The zombie genre may owe its existence to George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” but the concept of flesh-eating reanimated corpses has never sat still. The world’s problems metastasized throughout the second half of the 20th century as the speed of the information yielded a new age of confusion, the constant sense of rapid-fire anxiety that media scholar Douglas Rushkoff termed “Present Shock.” By the time Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake came out in 2004, zombies were sprinting, unstoppable monstrosities — essentially the same consumerist metaphor of Romero’s original “Night” sequel, but turned up to 11.
And it was Snyder’s movie, not the 1978 original, that filmmaker Yeon Sang-ho recalled as his first encounter with the undead. “That was when I started my interest in zombies,” Yeon said, in an email interview through a translator from South Korea. Even today, he added, “it’s the most memorable and intense zombie movie I’ve ever seen.”
Coming from the director of Korea’s massive zombie franchise-starter, 2016’s “Train to Busan,” and now its 2020 sequel “Peninsula,” that conviction means something. (Yeon also helmed an animated prequel, “Seoul Station,” released just weeks after “Busan.”) It also stands apart from most expert opinions on the resurgence of zombie movies at the start of this young century: Released just one week after “Dawn of the Dead,” Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead” superimposed the walking dead concept onto a traditional rom-com steeped in slacker frustrations; one year earlier, Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” brought a similar visceral horror to the potential of a fast-traveling zombie disease.
But it was the first feature from former music video director Snyder that inspired Yeon to one day make a zombie movie of his own, and it paid off: “Train to Busan” grossed nearly $100 million on an $8.5 million budget.
Like Snyder’s “Dawn,” the movie takes place in one location and lets the zombies run. The characters have far more nuance than Snyder allowed his small band of survivors, but the stakes are basically the same: There’s little room to think through the nature of the threat at hand; all they can do is dart around in terror at the unfathomable threat that surrounds them from every direction.
It’s that sort of ever-present dread that Yeon found most appealing to his own storytelling instincts. “As we live our daily lives in familiar surroundings, it is common for us to encounter unexpected disaster,” he said. “The zombie movie genre brings together everyday life and imagination. That’s what made us fall in love with them.”
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With “Peninsula,” Yeon expands the scope, but the influence of the “Dawn” is even more pronounced. Hong Kong native Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) gets thrust into an ill-conceived effort to retrieve bags of cash from a vehicle abandoned in the quarantined city of Incheon, where they’re thrust into a messy pileup of circumstances: “Mad Max”-style gang leaders with a zombie “Fight Club,” child speed demons, and hordes of undead that pile up from unexpected places.
While reviews for the new entry have been mixed, “Peninsula” is fascinating for the way it taps into the apprehensions of the climate surrounding its release. “I didn’t think COVID-19 would rage as much as it did,” said Yeon, who was finishing the movie when the pandemic took hold. “I think the similarity between ‘Peninsula’ and our current reality is that it deals with the universality of human beings.”
Yeon hasn’t figured out if he’ll add a new chapter to the series, but has some ideas for how to keep building out his world, including the unsettling idea that a new moon could unite hordes of zombie armies. “They would form a line and slowly follow the moon to form a colony of sorts.” With everyone from the U.S. to Russia setting their sights on moon bases, it’s easy to imagine how this metaphor might add to the current ones baked into the series as it stands.
“Train to Busan” was conceived as an embodiment of many institutional failures in South Korea, including the 2014 ferry tragedy that resulted in 300 deaths. “Peninsula,” which includes an ironic revelation that North Korea’s insular dictatorship allowed it to remain free of zombie infestations, speaks to a wider sense of isolation from the rest of the world.
As with the Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead,” Yeon’s movie derives much of its appeal from the visual disconnect of a vast urban setting rendered alien by terrifying circumstances. Released as many cities undergo similar eerie transformations under quarantine, it has unexpected resonance. Both “Peninsula” and “Dawn of the Dead” lack subtlety; the fear is all about surfaces. Yet those surfaces are the ones undergoing the most radical, disturbing changes in the midst of forces that destabilize society as we know it.
At the same time, Yeon said he sees the ability for some of his characters to make through the ordeal as a crucial part of the metaphor at hand. “In a reality full of despair and isolation,” he said, “I am thankful we were able to explore the search for hope in a fallen world.”
“Peninsula” is now in select theaters through Well Go USA.