Excuse the pun, but watching anything zombie-related these days makes you feel a little brain-dead. The genre is as popular as it’s ever been this century—the Resident Evil video game franchise has spawned six films, and will soon be adapted into a Netflix series—but it has tended toward staleness and oversaturation. The early seasons of The Walking Dead were a ratings phenomenon, and while the series still draws an impressive chunk of viewers in an ever-splintering television landscape, AMC’s decision to double down on the franchise with additional spinoffs and movies is like a sports organization committing a ton of cap space to a superstar whose best days are behind them. (As a Washington Wizards fan, believe me, I would know.)
But if there were ever a time for a renewed interest in the zombie genre, we’re living through it. Watching people get infected with a mysterious virus and turn into mindless eating machines might be not everyone’s cup of tea in the middle of a pandemic, but as the surge in popularity for films like Contagion demonstrated, sometimes watching fictional characters grapple with familiar situations is its own kind of comfort viewing. Not all pandemic fiction is about the undead, but in the right hands, the genre carries thematic resonance by underlining how fear can evoke the best (i.e., selflessly helping others in peril) and worst (hiding a zombie bite from the rest of the group) of human nature.
And “the right hands,” it seems, are in Korea. Over the past four years, South Korean filmmakers have almost single-handedly kept the genre relevant, reputable, and, most importantly, original. If zombie programming will continue to be as persistent and unavoidable as an actual horde of the undead, we may as well stick to the good stuff circa 2016.
While there are some zombified terrors in Na Hong-jin’s sprawling and ambitious 2016 horror film The Wailing, it also throws in elements of a police procedural, body horror, demonic possession, and shamanism that defy neat genre categorization. (Nevertheless, the movie rips.) But another 2016 release, Train to Busan, brought a new twist to the zombie flick by incorporating a high-speed train. Yeon Sang-ho’s film follows Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), a hedge fund manager and divorced dad who’s taking his daughter Su-an (Kim Su-an) to Busan so she can spend some time with her mother. (If his occupation wasn’t enough of a hint, Seok-woo is kind of a dick and an uninvolved father.) Their journey, however, almost perfectly coincides with a zombie outbreak in the city, and it takes only one infected person boarding the train for all hell to break loose.
The zombies themselves are in the spirit of the hordes from 28 Days Later and World War Z: disturbingly fast, quick to infect, and with enough momentum carry their collective weight like a bunch of giant bowling pins when clustered together in a train car. The claustrophobic setup leads to some exceptionally taut set pieces, but like Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, Train to Busan also uses its setting to explore class divides. Most of the panicked passengers follow the lead of an older businessman, whose selfishness and cowardice results in several unnecessary deaths. The character reflects Seok-woo’s own worst impulses: At the start of the outbreak, he makes a point to tell his daughter that she should look after only herself.
It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the zombie ordeal leads to a change of heart for Seok-woo, and it’s the collective effort of selfless characters that offers hope in a bleak, increasingly apocalyptic situation. Train to Busan can be viewed as a commentary on corporate greed and institutional failures, particularly in response to the tragic 2014 Korean ferry disaster that left over 300 people, mostly teenagers, dead when the boat flipped. (An investigation later revealed that the company overloaded the ferry to save money.) And if there is a through line between Train to Busan and its newly released sequel, Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula, it’s that money can make monsters of us all.
After a prologue that begins at the onset of a zombie apocalypse, when a ship with citizens fleeing to Hong Kong has its own tragic breakout, Peninsula jumps forward four years. Korea has been shunned by the rest of the world; the peninsula has been cut off from outside resources, and Korean refugees who managed to make it out are treated as outcasts for their association with the deadly virus. Penniless and discriminated against, a former Korean military sergeant and his widowed brother-in-law join a small crew hired by a local Hong Kong gangster to retrieve a truck loaded with millions of dollars near the port of Incheon. Whoever makes it back safely will get a cut of the money.
Naturally, the team’s mission goes awry. Aside from the inevitable encounters with zombie hordes, the group also has to fend off a rogue militia, whose years living in a zombie apocalypse have made them into Mad Max cosplayers. Any survivors that the militia rounds up end up becoming part of their perverse form of entertainment: gladiator-like duels between innocent people and captive zombies. This theme is familiar to anyone who spent years watching The Walking Dead: Eventually, the biggest threat to survival in a world infested with zombies becomes other people.
Peninsula is at its best when it leans into quiet character moments, like the scene when the sergeant’s brother-in-law blames him for his wife and son killed on the ship four years ago. Unfortunately, the film is much more preoccupied with amping up the action, staging several car chases that leave zero doubt Yeon Sang-ho mainlined Mad Max: Fury Road before working on the sequel. It’s fine that Peninsula tries to channel George Miller’s franchise, but it’s disappointing how uninspired everything looks: From the car chases to the decimated streets of Incheon to the hordes of undead, the shoddy-looking CGI makes the biggest set pieces unconvincing and, worse yet, boring. (If you thought Fast & Furious strains credulity, wait till you see how Peninsula’s SUVs, vans, and trucks drift through narrow streets at, like, 80 mph.)
Critical acclaim and commercial viability has turned Train to Busan into an emergent franchise—an animated prequel, Seoul Station, was also released in 2016—but Peninsula doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor. Given how much Train to Busan and Peninsula focused on trains and cars, respectively, I can only imagine that a potential third film will take place on a passenger plane. But in the meantime, Korea has excelled this year with zombie-related topicality in another medium: television.
The setup for the Netflix series Kingdom feels so plucked from today’s headlines that it’s worth stressing that the first season was released in January 2019. A sageuk, Kingdom takes place in the 16th century following Japan’s repeated attempts to invade Korea, which left the country in ruins and its people suffering from disease and famine. If that (historically accurate) ordeal wasn’t bad enough, a mysterious new plague that turns people into flesh-eating zombies is also spreading throughout the country. (The whole zombie thing, of course, is not historically accurate.) The rapid spread of the outbreak coincides with a power struggle for the throne, and none other than the king has turned into a zombie. However, the king’s top adviser and his daughter, the queen consort, are hiding the king’s condition from the public until she can produce an heir—thereby preventing the crown prince, who is the son of a concubine, from taking the throne.
If the thought of a mindless zombie presiding over a nation isn’t potent enough, watching political operatives show more concern about clinging to power, spreading misinformation, and dismissing scientific breakthroughs than helping stop the spread of a deadly disease from decimating its own people makes you wonder whether series writer Kim Eun-hee is actually clairvoyant. Kingdom’s second season premiered on Netflix in the middle of March, arriving at a turbulent time when nationwide stay-at-home orders were implemented and the long (and ongoing) thrum of life in quarantine became the new normal—at least for those of us who care about the wellbeing of others and are lucky enough to be able to work from home. It might be a period piece, but few shows are as of the moment as Kingdom.
Timeliness aside, Kingdom is the rare show that can help to fill the Game of Thrones void in one’s life. With a deep ensemble of compelling characters spread across the nation, impressive production value, attention to historical detail, shocking twists, and the aforementioned political intrigue, Kingdom is worthy of attention. At just six episodes per season, the show is also a quick binge—provided that, as Bong Joon-ho once said, English-speaking viewers aren’t deterred from reading subtitles.
Subtitles are indeed the only barrier to entry—if you even want to call it that—to enjoying Korea’s slate of zombie-related film and television, which has put the rest of the world’s recent attempts to reanimate (sorry) an increasingly stale genre to shame. For anyone that’s looking to watch something that eerily reflects the chaotic state of the world, Train to Busan and Kingdom more than deliver while always making sure the drama and stakes are driven by its characters. Run, don’t walk, to give Train to Busan and Kingdom a shot—after all, in both universes, the zombies are fast as hell.