Whether the excellent Train to Busan reminded Asian filmmakers of the spine-tingling fun and fear of zombies, or just caused every other filmmaker to try and emulate director Sang-ho Yeon’s hit horror export, there are a lot more zombies in Korea, China, and elsewhere in Asian cinema. This time they’ve shown up in the wealthy Gangnam suburb of Seoul, South Korea, and it’s mayhem, I tell you!
Gangnam Zombie starts with a rather ingenious opening title sequence that seems to suggest that either Covid-19 or its vaccine causes the zombie outbreak in the city. Director Soo Sung Lee is wisely ambiguous about this, opting not to alienate a subset of his audience before the film really even starts. In fact, “patient zero” of the zombies, Wang-i (Kyoung-Hoon Jo), is a criminal who breaks into a shipping container in a storage yard, just to be brutally attacked by a cat. Yes, a rabid, uh, zombified cat has somehow survived being locked in a shipping container until the two nitwit criminals appear. Moments later patient zero is attacking his partner, a zombie attack that is repeated again and again as the infection quickly spreads throughout a high-end shopping center in Gangnam.
Meanwhile, the handsome Hyeon-seok (Il-Joo Ji) is talking to his Mom on his cellphone when he sees his co-worker and crush Min-jeong (Park Ji-yeon) being harassed by a couple of bullies. He gets involved, since he’s a former taekwondo champion, and quickly dispatches the thugs. Min-Jeong doesn’t need a rescuer, as she adamantly informs him, but they both work for the bumbling and comically self-centered Tae-soo (Min Choi) so it’s not long before their cheesy and glaringly unsuccessful YouTube micro-studio is filming real zombies, with Tae-soo dreaming of finally attaining fame and fortune online.
The zombies appear to have gotten a bit confused on the way to the Mall because their attacks consist of lunging for and chomping on the victim’s neck, vampire-style. They are, however, pretty darn tough to drop so even when Min-Jeong keeps swinging her remarkably unbloody baseball bat at the increasing hoards, few ever seem to actually just stop the chase. As is true of most modern zombie films, the zombies in Gangnam Zombie are entirely capable of a full-out dash, opening doors, climbing stairs, and more. As our heroes gradually figure out (though don’t really exploit near enough) the zombies are also attracted to loud sounds.
The film being shot within a multi-story mall in the Gangnam district of Seoul is a nice homage to Dawn of the Dead (a film that also memorably has zombies biting their victims’ necks) but one suspects that it also reflects an infinitesimal budget for the production too. There’s no theme song, no real soundtrack, and some scenes are weirdly missing any foley or sound effects at all. Many of the baseball-bat-to-the-head scenes are mercifully off-camera, but audiences have grown to enjoy splattery, and gory effects, which are few and far between in this film.
I’ll be candid, Gangnam Zombie has a horrible IMDb score (3.2!) and mostly super negative reviews. While it’s more of a low-budget indie horror comedy than anything else, I found that I did enjoy it and found it entertaining as the story moved along to its inevitable conclusion. There are glimmers of something better throughout, from the interesting narrative timeline utilized (that tricks the viewer into a big and ultimately incorrect assumption) to the performances. I enjoyed K-Pop superstar Park Ji-yeon in her role as not-so-helpless female lead too, finding that there were scenes where she out-emoted and out-acted her professional actor co-star Il-Joo Ji.
Don’t get your hopes up, this isn’t going to make anyone’s top ten zombie movie list, but that doesn’t mean Gangnam Zombie isn’t worth a watch…