Text of an onstage introduction to The Odd Family: Zombie On Sale which I gave at the London Korean Film Festival 2019
These days, zombies are everywhere, and films about them have, like the creatures themselves, proliferated virally, overwhelming through their sheer numbers.
It wasn’t always like this. In the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, their cinematic imprint was relatively rare, and in films like Victor Halpern’s White Zombie (1932), Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With A Zombie (1943) and even Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), they cleaved closely to the zombies of Haitian folklore: humans raised from the dead and enslaved by black magic to do their masters’ bidding. Often in these early appearances, the zombie was a creature whose subjugation created a vehicle for exploring colonialism and its legacy – a theme that can still be seens today in Bertand Bonello’s Zombi Child (2019).
In 1968, everything changed, and the modern zombie was born. Inspired in part by Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, George A. Romero resurrected the cinematic zombie while combining its undead status with elements of the vampire, in his game-changing Night of the Living Dead and a series of equally influential sequels that would come out over the next few decades. Romero’s politically charged parables, putting the ‘gory’ in allegory, would make the zombie a full fledged member of the American monster pantheon, while influencing countless dumber but crazier Italian incarnations.
Although they never truly died, zombies faded away in the Nineties, before having a resurgence in the early Noughties. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) and Zack Snyder’s remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) accelerated the monsters’ usual shuffling pace, and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) showed that the now well-established tropes of the zombie movie were ripe for comic parody. None of these films were exactly the first to do what they did – after all, there have been fast zombies as early as Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City (1980), and rom zom coms since Peter Jackson’s Braindead (1992) and Brian Yuzna’s Return of the Living Dead III (1993). Nonetheless, these new post-millennial zombie films, coming in the aftermath of 9/11 when political terror was all the rage, captured – or recaptured – something in the popular imagination, and ever since, zombies have overtaken our screens big and small, our video games, our comic books, our collective consciousness and our nightmares. These zombie films feed off our fear of the irrational crowd, and are occasionally able, through a thought-provoking conceit or insightful sociopolitical reflection, to put one in the brain.
Zombies have, however, been relatively slow to come to Korean cinema. Before the new Millenium, I think their first appearance in Korean cinema was in Kang Beom-gu’s A Monsterous Corpse (1981), a close remake of Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974), and after that there was only Ahn Seung-ho’s wonderfully titled The Aliens and Kong Kong Zombie (1989). After the millennium, there have been a few more Korean zombie films: Walk Like a Zombie (2002), Four Horror Tales – Dark Forest (2006), Mr Zombie (2010) and The Neighbor Zombie (2010). Two horror anthology films from 2012 – Doomsday Book and Horror Stories – both included a zombie-focused episode. While not a Korean film, Marc Forster’s globe-trotting World War Z (2013) certainly had a section in South Korea, with references, unusually, even to the unique North Korean response to zombie apocalypse. It was not until 2016, however, that Korean zombies would come into their own and truly take over, with Yeon Sang-ho releasing a diptych of Korean zombie apocalypse films – his sentimental live-action Train to Busan and the complementary, entirely unsentimental anime Seoul Station. Since then the zombie-based period TV series Kingdom has also earned itself a large domestic and international following, and now that zombies have established themselves in the Peninsula, it looks as though they are here to stay.
The latest of these films is writer/director Lee Min-jae’s feature debut The Odd Family: Zombie on Sale, which you will be watching tonight. I don’t want to say much about it beyond this: its very title identifies it not only as a zombie film, but also as a family film, focusing, like Kim Jee-woon’s The Quiet Family (1998) and Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006), on a deeply dysfunctional clan caught up in a genre scenario. For the Parks are a motley, motherless collection of scam artists stuck in the boonies, and all too happy to exploit anything that comes their way, including a zombified young man (Jung Ga-ram) dressed in the recognisable red hoodie of the undead protagonist from Jonathan Levine’s romzomcom Warm Bodies (2013). The results are hilariously savvy, as director Lee sets up one familiar trope after another only to knock them down with a seemingly endless supply of flying kicks and eccentric surprises. The Parks, who study up on zombie behaviour precisely by watching an online clip from Train To Busan, take us through some very unexpected turns of plot that it would be criminal to spoil while displaying a self-consciousness about their movie-bound situation. Along the way, director Lee finds ways to refresh a genre that is almost definitionally dominated by rot.
Nowadays zombies are a cash cow. Their presence in a film will attract audiences and make money. The third part of the film’s title – ‘on sale’ – acknowledges this, as Lee’s exploitation film is also a film about exploitation, showing how easily the undead and other underclasses can be commodified by a society in which selfishness and greed dominate. So there certainly is some social commentary buried beneath this film’s surface – and the humour, which constantly trounces our expectations, serves as an index to the film’s deeper subversive impulses. I hope you enjoy it.
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And here is my programme note on the film:
Where Yeon Sang-ho’s live-action Train To Busan and complementary anime Seoul Station (both 2016), and the television series Kingdom from this year, have made zombies a serious part of Korean entertainment, Lee Min-jae’s feature debut (as writer/director) shows the funnier side of these flesh-eating fiends. Like Kim Jee-woon’s not dissimilarly titled The Quiet Family (1998), The Odd Family reveals domestic eccentricity and small-town mores through the prism of genre. For here the Park family sees the arrival of a zombified young man at their home/business as an opportunity for economic and erotic exploitation – not least because the zombie’s bite, as well as eventually having its usual effect, also serves, Viagra-like, to bring old men’s moribund libidos rising from the grave. The result is a silly yet savvy spin on familiar tropes – a zany rom zom com that keeps refusing to go where expected, while still delivering all the tense undead action a horror hound could need.
@ Anton Bitel