scenes footage. But when we transition back to The Dead Awaken, we’re carrying more subtext given to us in the interim, whether it’s an acting choice someone makes or seeing Julie and Felix’s personal drama reflected in the metafilm’s story. It brings to mind another “behind the scenes on a film set” classic, Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion, where in-film character motivations blend in with those of the actors and film crew on that particular shoot. Here, Project Z aims to keep us completely in thrall with both The Dead Awaken and the on-set shenanigans… the latter of which takes a dark turn toward the middle of the second act, when a meteorite streaks across the sky and crashes not too far from the crew’s current location.
In the world of the film, Dennis Storhøi is the only big-name talent present, lending his appearance more as a favor than for the money. He’s revered by the crew because of his time spent with Antonio Banderas on The 13th Warrior, something the in-film Storhøi plays up in comedic fashion; the crew looks to him for stories and inspirational quotes, and he’s only too happy to give them what they want. The satire of the “aging actor trying anything to stay relevant” is largely funny, especially with the kind of show Storhøi (as an actor in Project Z) puts on, making a caricature of himself as the elder statesman and trying to remain professional while stumbling a bit too much for Julie’s liking.
In spite of the alternately loose and tense nature of the set, The Dead Awaken seems to be turning out to be a scary little movie. Writer/director Henrik Martin Dahlsbakken wrests frights from throwing “Rebecca” (Iben) and “Thomas” (Arthur) into an oncoming zombie apocalypse, slowly ramping up from a fateful country drive to the big set piece at a remote inn, which also doubles for their living quarters. The Dead Awaken had me covering my eyes in fear at certain points, especially during a sequence where Rebecca and Thomas are walking through the darkened inn; Dahlsbakken is very adept at nerve-racking sequences, bringing this skill to bear on both the metafilm and the found footage, especially in the film’s climactic third act.
Dahlsbakken takes his time letting the on-set drama unspool, winding up his pitch and letting it blast out in the last portions of the film, where everything goes haywire and bodies start turning up. His particular mix of found footage and traditional footage bouncing off each other sustains the film all the way to its mid-credits scene, which doesn’t really let us off the hook, but instead gives us more to think about as far as the interpersonal troubles with the crew. Adeptly performed and shot, the whole of Project Z is a scary and engrossing experience, with Dahlsbakken skillfully laying out the path for both The Dead Awaken and the on-set camera footage to work seamlessly in service of each other and for genuine terror.