Zombies Vs. Coronavirus: Which Pandemic Do You Prefer?
New undead films from Indonesia and South Korea to infect you
Friday, July 31, 2020
"Train to Busan" (2016)
"Seoul Station" (2016)
As people cope with a real global pandemic, zombie films are reanimating to offer catharsis to some and increased anxiety to others.
Perhaps in prescient anticipation of COVID, there were more than a dozen zombie films last year and at least a half dozen slated for this year. You just can't keep the genre down.
In 2015, "Kampung Zombie (Zombie Village)" was advertised as Indonesia's first zombie film. Unlike most zombie films, these undead were armed as well as bitey. As a fan of zombie films I love to see how each country reinvents the genre on its own terms. In Indonesia, melodrama is embraced as a popular form of entertainment and the new film "Zeta" (now streaming on Amazon Prime) taps into family drama more than gore.
The film opens with some philosophical musings before cutting to Deon (Jeff Smith) dealing with a frequently absent dad and a mother suffering from Alzheimer's. At school, a fight leads to a visit to the nurse's office where a student suddenly turns on the nurse and bites her.
A full blown zombie apocalypse ensues fairly quickly and Deon tries to fulfill his filial duties and save his mom. Our current sheltering at home will seem much less stressful when compared to the quarantining necessary for him to avoid zombie infection. Plus, his situation is complicated by the fact his mom can't remember anything and casually walks down the hall to dispose of trash with zombies wandering the building. She also accidentally throws out precious food supplies.
One interesting innovation that writer/director Amanda Iswan brings to the genre is that the infected won’t attack anyone with brain damage or Alzheimer's. Seems the zombies either see them as too similar to themselves and not a potential threat or food source, or perhaps that they might not make a good host for the zombie infection.
Since my fascination with zombies comes in part because they function as a metaphor for my fear of Alzheimer's, this was an intriguing new twist. The film recognizes the connection between Alzheimer's and zombies and gets to what is scary about both: they represent a loss of identity with the victim of both still looking like themselves but not truly being who they originally were.
The film is a bit clunky in some of the plotting but Deon and his mom give the film a strong center to hold us.
"Zeta" injects a COVID-like virus image into its opening titles (probably a last minute add since the film was conceived before the real pandemic had hit) but there's really no tie in to coronavirus directly. The infection here is spread through contaminated water and leech-like creatures.
But Iswan seems less concerned with the disease or with horror and more with how family dynamics might come into play while trying to survive a pandemic. Because of that focus, the film is less likely to create added stress to our current outbreak and instead offer a distracting escape with a few nods to what some of us may be feeling right now.
South Korea's 'Zombies for Sale'
Korea has already delivered one of the best zombie films ever with 2016's "Train to Busan."
This film does what so many Korean films excel at: making you care deeply for characters and then doing horrible things to them. Korean films also tend to embrace melodrama as a narrative device to hook us emotionally. American zombie films, especially as defined by the godfather of the undead, George A. Romero, tend toward social commentary. And while "The Walking Dead" AMC series is rife with melodrama it tends more toward what I call soap opera.
While I love Greg Nicotero's zombie effects in that show, I have just never been able to get into what strikes me as the soap opera of it. If I want soap opera I rather binge the Netflix original Korean show "Kingdom," where it's all about nasty court intrigue during the Joseon period in Korean history. Plenty of zombie gore but against the lush backdrop of the royal family.
South Korean films like "Train to Busan" or a series like "Kingdom" and now "Zombies for Sale" (streaming on Arrow Video Channel) give us very human characters often stuck in complex family relationships that are just complicated by a zombie apocalypse. "Train to Busan" served up a devastating horror drama whereas "Zombies For Sale" opts for a more humorous take on a potential zombie apocalypse.
The Park family is dysfunctional at best and tired of not having a better life. Daughter Hae-Gul (Soo-kyung Lee) is known around town as the Mommy Killer because her mother died in childbirth. Her brother, Joon-gul (Jung Jae-young), and his wife, Nam-Joo (Ji-won Uhm), do their best to scam out-of-towners passing through the village. And her other brother, Min-Gul (Nam-gil Kim), is also always on the lookout for a fast buck.
But then a zombie wanders into town (Ga-ram Jung who eventually is given the name Jjong-Bi, which sounds like zombie) and changes everything. He bites the siblings' dad, which causes him to rejuvenate and then everyone wants to get bit. Of course there are some unforeseen complications that arise.
The film riffs on a lot of previous zombie films from "Land of the Dead" to "Warm Bodies" to "Zombieland," yet director Lee Min-jae manages to somehow keep it all fresh and decidedly funny. The references feel knowing and affectionate. The cast is wonderful even if their characters are not entirely likable. Or maybe it's more accurate to say they are likable despite being selfish, greedy and unscrupulous.
Lee Min-jae knows how to use visuals to play a joke whether it's in his framing of a scene, his editing or just incongruous use of beautiful slow motion. As with Nicholas Hoult in "Warm Bodies," Ga-ram Jung, with his blank, vacuous stare, gives the film a sweet soul and ends up guiding the Park family to a vague sense of humanity.
"Zombies for Sale" doesn't offer catharsis or social commentary on our current pandemic, but it offers wonderful escape while examining how even flawed, fallible characters can sometimes do the right thing.
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