Seen in Jeonju

Zombies of Korean Film

11th February 2010

the monstrous corpseWhen we think of classic Hollywood monsters the first three that spring to mind for most people are probably Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster and the Wolfman. Prod a little more and maybe names like the Creature from the Black Lagoon or the Mummy come up. Rarely does anyone mention zombies. That is because in the Golden Age of Hollywood films, zombies were deathly dull. Not monsters at all, zombies were usually people who were enthralled against their wills into doing the bidding a master. The earliest feature-length zombie movie was probably White Zombie in 1932. Others early zombie films I remember seeing from that time include Revolt of the Zombies (1936), King of the Zombies (1941) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943). None of these can be considered true horror movies. White Zombie, Revolt and King of the Zombies are action films…(well, ‘action’ might be too generous a term) and I Walked with a Zombie is more of a gothic melodrama. There are some tense scenes in King of the Zombies and I Walked with a Zombie, but they reveal nothing of what would come in the next. <the poster above is for The Monstrous Corpse–Korea’s first zombie film>

monstrous corpse 2What was to come was George Romero’s horror masterpiece, Night of the Living Dead (1968). Up until that point, zombies had been under the control of one master—throughout the 50s that master was often an alien controlling the actions of its victims. However, the zombies in Romero’s film were under no such control and, unlike most of their predecessors, they were actually corpses. The only purpose these creatures seemed to have was to feed on the living and this grotesque image is what most other filmmakers would draw from when making future zombie films.  <zombie attack from The Monstrous Corpse>

During that same period in Korean cinema, there was nary a zombie to be found. Oh, there were some ghosts –and some of these seemed solid enough like they could be walking corpses—but they always had a purpose and that was usually related to avenging a crime against themselves or protecting their still-living loved ones. Mind-controlled zombies or wandering cadavers were nowhere to be found.—at least in film. There were of course traditional tales that have beings that appear zombie-ish. I had seen one of these dramatized on Legends of the Hometown back in 1995 or ’96. In that tale, a woman is told by a monk that in order to save her sick husband’s life, she must dig up a grave in the dead of night, cut of the corpse’s leg and prepare a soup for her husband using the stolen limb. That night, she heads off into the woods to a forgotten grave and manages to accomplish the gruesome task. However, as soon as she has finished removing its leg, the corpse sits up and screams at her, “My leg! Give me my leg!” Instead of doing what the undead creatures demands, she blindly dashes away only to find the decomposed monstrosity scrambling and, even worse, hopping after her shouting for its leg the entire time.

That episode of Legends of the Hometown terrified me…and I loved it! I don’t really care for the modern, fast moving zombies we have today in the recent remakes of Romero’s Living Dead movies or in 28 Days Later. I prefer my zombies to shuffle…or hop… slowly and inexorably closer. I think they are so much more frightening that way. I guess that is why I was also a fan of the ‘Gangshi’. Gangshi are another zombie-like undead who are usually depicted dressed in traditional Chinese garb. They move with their arms extended out in front of them and jump from place to place with their feet firmly together. They can often be found in Hong Kong films especially in the 70s and 80s and would make their way into Korean cinema as well.

monstrous corpse1But before Korean directors first employed gangshi, the first zombies had finally debuted on screen. In 1980, Director Kang Beom-gu helmed the production of The Monstrous Corpse—a misnomer in the English title as there are more than one. Much like Romero’s version of the walking dead, Kang’s zombies rose from the dead by some outside source theorized in the film to be from some ultrasonic sound. However, viewers who have seen both films claim that The Monstrous Corpse was more heavily influenced by the Italian film Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974) especially in terms of the amount of onscreen gore. Kang’s film was released on VHS in the late 80s but has not made it to DVD and is extremely difficult to find. <pictured is a zombie from The Monstrous Corpse>

smart little gangshiZombies were also hard to find after that although their counterparts, the gangshi, became quite prolific in the late 80s and early 90s but in unexpected places—children’s films and comedies. Oddly, these undead creatures against whom heroes battled in many Hong Kong horror/action films were suddenly the stars of movies and the heroes themselves. This is due entirely the Hong Kong series of films known in English as Mr. Vampire which started in 1985. Now, I know, the title says Mr. Vampire—but they are a form of undead much more like zombies than the western idea of vampires. Anyway, between 1988 and 1999 there were five movies featuring the appearance of gangshi such as The Smart Little Gangshi (1988) and The Gangshi Training Center (1988), but in all but one of them, they were the heroes of the piece fighting against evil magicians or even aliens. As fast as they arose though, gangshi also quickly disappeared from Korean productions. <image: gangshi parade in The Smart Little Gangshi>

zombies of dark forestKorean zombies would not appear in a feature film again until 2006 when Dark Forest was made. I wrote a brief review of that film several years ago for this site but will sum it up by saying the film was disappointing for many reasons. And it didn’t have to be. The premise of the film was quite good and how the zombies were created was something rather unusual in a good way. Unfortunately, the director didn’t go any deeper with why the dead were coming back to life in that one forest and instead gave us a mess of a slasher film that most people will have no interest in viewing. <image–zombie of Dark Forest>

This brings us to 2010 and the reason I am writing this article. On February 18, The Neighbor Zombie will be released. The film is about a zombie plague in Seoul where a vaccine has turned its recipients into the living dead. Does it sound like a great film? Well, maybe but I will definitely see it regardless as it represents a sub-genre that has rarely been used in the  hundred years of Korean cinema.

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