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From ‘Train to Busan’ to ‘All of Us Are Dead,’ the Zombie Apocalypse Continues to Infiltrate Korean Pop Culture

No matter how macabre, a zombie outbreak will continue to pique the interest of the audience

Debashree Dutta Jun 16, 2022

Photo: Courtesy of HanCinema

The zombie apocalypse had been ubiquitous as story elements in anime and manga, the performing arts, video games, music, movies, dramas and other forms of media long before it pervaded Korean pop culture. After George A. Romero’s classic American independent horror film Night of the Living Dead (1968), which precedes seven people trapped in a remote farmhouse under attack by an expanding cohort of flesh-eaters – the zombies – the zombie apocalypse surfaced as a prolific subgenre of cataclysmic fiction.

Michael Jackson’s (dubbed the “King of Pop”) music video “Thriller” (1983), in which he dances with a band of zombies, has been classified as a cultural asset by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, with various examples of pop culture groups paying homage to the video. A phrase about a zombie masquerade ball, “Night creatures call/ And the dead start to walk in their masquerade” prompted the zombie dance sequence in the same. According to Peter Dendle (an English professor at Penn State Mont Alto), the zombie invasion sequence was inspired by Night of the Living Dead, and the “Thriller” MV, on the whole, communicates the anxiety and powerlessness that are fundamental to zombie movies.

The Korean rendition of zombies came considerably later. However, its depiction of an armageddon produced by the outbreak of the rotting, shambling creatures outperformed its western equivalents in terms of storyline and production quality. To the point where the country is now leading the way globally with its version of ‘K-zombies’. The question is, what specifically draws us to this dark dystopian genre? I assume that a catastrophic global crisis is a recurring theme in zombie movies and how “common” people respond to these terrible situations is what makes them interesting. Additionally, the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic and our unwavering fight against an intangible but deadly virus has reinstated our belief in any other virus outbreak. In each case, the struggle to survive hits a nerve.

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For example, in Train to Busan (2016), director Yeon Sang-ho features passengers at the center of a ghoulish scenario triggered by a zombie plague inside this bullet train en route to Busan. Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and his daughter (Kim Soo-ahn) get engulfed in a bloodbath on board, as occupants start contracting the virus one by one. What follows is an intense melodrama that depicts panicked, frenzied activity as well as socio-political sarcasm.

The film’s runaway success, combined with its characteristic gruesome horror, proved that we enjoy our worst fears coming to life in fiction and are fascinated by survival strategies. Train to Busan is a cult Korean zombie flick that laid the groundwork for subsequent, more violent on-screen zombie outbreaks like Kingdom (2019), Peninsula (2020), Alive (2020), Happiness (2021), or the megabucks All of Us Are Dead (2022).

All of Us Are Dead reimagined the zombie apocalypse. When a botched research experiment culminates in a zombie infection at Hyosan High School, stranded students fight for survival without food, water, or a means of communication (cut off by the government). The nasty and gory visuals aside, the coming-of-age horror thriller takes a dig at relevant issues that plague society at large—bullying, cybercrime, and social networking to name a few. All of Us Are Dead‘s meteoric success may be due to its portrayal of a more relatable context. It perfectly illustrates how relentless mockery and a reluctance to tackle the issues may culminate in disastrous consequences. I feel the zombie apocalypse is employed as the perfect metaphor for the drama’s underlying message.

As a continuation of the worldwide success of the Japanese zombie games Resident Evil and The House of the Dead, the zombie renaissance began in the Far East and eventually spread worldwide. This spawned a zombie renaissance in popular culture, resulting in a renewed global interest in zombie films and, later on, a spillover to television and web-streaming portals. The fact that South Korea continues to invest in this subject shows that no matter how vicious, macabre, or filthy zombies appear, their presence in the frame, spewing blood and consuming flesh, will continue to pique interest while gaining mass momentum. Bottom line? With the resounding success of All of Us Are Dead, South Korea is eager to produce more zombie stories, as proven by Netflix‘s recent official announcement of the drama’s second instalment.

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The first season ends with more mysteries. The zombified son and wife of science teacher Lee Byeong-chan (inventor of the Jonas virus that caused the outbreak, played by Kim Byung-chul) are discovered and taken to a facility to be preserved for an unexplained reason. What happens to Nam Ra (Cho Yi-hoon), the class president who transforms into a different being like Gwi Nam (the bully, played by Yoo In-soo), is a mystery—they don’t turn into full-fledged zombies (even after being bitten), but they undergo a partial transformation that makes them half-monsters–all-powerful and capable of controlling their thirst.

Several other riddles remain unsolved like whether Cheong San (Chan Young-yoon) and Gwi Nam are annihilated, or if there is another surprise in store. Last but not least, what will the evacuees face? What’s the fate of Byeong Chan’s wife and son? All of this, and much more, is kept under wraps. Season 2 of All of Us Are Dead may be scarier, or perhaps more horrible. It’ll only be a matter of time before the secret unfolds.

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