Angela Kang, “The Walking Dead” showrunner, was born and raised in California, but she has relatives in South Korea, where her parents are from. Over the years she had lost touch with them, but one day they contacted her. They had been watching “The Walking Dead.”
“They saw my name on the show,” she said. “They don't watch other American TV, but they were watching this show.” As a lifelong lover of zombies and horror who has worked on the hit show since 2011, Kang said she’s noticed a growing love for zombie lore in South Korea. She was also invited to speak on a panel in South Korea because of the popularity of “The Walking Dead,” which aired its season 10 finale Sunday.
It’s all part of a movement in which South Korean creators are taking the zombie genre and making it their own.
“Zombie stories are not a natively popular format in Korea — it's a newer genre out there,” she said.
These creators have put their own stamp on zombies by taking the trappings of the genre — the undead horde, the blows to the head and the continual fleeing — and wrapping it up with social commentary on issues like class and government ineptitude.
The first major Korean zombie film was Yeon Sang-ho’s 2016 thriller “Train to Busan,” which broke box-office records in South Korea and has a cult following stateside. University College London professor Keith B. Wagner called it “South Korea’s first zombie blockbuster” in the book “Rediscovering Korean Cinema.”
The success of “Train to Busan” inspired other Korean auteurs to take a stab at their own version of the zombie apocalypse, and it showed producers that the zombie genre could be lucrative in South Korea. “Kingdom,” written by Kim Eun-hee, is a period zombie television show that recently premiered its second season on Netflix. This past summer, audiences flocked to the theaters for two zombie films released in Korea: Yeon’s follow-up to “Train to Busan,” “Peninsula,” and Cho Il-hyung’s “#Alive,” which was then released on Netflix on Sept. 8.
All of these new Korean zombie works are part of what Kang calls a “creative renaissance happening in Asian storytelling for film and TV,” which recently reached a milestone when Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” became the first foreign-language film to win the Oscar for best picture.
How did Koreans even discover zombies in the first place? Through the infectiousness of American pop culture. Yeon said he was inspired by George Romero’s films and Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later.”
Kim said she was inspired by “Dawn of the Dead” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” “I like zombie movies because of the dramatic tension it renders,” she said. “The fact that anyone, a member of the family, a lover or a next door neighbor can turn into a monster was intriguing. In such situations, I feel that horror and sorrow co-exist.”
“Train to Busan” was a compact thriller that took place primarily on a moving train. “Peninsula” is a combination of a zombie and heist film, about a band of fugitives who return to the overrun Korean peninsula in order to find treasure. It even features a car chase that was inspired by “Mad Max: Fury Road.” In “Peninsula,” similar to “The Walking Dead,” the humans, who kill each other over resources, are as monstrous as the monsters they are fleeing from.
“Through ‘Peninsula,’ I want to ask the question: In a desolate and hopeless world, how can we create hope?” Yeon said. “We will be faced with many unexpected setbacks and misfortunes. I hope this is an opportunity for us to think and ask ourselves, ‘How can we overcome this and not lose our humanity in the process?’”
When she originally created the popular comic “The Kingdom of the Gods,” which was the basis for the “Kingdom” show, Kim was inspired by a real-life epidemic that occurred during the Joseon dynasty. The disease was unknown, so she turned it into a zombie outbreak. In “Kingdom,” those in power are too busy squabbling to properly manage the disease, which soon spins out of control. “I wanted to depict the clumsy management of the epidemic,” she said.
In the end, the zombie outbreak does not discriminate based on class, infecting rich and poor alike. “I wanted to show the scenes where people of various classes — the aristocrats in silk robes, the butchers and gisaeng (similar to Japanese geisha) — devour human flesh in the same exact way to satisfy hunger,” Kim said. “I wanted to portray discrimination through this.” While most zombie narratives take place in the modern era, “Kingdom” sets itself apart by being a period piece (Kim admits that “Game of Thrones” is a “personal favorite” of hers).
In contrast to the sprawl of “Peninsula” and “Kingdom,” “#Alive” is a more intimate exploration of a zombie outbreak. Cho co-wrote the screenplay with American writer Matt Naylor. It follows a young man who is alone in his apartment when Seoul is overrun by the undead. While in isolation, his mental health starts to deteriorate.
When “#Alive” was released in South Korea, it had the highest first-day theater attendance rate since January. The film was finished before the Covid-19 outbreak, but Cho believes audiences flocked to see “#Alive” in theaters because its themes hit close to home.
“The film resonated with many people because it is comparable to our current reality, where we are quarantined and distanced, filled with uncertainty and fear,” he said. Cho added that the film was a metaphor for the importance of maintaining human connection, even in a world where humans can be a vector for disease.
“People tend to distance themselves from feeling emotions of love or wanting to understand each other when they are isolated and alone,” he said. “The convenience of civilization, such as technology in the modern world, makes it easy for people to conveniently isolate themselves and forget a society of sharing. I wanted the relationships in '#Alive' to portray the process of reclaiming those emotions in an extreme situation. I hoped the audience could be reminded of the emotion of being alive when being together, not when by ourselves.”
Cho sees zombies as the next evolution (or to use a term from “Kingdom,” a mutation) of the Korean horror genre. Dubbed “K-horror” by fans, the genre includes monster films like Bong Joon-ho’s “The Host” and ghost stories like Kim Jee-woon's “A Tale of Two Sisters.”
“I think zombies are an impactful genre with many global and multicultural factors, and those characteristics met with the Korean horror genre and are creating stronger and newer content,” he said. “Desire for something new is universal and natural in all genres.”
With the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the renewed public interest in pandemic narratives, zombie stories don’t seem to be dying out anytime soon. "The Walking Dead" has gone back to production and will air six new episodes in early 2021. AMC recently announced that the show will end in 2022, but Kang is working on a spinoff. Meanwhile, Netflix has taken an interest in producing and distributing Korean content; it co-produced “Kingdom” and its new original Korean zombie series, “All of Us Are Dead,” will be released in early 2021.
All of the artists interviewed for this story insisted that despite its bloody trappings, zombies are an inherently hopeful genre.
“I think that there can be hope, perversely, in the midst of a horror story,” Kang said. “The general structure tends to be that you face this unease and evil that feels so monstrous and hard to understand. And over time, you are drawing on inner strength and the strength of others around you to defeat it. There's something about that is inherently hopeful.”
At the very least, zombie narratives can teach audiences how to survive the present Covid-19 pandemic. Yeon said, “I believe that any disaster can be overcome when the system and the citizens work together.”
CORRECTION (Oct. 6, 2020, 2:00 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated how many spinoffs Angela Kang is working on. It is one, not two.