They’re coming to get you, Korea! This twist of a famous line from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead could be an appropriate, though unorthodox, way of introducing the growing popularity of zombie movies in recent Korean cinema. The Romerian prototype first developed in Goeshi (Beom-gu Kang, 1981), one of the oldest titles in this genre; the creatures falling in love in an apocalyptic scenario in the grotesque episode A Brave New World (Yim Pil-sung) of Doomsday Book (2012); and the zombie workers exploited in the I Saw You (Han Ji-seung) segment of the omnibus Mad Sad Bad (2014) are just a couple of examples of how the genre has expanded to the point of conceiving its most accomplished title, the cult movie Train to Busan (Yeon Sang-ho, 2016). And that same production team is behind Rampant.
Korea, the Joseon dynasty era. Prince Ganglim (Hyun Bin, Confidential Assignment) returns home to rescue his sister-in-law after the death of his brother, who was guilty of plotting a conspiracy against his father. The king is in fact being manipulated by his courtiers and in particular by the Machiavellian Kim Ja-joon (Jang Dong-gun, The Coast Guard). There are outbreaks of revolt in the country, but discontent is not the only burning fuse: a ship of Dutch smugglers provokes the spread of a disease that turns people into bloodthirsty demons. The rebel fringes have to fight the corrupt army and, at the same time, fight the monsters for their survival. The prince initially thinks only of respecting his brother’s wishes, but he repents when he understands the terrible threat this disease poses to his people. Meanwhile, at court, Kim Ja-joon is not only aware of the epidemic, but is using it to hatch a plot against the crown.
The inclusion of zombies in historical settings is nothing new: they invaded the pages of Jane Austen; they were enlisted in the SS; they were killed by Queen Victoria. And, of course, they dominated the Netflix Kingdom series, which shares its setting with Rampant. Kim Sung-hoon (Confidential Assignment) knows this, and he is well aware of the rules of the game. He faithfully inserts the creatures into a historical context, and the characters are standard fare for the zombie movie: the hero, who in the face of danger comes to his senses (the prince), the comic sidekick (the servant Hak-soo), the indefatigable warrior who inspires courage (the rebel leader Park), the villain who proves to be more dangerous than the demons. Even the creatures are fully in line with the modern phenomenology of the zombie: ravenous beings, hyperkinetic, moved by pure instinct and whose bite spreads the disease. On the other hand, the setting allows some devices that help to up the entertainment factor. Contamination with the wuxia genre makes for fight scenes in which the protagonists hover over hordes of zombies and pick them off one by one by sword, bringing the action scenes to a more physical level.
The zombie is often an excuse to talk about society and the nature of the human being in a situation where the conventions of a community are being erased. This is even more of a truism here, where the setting gives us historically concluded social rules. Remotely inspired by the abduction of Joseon court princes by the Qing Dynasty, Kim Sung-hoon stages a Korea that allows itself to be weakened by external pressures, a country whose royalty is threatened by a danger that has a foreign element but that the nation cannot contain. Although packaged as a product for pure entertainment, it is not difficult to envisage a country that today is constantly under threat from outside parties, one that plays a strategic role on the international chessboard. But perhaps in an oppressive society like Korea’s, an irrational, massive and highly contagious force moving within the country could pose an even more worrying threat. Is this the key to the success of this zombie wave?