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A Chronicle of Korean Zombie Movies

Nov 05, 2018
  • Writerby SONG Soon-jin
  • View5195

Zombie movies, one of the classic genres of Hollywood films, have recently been the talk of the town in the Korean film industry. Although the Korean audience was already familiarized with the genre thanks to many TV series and Hollywood films, it wasn’t until TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016) that zombies really appeared in mainstream Korean films. However, upon closer look, it appears that Korean zombies go back way further than expected, with various attempts predating this revival in the Korean film industry. As Rampant is now showing in Korean theaters, let’s take a look at the evolution of the Korean zombie genre.

A MONSTROUS CORPSE, Korea’s First Zombie Film

Released in 1980, GANG Beom-gu’s A Monstrous Corpse was the first Korean film to depict a zombie. After that, zombie films have long been regarded as a genre difficult to incorporate into Korean films. Be it because of the preconceived notion that zombies had nothing to do with Korean traditional horror stories, or because the exotic Western culture was said to be already excessively present in Korea, these films failed to find their audience. Yet, there has been a constant effort by a handful of directors to approach the genre via low-budget horror films and short features. Among them, Dark Forest, the fourth segment of the 2006 anthology film 4 Horror Tales; A Brave New World, one of the three short stories included in KIM Jee-woon and YIM Pil-sung’s Doomsday Book (2012); The Neighbor Zombie (2010), which explored different genres to tell stories all set against the backdrop of a zombie outbreak; and the Ambulance on the Death Zone segment of omnibus horror film Horror Stories (2012).
Directed by KIM Jung-min and led by LEE Jong-hyuk and SO E-Hyun, Dark Forest follows five young women and men as they go hiking. This colorful cast of characters, which comprises Wu-jin the reliable leader of the group, his timid and easily frightened brother Seung-hyeon, Seung-ah who gets visions from the future and two somewhat careless friends, meet their deaths in a dangerous forest and have to fight against their friends turned zombies. With its mix of slasher, zombies and even shamanist elements, Dark Forest reinterpreted with a Korean sensibility the figure of the zombie that even back then was too abstract for a mainstream audience. As this experimental approach adopted by the film would be carried over to A Brave New World from YIM Pil-sung and Ambulance on the Death Zone, it really paved the way to zombie films.

A Korean Reinterpretation of Zombie Films

Doomsday Book had completed filming in 2006, the same year as Dark Forest hit theaters, but was eventually released six years later, in 2012. One of the segments, A Brave New World opened up new horizons for Korean zombie films. The film follows Yoon Seok-woo (RYOO Seung-bum), who is staying alone at home while the rest of his family is travelling abroad, as he turns into a zombie over the course of an enjoyable day. What stands out the most in the film is the explanation for the cause of this Korean-style zombie outbreak. Just as he was in a hurry before going to a blind date with Eun-ju (GO Joon-hee), Seok-woo ignored his mother’s firm request to throw away rotten food and instead disposed of it in the same bag as normal food waste before leaving home. The film then proceeds by explaining that, for some unknown reason, the food waste that Seok-woo, just like many others, had so carelessly thrown away mutated into a zombie virus and was recycled as livestock feed, which was then given to a cow that eventually ended up on the table of Seok-woo and Eun-ju during their dinner later that day, thus making them the first human cases. Meanwhile, The Neighbor Zombie, an anthology film released in 2010, took zombies as the core premise of its different segments. The film explored a 2010’s Seoul devastated by a zombie plague through six stories (with the first one, Crack, explaining the origin of the virus). The fact that this movie managed to craft so many variations – horror, comedy, drama, romance, action, and family stories – on the same theme is truly remarkable.

In addition to A Brave New World, the 2012-released Ambulance on the Death Zone was a little bit more significant in giving rise to the whole zombie genre. Helmed by KIM Gok and KIM Sun, Ambulance on the Death Zone tells the story of an ambulance crew’s desperate struggle after they successfully rescued a woman and her daughter from a zombie-plagued area. Unable to determine whether the girl has been infected with the zombie virus, an army surgeon decides to let the child and her protective mother get off the vehicle, a decision that then gets confronted by a concerned nurse. This film asserted that explaining the context of a zombie apocalypse wasn’t mandatory anymore. The genre being therefore well-established in short films, it eventually made the jump to feature-length works in 2014 with Zombie School. This 87-minute long film from director KIM Seok-jung is set in a school for troublemakers. One day, the teachers turn into zombies and the teenagers become the heroes in a fight for survival. 

Zombie Movies Adopting the Codes of Blockbusters

Cut to 2016, when a monumental work of Korean zombie cinema, TRAIN TO BUSAN, hit theaters. Following a group of survivors heading for Busan to escape a zombie pandemic spreading in Seoul, YEON Sang-ho’s project secured major studio Next Entertainment World (N.E.W.) as its partner and grew to become an eye-catching spectacle of special effects and makeups worthy of the film’s KRW 8.6 billion (around USD 7.5 million) budget. It is also worth mentioning that producer LEE Dong-ha, who had served as executive producer on Horror Stories, of which the zombie-themed segment Ambulance on the Death Zone was part, not only participated in the production of TRAIN TO BUSAN but also in that of its sequel, the animated feature film Seoul Station (2016). The experience he gained producing these occasional Korean zombie films suddenly emerged with TRAIN TO BUSAN, and the popularity of the film in Southeast Asia, including Taiwan and Hong Kong, was particularly significant in that it demonstrated the potential for Korean zombie movies to become global successes. And this year, Korean zombie films are taking another important step with Rampant. A blockbuster with its budget of KRW 17 billion (around USD 15 million), Rampant is the first Korean film to incorporate zombies into a period drama while also marking the reunion of director KIM Sung-hoon and actor HYUN Bin after their collaboration on Confidential Assignment (2017). The film, following on the path opened by the success of TRAIN TO BUSAN, is also getting released simultaneously in 19 countries of Southeast Asia, North America and Europe including the U.S., Germany and Australia, and is a title specifically aimed at the global market for the Halloween season, a first for Korean films.

Zombie Films PENINSULA and KINGDOM Are Coming

What, then, is next for Korean zombie films after Rampant? Last October, director YEON Sang-ho and REDPETER FILMS CEO LEE Dong-ha announced the production of Peninsula (translated title), which will be set in the same universe as TRAIN TO BUSAN. The studio tapped GANG Dong-won for the lead, a solid casting choice accord to many. Kingdom (literal title), the Korean original series Netflix is currently producing, is another zombie story set in the Joseon Era. KIM Eun-hee, one of the most prominent TV series screenwriter in Korea, is joining A Hard Day (2014) and Tunnel (2016) director KIM Seong-hun as well as BAE Doo-na, RYU Seung-ryong and JU Ji-hoon for this 8-episode series that will debut this December.
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