Zombies’ cultural moment may be deteriorating, just as vampires before them were finally exorcised from their ubiquitous place in pop culture, but the undead’s wane in movies and on TV allows for more detailed distinctions to be made between how these stories are told, thanks to a decade-plus of cultural saturation. With Netflix’s beautiful Kingdom and last year’s less beautiful Rampant—unconnected in production but shockingly similar in content, and both set during the Joseon dynasty—coming on the heels of great modern zombie films Train to Busan and its animated prequel, Seoul Station, South Korea may now be the world leader in stories of the living dead.
The gangshi (or jiangshi, in Chinese) has been on South Korean screens since at least the late 1980s, with schlocky films like The Aliens and King Kong Zombie and Ghost Training Center, but until now, it hasn’t headed to medieval times—especially on TV. American TV has had its own zombie infestation for a while, with the creature’s prominence led by The Walking Dead, its spin-off Fear the Walking Dead, and their tongue-in-deteriorated-cheek cousin, Z Nation, while cheerier fare like iZombie and Santa Clarita Diet have reminded us that these things can be fun, too.
Drew Barrymore’s infected Sheila Hammond, in Santa Clarita Diet, seems to take after the fast zombies that’ve evolved in cinema—including Train to Busan, Seoul Station, and Rampant—more than the slower creepers of TV, at least whenever there’s a small animal to hunt down. The Walking Dead’s slowpoke Walkers are scary only because they’re everywhere, with no sign of stopping; effectively, they’re now a natural threat, rather than a supernatural one. Dangerous in hordes, they’re more interesting as a catalyst for social change—which makes sense, as you have to keep supplying ideas to fill a franchise that also refuses to die. Not so in recent Korean fiction, especially Kingdom.
Kingdom’s zombies initially become important only as an aside, when civil unrest rumbles after the king’s rumored death. A tortuous inquest follows as the current regime tries to unearth traitors. There’s all sorts of palace intrigue over the succession, a cross-section of the lower class suffering the same illness that afflicts (or afflicted) the king, and a usurping clan tired of losing wars—which they attribute to a larger cultural softness. Confucius isn’t cutthroat enough, they say. Politics are heavily at the forefront in Kingdom, while zombies slowly become less and less ignorable on the outskirts. But the series is by no means a plug-and-play piece of historical mythologizing like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter: There’s actually meaning in putting the supernatural into these stories, as the class politics that marked both Seoul Station and Train to Busan find even more room to expand on TV.
More like the White Walkers of Game of Thrones than those lurching around Daryl Dixon, these Korean zombies seem to be secondary threats by design, representing an invasive rot mirrored in its culture. In Rampant and Kingdom, zombies arrive during a treasonous political conflict: Rampant’s illness comes from overseas, carried via ship by white Dutchmen, while Kingdom’s botanical source is from the periphery of the nation. The former’s villains cow to foreign powers; the latter’s urban elite pretend that rural suffering doesn’t exist. Both result in two-sided conflicts invaded by a third party that is incomprehensible except for its destructive powers. Just when it seemed zombies were utterly played out, Kingdom and Rampant jettison common zombie doctrine, turning the genre’s central supernatural allegory into an omnipresent metaphor adjacent to the period drama.
American (or even just Western) zombies are almost always the driving point of the narrative—representing big nasty threats like national anxiety about disease, nuclear war, capitalism, the collapse of society, and racism—often limiting the genre’s possibilities and focusing their plots largely on external forces. By contrast, in Kingdom and Rampant, transported to the Joseon period, these stories become more interested in how existing structures (and the normal people living inside them) handle the threat, and how coping makes them better equipped for the inevitable return to normal. Western zombie shows allow their audiences to appreciate how society adapts to these monstrous allegories, forming the factional city-states of The Walking Dead (Alexandria, Hilltop, Woodbury) or the religious zeal of Santa Clarita Diet’s Anne Garcia (Natalie Morales); Korean zombies rage in a society that ultimately stays the same. The latter’s evils are amplified and exposed by the zombies, but the infected undead also catalyze a hero’s journey in the midst of misguided magistrates, fear-based isolationism, and class warfare.
These zombies still have a bite-transferred, skin-sallowing, hunger-inducing infection, but lean on traditionally Chinese undead physiology: Like the vampiric jiangshi, these zombies are herky-jerky and dread sunlight. That weakness allows for two separate lives: the natural, traditional ways of the daytime and the invader-repelling wartime defenses of the night. The cycle keeps hope alive that life can go on, and in the case of Rampant, allows the kingdom’s sassy young prince to prove he’s ready for the crown. The climactic fight isn’t a voiceless, force-of-nature threat. It’s politically motivated at its core: a villain says “Joseon is finished” to the lead before getting killed very hard by the newly-minted national hero.
Kingdom’s hero is also a crown prince (Ju Ji-hoon), and also on a journey that robs him of high-class comforts. He’s out to investigate the mysterious plague affecting his people and make up for some of his decidedly un-royal behavior. The series has its thought-experiment origins—writer Kim Eun-hee (on whose webtoon the series is based) has said she wanted to take “modern-day fears and horror and put them in a Joseon era setting”—it’s still relatively grounded. Since both the undead and the living are responsible for the body-strewn fields and town centers, its creatures only compliment the turmoil of the strident class divide that prevails in the kingdom.
Combating well-defined elements alongside the nebulous undead also suggests that Kingdom’s heading towards a clearly defined endpoint. The crown prince must listen to salt-of-the-earth survivors in order to help combat his foes, political and existential, and there’s even some painfully timely decision-making about walls and refugees. Kingdom’s structure is engaging, if well-worn, and ultimately satisfying—capital-S Survival isn’t a good enough engine for zombie stories anymore, especially on TV. The series themselves need more substance to survive, and by replacing mortal survival with political survival, these Joseon stories are exploring context-driven ways to give it to them.
Kingdom is now streaming on Netflix.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.