South Korean cinema’s zombie outbreak continues apace with #Alive, a taut thriller which takes a locked down approach to depicting a rapidly escalating crisis. As is often the case with zombie movies, #Alive has proved to be unerringly prescient: it takes place entirely in an apartment complex with its central protagonist stuck at home as the world collapses and became the first local smash since South Korea’s movie theaters reopened at the end of April. As it’s intended for mainstream consumption, this isn’t the most gruesome zombie spectacle, but seeing an apocalyptic scenario occur within restrictive parameters will likely be enough to unsettle viewers just emerging from (or still in some form of) Covid-19 imposed isolation.
Eschewing the need for detailed exposition, director and co-writer Cho Il-hyung has chaos unfold from the limited perspective of carefree gamer Oh Joon-woo (Yoo Ah-in) who gets up after his parents and sister have left for the day. Rather than going out to buy food with cash left by his mother, Joon-woo starts playing an online game only to be interrupted by news that hordes of zombies are rampaging through Seoul. The situation literally hits home when Joon-woo allows a neighbor into the apartment only to notice that the young man has a bite on his neck. Although he narrowly survives this initial encounter with a member of the living dead, Joon-woo struggles to adjust to the ‘new normal’.
Jumping into a pack consisting of Seoul Station (2016), Train to Busan (2016), Rampant (2018), The Odd Family: Zombie On Sale (2019), Peninsula (2020) and the Netflix series Kingdom (2019–), #Alive is less culturally specific since it was adapted from a screenplay for a Hollywood project by Matt Naylor. So while Train to Busan could be read as a critique of the government’s response to the 2015 MERS outbreak and The Odd Family: Zombie On Sale took aim at the nation’s shifting family values, #Alive has more universal concerns. Following up his searing performance in Burning (2018), Yoo is in winning form as a somewhat pampered but fundamentally considerate youth who clings to technological lifelines. Joon-woo falls into despair less out of fear of being devoured than being forced to unplug from the online communications and media channels on which he has become dependent. Blocking out reality, he chugs down his father’s liquor while dancing to his favorite tunes but bittersweet hallucinations of family give rise to a yearning for human contact. Even those who are usually happy to stay home reach a point where the depths of loneliness makes them desperate to get out.
This largely solitary first act recalls the existential anxiety of Dominique Rocher’s The Night Eats the World (2018) wherein an aloof musician barricaded himself in a Paris apartment while zombies roamed the streets. However, the film enters more straightforward survival territory when Joon-woo spots Yoo-bin (Park Shin-hye), the resident of the opposite apartment who gives Joon-woo the impetus to live even if he must still shed his reliance on the latest devices in favor of more practical solutions. Nonetheless, the ensuing run of set pieces is cleverly thought out with cinematographer Son Won-ho alternating between claustrophobic framing and wider compositions which render the apartment complex emblematic of contemporary society in decay. The infected masses here are of the fast moving variety popularized by 28 Days Later (2002) with gnarly grunts and ghoulish facial detail while various shredded costumes suggest a social cross-section of the undead. In terms of slayings, having Yoo-bin coolly weaponize hiking gear may be a bit of a stretch given the prior emphasis on ordinary people under duress, but disbelief can just about be suspended when the special effects are so satisfyingly squelchy.
It’s tricky to say where #Alive lands in a ranking of South Korean’s zombie output since its approach has an uncanny timeliness that offsets the gradual reliance on formula, including the use of a tired genre trope to add extra frisson to the final reel. Yet compact design and brisk execution ensure that it is another effective entry in an impressively varied cycle.
John Berra is lecturer in Film and Language Studies at Renmin University of China. He is the editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan (Intellect, 2010/12/15), co-editor of World Film Locations: Beijing (Intellect, 2012) and World Film Locations: Shanghai (Intellect, 2014). He has also contributed to Electric Shadows: A Century of Chinese Cinema (BFI, 2014), Ozu International: Essays on the Global Influences of a Japanese Auteur (Bloomsbury, 2014) and Killers, Clients and Kindred Spirits: The Taboo Cinema of Shohei Imamura (EUP, 2019).