Edited by Hwang Hong Sun
Translated by AustinL
Despite COVID-19, #Alive lit up movie theaters with an astounding 200,000 moviegoers on the first day of its release. Peninsula, the sequel to Train to Busan that is even getting attention overseas, is set to hit theaters with full force on July 15th. And the original Netflix series Kingdom Season 2 gained worldwide popularity. Although it was considered a “minor” genre just a few years ago, zombie movies have amassed significant popularity and even earned the name “K-Zombies” outside of Korea. Why is that?
1. A B-class genre reborn into an S-class blockbuster
Zombies movie genres are usually considered lower class horror movies overseas. This is because it is often hard for bizarre movies about dead corpses biting humans to receive positive reviews. But this is different in Korea. Train to Busan, which combined an unfamiliar zombie story with a disaster movie, lowered the barrier for entry and drew in explosive popularity with over 10 million total moviegoers. In addition, a stellar cast that includes Gong Yoo, Ma Dong Suk, and Jung Yoo Mi, and a 10 billion won production budget contributed to the movie’s immense success.
2. A story that reflects Korea’s social issues
Zombie movies that portray anomic situations tend to expose issues in our society today. Similarly, K-Zombie movies connect various social injustices present in Korean society with its storyline. Kingdom and Rampant, which are both set in the Joseon Dynasty, criticized the ruling class for using zombies to gain more power while the people continued to die from plague and famine. Train to Busan and Seoul Station shines a light on people’s selfishness during crises.
3. A heart that aches with pity for the zombies
When adapting Matt Naylor’s screenplay for his movie #Alive, Director Cho Il Hyung put the most focus on depicting emotions. Compared to overseas movies of the same genre, K-Zombie flicks work to incorporate more emotions in the storytelling. A more emotionally compelling film is created when a zombie’s relationship to a living person is emphasized. Some good examples would be Train to Busan and Kingdom. In Train to Busan, Sang Hwa prioritizes his wife’s wellbeing even in his final moments. In Kingdom, Moo Young sacrifices his life while protecting Lee Chang. But the emotional and humanistic portrayal of K-Zombie is not always praised— some people criticize how these superficial emotions are ultimately irrelevant to the plot and only try to squeeze out tears from the audience.
4. The thrill felt when watching a zombie run
In earlier works, zombies tended to walk very slowly. But ever since the release of 28 Days Later and Dawn of the Dead, the zombies of the 21st century started to run. As it turns out, most of the zombies in K-Zombie movies are able to run. This is because the fear and pressure felt by the audience are heightened and the fast-paced plot and thrilling life-or-death struggle make the movie much more exciting to watch.
Particularly in K-Zombie movies, zombies twist their bodies and make erratic movements, making them look even more strange. As professional choreographers participate in these films and meticulously plan out each movement, the creepiness of zombies’ infection and transformation are significantly elevated.
5. Memorable characters only found in K-Zombie movies
Besides the running, erratic zombies, memorable characters also make K-Zombie movies more enjoyable. These characters experience the unique circumstances present in the story and draw attention for their distinctive personalities.
Sang Hwa, from Train to Busan, is shown fighting zombies with his bare hands. When the movie premiered at Cannes, the response towards this character was monumental, especially since most people are used to seeing characters killing zombies with guns. Sang Hwa’s bare hand fighting was a refreshing approach to action set-pieces.
Kingdom’s Young Shin is also a character that makes the series stand out. He characterizes his cold personality when he decides to survive by eating human flesh instead of starving to death. But as the story goes on, he acts like a “dark hero” and saves others. He represents the people who feel distrust towards the government and the ruling class, effectively conveying the message of Kingdom.