In recent times, Korean zombie movies have enchanted foreign viewers. For example, “Train to Busan,” which premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, enthralled international audiences as one of the finest zombie films ever produced. Its sequel, “Peninsula,” garnered comparable acclaim, as did the Netflix original series “Kingdom.”
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the Los Angeles Times headlined a recent article, “Zombies are everywhere in South Korea, feeding on fears and anxieties.” Quoting zombie movie fans and cultural studies critics, the article observes that certain “fears and anxieties” are creating many zombie-like people in today’s Korean society.
Specifically, these “fears and anxieties” primarily stem from an inhumane social milieu, in which people have to survive amidst great uncertainty in an extremely competitive and distrustful “cutthroat society.” A dominant attitude in Korean society today is a tendency to be impatient and impetuous, relentlessly driven by the thought that “If I am not fast enough, I may end up being a loser.” The LA Times article points out that it is why the Korean zombies are ultrafast.
In addition, the “fears and anxieties” reflected in Korean zombie movies and dramas come from a social atmosphere of distrust, and constant suspicion of other people. For example, if someone tests positive for COVID-19, he or she becomes a social pariah immediately. People shun and alienate the infected as if they were zombies.
The insightful article argues that the current social climate of South Korea makes many people instantly sympathetic to zombies. Many young Koreans, especially, identify themselves with zombies and believe that zombies can destroy the existing, problematic world and build a new one through a revolution. Indeed, a Korean interviewee in the article says, “Zombies can turn the world upside down. They can incite a revolution.”
As penetrating as this article is, it is not the sign of a normal or healthy society if people want to favor a horde of zombies over those who try to protect their families, properties, and land from zombies. Another Korean interviewee says that he would be more inclined to join “hordes of undead clamoring at the door than the living fighting to shut them off.” The reason is that the younger generation in Korea today perceive those who try to protect themselves from hoarding zombies as the rich and privileged. Indoctrinated by left-wing propaganda, they also believe that they have the right to attack the advantaged in order to survive.
However, in a normal society, people would think differently. For example, George Romero’s legendary zombie film “Night of the Living Dead” challenges viewers to contemplate complex perspective, such as that both zombies and zombie hunters could be equally bad. From that film, we also learn what makes humans turn into zombies, namely, the misuse of technology or the dogma of political ideologies.
In a normal society, people would readily perceive the kinds of problems that zombies represent. Max Brooks, author of “World War Z,” says, “Zombies are scary because they are mindless and irrational.” He thinks that zombies are creepy because they do not have any middle ground, or a capacity for negotiation. In fact, unlike the survivors in the films, zombies do not have fears or anxieties of their own.
While watching zombie movies, therefore, we should consider such complex issues, instead of relying on shallow interpretations that zombies signify the dispossessed and the underprivileged who are thus entitled to be spiteful and vengeful. Zombies do not simply represent victimized or alienated masses. In fact, they are a rancorous evil force that does not have humanity and is intent on destroying human civilization.
Unfortunately, there are many zombie-like extremists in our society, who divide everything into “them” versus “us,” flocking together and blindly following the trends of the crowd. Just as zombies do, they indiscriminatingly bite those who are different from them and turn them into one of their own. While watching mindless, soulless zombies in films or TV dramas, we should reflect on our social milieu plagued with zombie-like extremists and those who are slyly manipulating them for political gain.
Regrettably, however, we fail to see such profound themes from zombie films. Even in “Kingdom,” Korean viewers simply perceive zombies as the symbol of the exploited lower classes during the Joseon Dynasty. However, zombies are vicious and malicious, not humane. Nor do most zombie movies reduce to simple depictions of class inequality
The LA Times writes, “The government has taken to promoting [zombies] as a soft power cultural export -- dubbing them ‘K-Zombies.’” Maybe instead of exporting zombies, the Korean government should try to prevent Korea from becoming a land of zombies. Indeed, it would be nightmarish if K-zombies were everywhere.
In his celebrated poem, “The Waste Land,” T. S. Eliot writes: “Unreal city/Under the brown fog of a winter dawn/A crowd flowed over the London Bridge, so many/I had not thought death had undone so many.” We do not want to live in such a wasteland of the undead. We do not want a zombie apocalypse.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.