There have been many movies and TV shows this year that feel eerily timely and relevant in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic. But, as the world tries to create and enjoy pop culture while a deadly virus devastates the globe, no other genre feels as readily made for this particular moment in history as the zombie genre.
The latest example is #Alive, a South Korean zombie movie that hit Netflix earlier this month. The movie follows a guy trapped in his apartment during the first few weeks of a zombie outbreak and it does a great job of combining the anxiety of being trapped indoors for extended periods of time while also providing some good and fun zombie horror. Viewers likely find themselves in a similar situation (though hopefully without actual zombies), and that’s what elevates #Alive from being a perfectly good zombie movie to one that feels essential and connected to what’s happening around us at this very moment — and it’s not the only movie to do so.
Zombie movies have served as social commentary for as long as we’ve had the genre, but in 2020 the genre has taken new heights. You can nearly trace the experience of living through the current pandemic by watching every zombie movie and TV show released this year (many of them made in South Korea). Indeed, each zombie story this year has represented an eerily 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 right as the world became aware of the threat of a real pandemic. The show tells the tale 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 try to use the outbreak for their own gain. It’s not hard to draw a comparison to the early stages of the pandemic, when panic started growing and government officials were either too incompetent or unwilling to do anything about it, as they profited off the suffering of others. A few months later, Shudder released the Canadian zombie movie Blood Quantum, which follows a community of Indigenous people who realize they are immune to a virus that turns the white people that have oppressed them for centuries into flesh-eating zombies. Just like Kingdom, Blood Quantum had the fortune (or misfortune) of being released just as news of the real pandemic disproportionately killing minorities in the U.S. started coming out, making the film’s commentary even more poignant.
#Alive was actually released on June 24 in Korea, at a time where most of the world was still placed in self-isolation, trapped in houses and apartments as the world went mad around them. And a mere month later, the next Korean zombie film came out, a sequel to the acclaimed 2016 horror film Train to Busan called Train to Busan: Peninsula. That film asked, if no one in power is taking the pandemic seriously, why should we? Peninsula’s solution is to turn the dour zombie apocalypse into a Mad Max: Fury Road meets World War Z absurd apocalyptic romp with some Fast & Furious sprinkled on top. Instead of tough moral decisions and emotional beats, we get huge chase sequences full of drifting and Thunderdome-like gladiatorial zombie fights. And honestly, at this particular moment in 2020, who doesn’t feel like they’re living in a Fury Road-type dystopia?
The zombie genre is one of the most malleable genres there is, able to comment on any part of our culture while still entertaining with blood and scares, and its offerings often draw direct parallels to the real world. It’s always acted as a middle ground in the horror genre between films like The Strangers about how random killings can happen anywhere, anytime, and the more fantastical and supernatural stories that couldn’t possibly happen in our world. Zombies may be fantastical creatures, but what they represent isn’t, and the way they cause the collapse of society isn’t entirely unthinkable.
But when the things that happen on the screen are also happening in real life, it becomes more difficult to separate the fiction from the reality, and in fact, the zombie genre has thrived in that idea for years. Dahlia Schweitzer, author of Going Viral: Zombies, Viruses, and the End of the World told Bloody Disgusting that one of the frequent tropes of the zombie genre is the use of news footage. “Unlike monster-based disaster movies such as Godzilla, outbreak narratives terrify because they seem ‘almost’ real,” Schweitzer said. “You’ll see a lot of ‘documentary elements’ in outbreak narratives. The more realistic, the more chilling.”
Train to Busan: Peninsula opens with chilling footage of news coverage of their zombie outbreak, and how those who managed to get out of the Korean peninsula in time are now being poorly treated in other countries that blame them for the outbreak. The film’s protagonist is forced to take a suicide mission to go back to Korea to retrieve an abandoned truck full of cash because no one will hire him because of his background. It doesn’t take long to make the connection between the film’s fake news footage and the real news reports of the poor treatment of Asian people in the early months of the pandemic. Likewise, #Alive functions as a zombie movie about isolation, but when you see the protagonist go through a breakdown not because of the lack of food, but because of his lack of social interactions, it’s hard not to see it as a direct reflection of our still-ongoing social distancing and the lack of real social interactions outside of Zoom calls.
When tragedy strikes, we often turn to pop culture, especially the movies and TV shows that reflect what we’re going through. Shows and movies about counter-terrorism became the new hot trend following 9/11, and the number of war films skyrocketed in the decades immediately following WWII. In the early weeks of the pandemic, the film Contagion became the most sought after and talked about film. Several months into the pandemic, we could easily see a resurgence of zombie movies and TV shows that reflect what is happening right now, and even what happens after the pandemic ends.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.