How South Korean cinema has saved and perfected the zombie genre
It's no secret that the zombie genre is looking a little rotten at this point with the decline of once-great properties like The Walking Dead and zombie movies usually being bargain bin affairs, the genre has needed fresh takes and fortunately South Korea is providing those in spades.
(Potential spoilers ahead for Train to Busan, Netflix's Kingdom and All of us are Dead.)
The release of Netflix's latest South Korean collaboration All of us are Dead has solidified South Korean cinema as the premier place to create fresh takes on the zombie genre, just in the last few years we've had fantastic films like Train to Busan reinvent the genre once again or series like Kingdom deliver on the promises of western media like Game of Thrones in a single season. Many of these properties have several things in common that leave me excited anytime a new south Korean zombie property is announced.
Characters & writing.
Something that zombie entertainment has struggled to capture for many years (except for early Walking Dead) is characters with strong writing. To immerse yourself in the drama and tragedy of a good zombie story you need characters who feel like real people caught up in a terrible situation, they need to feel vulnerable and flawed not heroes who can nail a zombie in the head the first time they find a gun, and even in cases where that does happen it’s a point for the narrative to explore.
After all, what often makes a good zombie drama so engaging is the ways that different personalities come together in an impossible situation, this doesn't mean characters need to be good people they just need to be good characters. A great example of this is the characters in Sang-ho Yeon's iconic Train to Busan, take our protagonist, for example, Seok Woo, he's a character that we are quickly shown to be a career-focused man who fails to make time for his child and is divorced from his wife.
A lesser film would prop this character up immediately and reveal him to be a composed moral paragon who rises to the challenge, but for the first half of the film that's not who he is at all, he is a selfish man who whilst having a genuine love for his child doesn't do enough for others and even almost kills our secondary protagonist at one point in a moment of cowardice. But it's by seeing these ugly parts of his personality that we see the true good in him and his arc in becoming a man his daughter is proud of and so desperately wants him to be, this kind of character growth is what makes the film such an emotional powerhouse and this is just one character in a film filled with excellent writing and characters.
Creative and inventive settings.
Another feature that many of these properties have in common is their use of fresh new settings for their zombie tales, for example, Train to Busan takes place on a lightening fast bullet train and uses its carriage separations effectively, or how about Kingdom a series that gives us all the fascinating politics of a period drama whilst throwing in fresh interesting zombie lore. Most recently All of us our dead gave us an interesting perspective by using its high school setting as a way to both introduce and explore relevant topics from a younger perspective whilst also setting up new and exciting set pieces.
Commentary that would make Romero proud.
One thing that people seem to forget with zombie films is that social commentary is at the core of all the best stories Romero's most iconic work like Dawn focused on our obsession with consumerism and how his zombies were robotically drawn to the shopping mall as a beacon of consumerism. Similar to the classics many of South Korea's take on the genre all focus on a different issue relevant to South Korean culture Busan focuses on elements of classism and the cutthroat mentality of climbing to the top of the business world. Kingdom on the other hand looks at the power struggles of royalty and the political games that can be played, and most recently All of us our Dead tackles hard subjects like teen suicide, pregnancy and bullying to name a few.
All of these subjects are handled with sensitivity and feel earned throughout each of these properties and like many great works with these kinds of messages, you don't need to fully engage with the message to appreciate the stories being told.
Makes zombies frightening again.
And the final thing that South Korea seems to get consistently right is making its zombies frightening, gone are the slow shambling walkers of Romero and Kirkman, these are much close to Boyle's infected though most of them still require a headshot to be dealt with. Each of these films and series understands what makes zombies frightening and they focus on vicious rapid attacks rather than slow-moving lumbering carnage, these zombies care more about spreading than eating which in the long run makes them a far more deadly and frightening foe.
All of us are Dead finds a nice balance between the occasional cringe-worthy splash of gore with intense erratic zombies that contort their bodies before sprinting after their prey. Each of these shows and movies despite using similar blueprints for their zombies brings their spin as well creating new scenarios and ideas not seen in the genre before.
All in all, the zombie genre is alive and well thanks to the many talented filmmakers of South Korea they have recaptured what made the genre a powerhouse in horror when it first began in the late 1960s if George Romero is the godfather of zombies, then the filmmakers of South Korea are his successors let's hope they continue to reinvigorate the genre.
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