Christine Ang-Buban and Ni Kadek Eta will never watch “All of Us Are Dead” (AOUAD) or any other zombie show. Ang-Buban’s love for Emma Stone didn’t move her to watch “Zombieland” (2009), and Eta tried but couldn’t get past Episode One of AOUAD. They’re the opposite of sister-entrepreneurs Anna Clarissa and Angela Javier, who’ve included the South Korean series in their top three zombie shows.
Shafa Amani is also into zombie shows. “[They] transcend the restrictions of gore and bodily functions of other creatures. [Also,] FX artists can shine because zombies can be presented in various stages of decomposition,” said the freshman at Gadjah Mada University in Yogjakarta, Indonesia, who lists “Day of the Dead” (1985) as a favorite because it “asks a lot of questions on humanity and morality.”
Amani’s university mate Nadia Azzahra likes the storyline of death as a result of failed experiments and finds it “very effective in scaring the audience, along with gory depictions of human disfigurement and drastic loss of humanity.”
Eta and Ang-Buban are a rarity in an era of zombie show lovers, especially with hits “Train to Busan,” “Kingdom” series, and AOUAD. The last was the most-watched show on Netflix’s Top 10 non-English TV list in January, garnering 124.79 million viewing hours. It is the latest in the string of K-drama shows steering South Korea’s entertainment industry into cinematic zombie history with its own brand of the undead.
Dokkaebi (goblin), gwisin (ghost), gumiho (nine-tailed fox), and jeosung saja (grim reaper) are creatures found in Korean myths. There are no zombies but they’ve crept their way onto the list, appearing in Kang Beom-gu’s film about corpses rising from their graves because of an experiment on radio waves titled “A Monstrous Corpse” (1981).
They returned decades later as a pack of fleet-footed zombies in “Train to Busan” (2016), chasing Gong Yoo, his on-screen daughter, and other passengers as the locomotive headed to the only safe city in South Korea. The nimble undead zipping through a train car was a refreshing take on the turtle-paced zombies popularized by George Romero. It was a box-office hit that dislodged Brad Pitt’s “World War Z,” which held the title of top zombie genre film even on its 13th day of release in Hong Kong in 2016.
Amani and Azzahra concur that “Train to Busan” fueled the languid flames of the zombie genre with its “amazing special effects and interesting metaphors of human egoism and sacrifice when faced with emergency situations.”
South Korea’s cinematic salvoes continued with the “Kingdom” series and AOUAD. The former framed a zombie apocalypse within that country’s last dynasty and a beleaguered crown prince battling lightning-quick zombies and his political opponents. The latter featured angsty secondary students in a zombie plague fending off infected friends and classmates.
“Zombie Detective,” a lesser-known series, gave it a comedic tone with a foundation-wearing zombie investigating his own zombification.
The unusual settings of the fast-moving zombies completed the Korean rebranding exercise. The besieged students in AOUAD were imprisoned in their school. Gong Yoo et al. were trapped in a high-speed train of Korea Train Express in “Train to Busan.” Crown Prince Lee Chang ruled in the Joseon era in “Kingdom,” which IT programmer Nico Martinez found vital “in learning about [Korea’s] historical culture.”
Linguistically, zombies go back to central and equatorial Africa. The Mitsogho of Gabon use “ndzumbi” for corpse while Kikongo speakers use “nzambi” for an ancestor with superhuman abilities. “Zumbi,” or someone returned from the dead, is a common term in Angola and the Congo, explained Christopher M. Moveman in “The Dark History of Zombies” by TedEd.
Historically, zombies emerged when France and Spain enslaved Africans and put them to work as laborers “who needed neither food nor rest, and would increase the wealth of their captors,” continued Moveman. The laborers were transformed through voodoo—a religion combining African beliefs with Catholic traditions—by a “bokor” (sorcerer) able to “capture a person’s soul and turn it into a soulless ‘zombi’ that will perform their bidding.”
Zombies entered politics when America invaded Haiti in 1915, and began its racist propaganda against Haitians by spreading false stories of devil worship, human sacrifice, and zombies.
The undead debuted in “White Zombie” (1932) as zombie slaves working in a sugar cane mill operated by a Haitian voodoo priest. They appeared as cannibalistic monsters—one of two popular zombie traits—when “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) premiered. The term “zombie” came from the audience when the sequel “Dawn of the Dead (1978) was released. The other trait, a fetish for the brain as food, was introduced in “The Return of the Living Dead” (1985).
Hailed as the leader in rebranding the undead, K-drama is undoing what Moveman described as the “erasure of the zombies’ original significance by American pop culture.” Zombification originally represented the horrors of enslavement that Haitians suffered, because “in Haitian culture, zombies are commonly seen as victims deserving sympathy and care,” he said.
Moving away from the zombie-as-monster trope, K-drama deconstructed zombification as a contagious phenomenon, which first appeared in “28 Days Later” (2002), in a two-pronged approach. First, it wove in themes—i.e., anomie, bullying, class system, political corruption, and urban isolation—that resonated with the global audience, and refocused the audience’s gaze on zombies from monsters to victims. In AOUAD, zombies emerged from a rage virus manufactured by a father hoping to help his son fight bullies and their enablers in school. AOUAD and the “Kingdom” series also touched on the class system that favors the affluent and disregards the underprivileged.
Second, it introduced strong feelings. Scenes of friends, family members, and lovers torn apart amid a collapsing civilization take the viewer on an emotional roller coaster ride.
“AOUAD effectively introduced emotions [like] love and worry for the characters, and K-drama highlighted all aspects of humanity by questioning the one thing people fear most—death,” explained Amani.
Without a doubt, K-drama’s innovative reinventions have recharged the zombie genre. However, creativity isn’t a license to gloss over historical context despite the uniqueness of the zombie reincarnations. Having turned the shows into vehicles of social commentary, K-drama shouldn’t let up, especially now that people have become zombie-like and inured to social issues like poverty and human rights, as well as discrimination, gender inequality, bullying and violence.