Zombie nation: South Korea and the new wave of zombie movies
Through deft social satire and political allegory, South Korea has not only grasped a defining monster of western cinema for themselves – they’re now leading hordes across the globe with a brand of undead movie-making of their own.
From the turbulent race relations mirrored in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, to the post-AIDS fears behind a swell of ’90s horror games such as Resident Evil, zombies have always been a potent metaphor for western anxieties. It’s no surprise then, that with people clamouring for stability in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the much-maligned zombie film feels relevant once again.
With images of deserted cities, alarming death rates and conspiracies of mind-controlling 5G antennas having flooded our screens, it’s hard not to recall nightmarish films such as Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic classic 28 Days Later.
In March 2020, Google reported that searches for “contagion movies” had skyrocketed on the search engine’s popularity index – and this was before lockdown measures were even introduced in the UK.
But with The Walking Dead now exhausting 10 seasons of formulaic zombie-slaying, and Jim Jarmusch’s star-studded indie The Dead Don’t Die failing to set the box office alight in 2019, it seems the zombie movie is in dire need of rebirth if it is to capitalise on renewed interest.
Hollywood need look no further than to South Korea for inspiration. Bong Joon-ho’s ground-shaking Oscar sweep for Parasite already marked out a zenith for the country’s film industry after a two-decade creative resurgence, and with the country recovering from the coronavirus pandemic at a rapid pace, this precedent looks set to continue.
As a distinctly western concept, zombies have previously held little relevance in a country already preoccupied with a pantheon of its own folklore demons. But through deft social satire and political allegory across a series of recent films, South Korea has not only grasped a defining monster of western cinema for themselves – they’re now leading hordes across the globe with a brand of undead movie-making of their own.
While Korean zombie films can be traced back to Kang Beom-gu’s obscure 1981 feature Goeshi, they didn’t become a cultural phenomenon until Yeon Sang-ho arrived on the scene with the high-octane Train to Busan in May 2016.
A rampage of set pieces largely confined to a high-speed train escaping the epicentre of a viral outbreak, the film was interpreted as a critique of the government’s response to the MERS outbreak the previous year. It launched the careers of Choi Woo-shik, who later played impostor school tutor “Kevin” in Parasite, and Ma Dong-seok, whose role as an unlikely working-class hero helped to imbue a potent class commentary into the film. (Formerly a personal trainer, Ma will make history when The Eternals hits cinemas in 2021: his portrayal of Gilgamesh marks the first time a Korean actor has portrayed a Marvel superhero on-screen.)
With over 11.5 million box office tickets sold in South Korea, Train To Busan became the country’s 11th highest-grossing film of all-time, prompting the release of an animated prequel, Seoul Station, later the same year. But while Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright would hail the original live-action thriller as “the best zombie movie I’ve seen in forever”, Train To Busan was arguably not even the best contagion movie released in South Korea that month.
Na Hong-jin’s nuanced and slow-burning exorcism thriller The Wailing, concerning the spread of a zombie-like viral infection through a sleepy suburban town, landed an international distribution deal with Netflix after winning awards at a slew of eastern film ceremonies. It scored emphatically well with critics and audiences across the globe – it currently holds a 99% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes – with praise piled on its brooding atmosphere and police-drama backdrop (two assets favourably compared to the British horror classic The Wicker Man).
The film’s success on the streaming platform left behind an important legacy, paving the way for what would become Netflix’s first-ever original Korean TV series: 2019’s Kingdom. Set in the medieval Joseon dynasty, the period drama follows crown prince Lee Chang, who discovers that his father, the king, has evaded death through unnatural means after falling ill. As a political conspiracy is gradually uncovered, bodies of the dead rise again to wage an attack on the living, in what has fast become known as Korea’s answer to Game of Thrones. Beyond the thematic similarities, Kingdom boasts a tightly-wound plot, stunning cinematography and allegories on elitism and socio-politics. And since the show concluded its critically-acclaimed second season in March, audiences have been clamouring for a third to be greenlit.
In the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic in 2020, South Korea has been widely-praised for its successful strategy to control and contain the virus at home. Now, as its citizens observe the continuing turmoil in the west, the country’s film industry continues to capture imaginations with a string of 2020 releases that seem to mirror ongoing world events.
Directly preceding the hotly-anticipated August release of Peninsula – the megabucks Train to Busan sequel that promises Mad Max levels of action in a decimated zombie wasteland, this month’s release of #ALIVE could not be more timely.
Korean A‑lister Yoo Ah-in (star of the Palme d’Or-nominated 2018 mystery Burning) plays Joon-woo, a survivor of an infectious disease that has decimated Seoul, forcing him to endure the onslaught of bloodthirsty crazies in isolation in his apartment block. The claustrophobic setting and suspenseful set-pieces are aided by the film’s focus on our short-sighted dependence on technology for survival, as Joon-woo and other quarantined survivors’ attempts to wait out the crisis are hampered by a lack of phone signal and internet access.
It seems mind-boggling that such a prescient story as #ALIVE could have entered production months before the first reported incident of Covid-19, but in many ways, it’s endemic of South Korea’s newfound resilience and ongoing presence on the cusp of film innovation.
In spite of everything that the world has thrown at us in 2020, the South Korean film industry seems set to continue their lurch forwards. What’s more it does so, while the west remains locked in a real-life battle of its own.
Update: Train To Busan Presents: Peninsula is out now.