There have been plenty of movies and TV shows this year that feel oddly timely and relevant amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. But, as the world tries to create and enjoy pop culture as a deadly virus devastates the globe, no other genre feels as easily made for this particular moment in history as the zombie genre.
The last example is #Living, a South Korean zombie movie released on Netflix earlier this month. The film follows a guy trapped in his apartment during the first weeks of a zombie outbreak and it does a great job of combining the anxiety of being trapped indoors for long periods of time while delivering good zombie horror and fun. Viewers are likely finding themselves in a similar situation (but hopefully without actual zombies), and that’s what elevates #Living from being a perfectly good zombie movie to one that feels essential and connected to what’s happening around us right now – and it’s not the only movie to do that.
Zombie movies have served as social commentary for as long as we’ve had the genre, but in 2020 the genre has reached new heights. You can almost trace the experience of living through the current pandemic by watching every zombie movie and TV show released this year (many of which were made in South Korea). Indeed, each zombie story this year has represented an oddly specific moment in how people and the government have handled the pandemic.
It all started with the second season of the Netflix show Kingdom, also made in South Korea, which premiered in early March as the world became aware of the threat of a real pandemic. The show tells the story of a medieval kingdom ravaged by a zombie virus and the incompetent government officials who repeatedly fail to take the virus seriously, or even actively attempt to use the outbreak for their own benefit. It’s not hard to draw a comparison to the early stages of the pandemic, when panic began to build and government officials were either too incompetent or unwilling to do anything about it, because they took advantage of the suffering of others. A few months later, Shudder released the Canadian zombie movie quantum of blood, which follows a community of Native people who realize they are immune to a virus that turns white people who have oppressed them for centuries into flesh-eating zombies. just like Kingdom, quantum of blood was lucky (or unlucky) to be released just like news of the real pandemic disproportionately killing minorities in the United States began to emerge, making the film’s commentary all the more poignant.
#Living was actually released on June 24 in Korea, at a time when most of the world was still placed in solitary confinement, trapped in houses and apartments as the world went crazy around them. And just a month later, the next Korean zombie movie is out, a sequel to the acclaimed 2016 horror flick. Train to Busan called Train to Busan: Peninsula. This film asked, if no one in power is taking the pandemic seriously, why should we? Peninsula’s solution is to turn the dark zombie apocalypse into a Mad Max: Fury Road meets World War Z absurd apocalyptic frolics with some fast furious sprinkled on top. Instead of tough moral decisions and emotional beats, we get huge chase sequences full of drifting, Thunderdome-like gladiator zombie fights. And honestly, at this particular time in 2020, who doesn’t feel like living in a road of furytype dystopia?
The zombie genre is one of the most malleable genres around, capable of commenting on any part of our culture while entertaining with gore and scares, and its offerings often draw direct parallels to the real world. It always acted as a middle ground in the horror genre between movies like The foreigners about how random murders can happen anywhere, anytime, and the most fantastical and supernatural stories that couldn’t happen in our world. Zombies may be fantastical creatures, but what they represent isn’t, and how they bring about the collapse of society isn’t entirely unthinkable.
But when things that happen on screen also happen in real life, it becomes harder to separate fiction from reality, and in fact, the zombie genre has thrived on this idea for years. Dahlia Schweitzer, author of Going Viral: Zombies, Viruses, and the End of the World Recount Bloody disgusting that one of the frequent tropes of the zombie genre is the use of newsreel footage. “Unlike monster-based disaster movies like Godzilla, tales of epidemics are terrifying because they feel ‘almost’ real,” Schweitzer said. “You will see many ‘documentary elements’ in outbreak stories. The more realistic they are, the more chilling they are.”
Train to Busan: Peninsula opens with chilling footage of media coverage of their zombie outbreak, and how those who made it out of the Korean peninsula in time are now being treated badly in other countries who blame them for the outbreak. The film’s protagonist is forced to take a suicide mission to return to Korea to retrieve an abandoned truck full of cash because no one will hire him because of his past. It doesn’t take long to make the connection between the film’s fake news and the real reports of the mistreatment of Asians in the early months of the pandemic. Also, #Living works like a zombie movie about isolation, but when you see the protagonist going through a crisis not because of lack of food, but because of his lack of social interactions, it’s hard not to see him as a direct reflection of our ongoing life. social distancing and lack of real social interactions outside of Zoom calls.
When tragedy strikes, we often turn to pop culture, especially movies and TV shows that reflect what we are going through. Counterterrorism shows and movies became the new hot trend after 9/11, and the number of war movies skyrockets in the decades immediately following World War II. In the first weeks of the pandemic, the film Contagion became the most searched and discussed film. Several months into the pandemic, we could easily see a resurgence of zombie movies and TV shows that reflect what’s happening right now, and even what’s happening after the pandemic is over.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY or NBC Universal.