South Korea’s zombie train rolls on, as the undead plague continues to spread through pop culture. After Train to Busan went off like box office gangbusters, others were quick to start piling on the potential for a juicy slab of the screen market. Take for instance the hit Netflix series Kingdom, wherein Kim Eun-hee adapted the webcomic Kingdom of the Gods she helped create and which is a strong contender for the genesis of the South Korean strain of the zombie phenomenon.
Rampant feels very much “inspired by” the same material, the main character being a prince on the physical and political outer of the Joseon empire who must battle a zombie plague in tandem with an attempt to usurp the throne. Unlike the Kingdom series or the relentless grimdark grind of The Walking Dead, Rampant has a bit more fun with its zombie premise. This isn’t Shaun of the Dead levels of layered riffing, but it’s easy enough to breeze through if you can stomach some blood and dismemberment, since Rampant still includes enough horror elements and undead hacking and slashing to stake a claim to any zombie fan’s time.
Prince Ganglim (Hyun Bin) is not particularly patriotic. Having absconded to China to chase Qing beauties, he’s only come home on receipt of an important letter, and has every intention of returning to China and allowing Joseon to go down the political gurgler. Accompanied by his attendant Hak-su (Jung Man-sik), Prince Ganglim soon finds court intrigue and a mysterious plague coming together to force him to stand for something other than himself.
These two are a great duo to centre the film around. Hak-su is an awkward amalgamation of scared, whiny and loyal and Prince Ganglim’s uncaring attitude to acting in any way royally appropriate drives him to exasperation. Jung Man-sik is hilarious in his movements, facial expressions and even sound effects, such as the little rush of air leaving his mouth when he shuts up as an important court official approaches. The rest of the characters are from the more typical historic Korean drama mould, stoic and honourable. Kim Eui-sung played a self-centred businessman in Train to Busan and gets to level up here by playing a self-centred king. Jang Dong-gun has the shadowy appearance befitting a Minister of War. Jo Woo-jin capably leads a group fighting back the zombie hordes and Lee Sun-bin plays Deok-hee, this band’s allocated accurate archer role, who carves her own noise-maker arrows as an added distraction gimmick.
The zombies themselves are given ample due. These Train to Busan specimens in different clothes — it’s amazing they don’t trip as they dash about, with all the robes and skirts of the period attire — look particularly unsettling in the eerie night scenes, lit by a combination of moonlight and torchlight.
Early on Rampant lays out the rules for its zombies, throwing in a few twists along the way. One aspect that ends up feeling very convenient is the unpredictable length of time for someone to succumb to infection after being bitten. What this really means is they turn in the way that best suits the drama. Some added vampiric traits make this an evolution of the standard hungry hungry humans. Although it doesn’t kill them, these zombies have an aversion to sunlight and grow sharpened teeth — all the better to rip and tear with, my dear — shown up close when a ravenous individual tries to bite through a sword to get to some tasty flesh. Guess how that ends! What Rampant entirely avoids trying to explain is the origin of this disease. It arrives in Korea via a trading/smuggling vessel which is all the explanation needed. Trying to build a backstory for the plague itself would only get a single feature film’s worth of running time bogged down.
While zombies burst into the big time in Korea with Train to Busan and its animated companion piece Seoul Station, they arrived via a long process. White Zombie in 1932 drew on Haitian culture in its depiction of half-alive humans being exploited as workers. The zombie desire to chew on human flesh was popularised in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968. The switch from shamblers to sprinters occurred in films such as 28 Days Later in 2002 and it’s these modern specimens that seem to be the default in Korean media.
An interesting side-effect of setting a zombie story in a historical time period is the chance for a more religious-inflected view of zombies. Undead can be read in all sorts of ways, but in modern settings, they usually carry a kind of material, existential dread. The decayed appearance of zombies are a horrible reminder of the toll entropy takes on everything, and as much as we seek to distract ourselves from the inevitable, we can become akin to zombies ourselves. If we’re already dead on the inside, with zombies it has just leaked through to the outside.
By exporting this style of zombie back to a time when religious thought was more prevalent, dead bodies brought back to life carry an additional kind of horror. For a country with a background in Christianity it’s like a sham resurrection. For a country like Korea where Buddhism is an element of the cultural makeup, one could become stuck as an undead monster, unable to escape the cycle of death and rebirth. Notably, the characters in Rampant don’t call these creatures zombies. After all, they could never have seen a zombie movie back in the 1600s. They call them demons.
Rampant doesn’t delve deep into the religious or philosophical ramifications of reanimated corpses, but by having a few references to reincarnation and a Buddhist monk (Cho Dal-hwan) as a member of the heroic party, it’s an undercurrent that gives the film something a little different to most. Versus used religion in its story, although it was part of the gonzo excess of that film which compared to Rampant feels like a drop bear perched next to Blinky Bill. The hopping undead of Hong Kong period-set films such as Encounters of the Spooky Kind were corralled by Taoist ritual and the hero of Mr. Vampire is a Taoist priest, but these examples of shadow-life come from quite a different tradition to the western-inherited takes on the living dead that South Korea has built on, so Rampant is unearthing a rarely explored avenue in this respect.
Come the climax though, it’s the action and melodrama taking centre stage. Earlier scenes of tension and terror dissipate, as the demons need to be stopped somehow and that’s going to take something big given how many of them are running rampant. Bring on the double decapitation! The dominoes start falling and significant character deaths start out strong, but become less meaningful the more they occur. The score works overtime to emphasise the drama and while good in itself, still feels forced. The final showdown becomes a scenario focused on the palace, where a single person in a room packed with demons no longer feels in jeopardy, although the symbolism of the battle for the destruction or renewal of Joseon lifts proceedings a bit.
So while a fun enough undead romp in itself, the predictable final act and questionable originality of Rampant make enjoying it dependent on one’s exposure to this increasingly crowded genre. Zombies hey? If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.