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A scene from season 1 of the South Korean period drama “Kingdom”, which imagines zombies appearing in the midst of famine in pre-modern Korea. (Netflix)

Kim Hyeong-seek knows what he would do in a zombie apocalypse.

He has a supply of canned and dried food, and has seen enough zombie movies to realize that his best chance of survival is to jump on a bicycle rather than get in a car. Zombies have a thing for cars, then there is the inevitable dead end. When the time comes, however, he feels it would be best to give in and let the zombies feast on him so he can join their ragged, swift masses.

Kim has his reasons. A scholar and cultural studies critic who became fascinated with zombies as a student confused about his future in a cutthroat society, he was much more tied to the undead hordes screaming at the door than he was. alive who fought to exclude them.

Lately, it seems zombies are all over South Korea.

They resumed high-speed trains, swept through densely populated apartment complexes and rose in the demilitarized zone between the Koreas. They appeared in 15th and 16th century Korean history, appeared in K-pop songs and videos, and peppery vitriolic beards traded by politicians. There have been tales of a private investigator, a runaway girl, a king and a grandfather, each with the unmistakable hue of ashy skin, fuzzy students, and an insatiable hunger for flesh. human.

Avoided just a few years ago as a grotesque alien phenomenon, zombies have since proliferated in the Korean imagination, producing a flood of films, dramas, novels, and even academic works about and about the living dead. .

Zombies are everywhere in South Korea, feeding on fears and anxieties

Zombies from the 2020 South Korean blockbuster “Peninsula”, in which the country is completely overrun by the living dead. (Well Go Entertainment)

Amid a viral pandemic that sometimes looks eerily like a zombie apocalypse, South Korea’s undead have also struck a nerve with international audiences. The zombie movie #Alive topped Netflix’s global streaming last fall and entered the top 10 in 90 countries. Hollywood, which popularized the modern cinematic zombie, is planning a remake of “Train to Busan,” the 2016 blockbuster that sparked the zombie craze in South Korea. The government set about promoting them as a cultural export of soft power – dubbing them “K-Zombies”.

Zombies sell and zombies travel. It’s a huge change from seven years ago when Kim decided to focus her MA thesis on zombies and the social anxieties they reflect. His advisers tried to dissuade him, saying that zombies were a kind of niche with little appeal or relevance. But seeing the gaping inequalities, rat race competition, and mistrust of government and institutions all around him, Kim bet that zombies would someday slip into the South Korean psyche.

“Whenever the world is unstable and people are anxious, and there is a widespread feeling that social collapse is near, zombies gain popularity,” he said. “It is a creature that feeds on the anxieties and fears of a given society and transforms itself as a result.”

With origins in voodooism in colonial Haiti, zombies have for decades served as a social allegory providing biting commentary (ahem) in the U.S. Some of George Romero’s early American zombie films have been blamed for the racial tensions of the 1960s or the senseless consumerism of the 1970s.

“Train to Busan” was released following two events that shook South Korea’s confidence in its government: the failed 2014 rescue response by officials that led to the drowning of hundreds of schoolchildren in the secondary in the sinking of a ferry, and the widespread panic sparked in 2015 when the government provided little – or inaccurate – information on the spread of respiratory syndrome in the Middle East.

“It tapped into the fear people were experiencing back then,” cultural psychologist Han Min said. “Country or society will not guarantee your survival … If you want to live, you have to fend for yourself.”

Han said he saw reflected in super-fast zombies in South Korean movies and dramas – unlike classic slow-moving zombies – the frantic pressures South Koreans face today to adapt and move on. before.

“It’s a society in which you have to be fast to survive,” he says.

Middle school senior Kim Jin-hyun initially viewed movies and dramas as an escape treat. But he came to see himself and his contemporaries in them after the brutal death of a friend in 2017.

The friend, who was studying medicine, was afraid to leave school and spent his days studying while also working part-time overnight at a convenience store. He died at age 20 of a heart attack in his cramped, cluttered apartment.

Kim Jin-hyun had felt similar pressures loading delivery trucks or working in bars or restaurants while in college. After his friend passed away, he began to wonder if he thoughtlessly rushed into his life like a zombie instead of focusing on what was important to him.

“Zombies are human beings who have lost their humanity,” said Kim, now 24. “It doesn’t seem to exist just in fantasy.”

Zombies are everywhere in South Korea, feeding on fears and anxieties

In the South Korean web comic series “Now at Our School”, high school students battle zombies in a besieged city. (Joo Dong-geun)

Last February, when the coronavirus outbreak first hit South Korea, Joo Dong-geun was surprised to see so much that had captured his imagination about zombies unfold in the real world.

He is the author of a series of web comics from 2009 to 2011 in a high school in a city overrun by zombies. He was inspired by his memories of his school days, with strict hierarchies between teachers and students, bullies and bullies. He enjoyed the thought experience of these collapsing strata in the face of survival.

“The fear comes from not being able to trust people you know, having to ask yourself, ‘You have been infected, haven’t you?’”, He recalls. “You end up being forced to stab someone who was your friend a short time ago.”

A few months after she started posting the comics, the website asked her to take them down after parents complained that they were too horrible. But the series had been so popular that he was quickly signed on as a paid comic book artist. A Netflix series based on his comic, titled “We’re All Dead,” is scheduled for release this year.

When Joo saw footage of Wuhan boarded up in the early days of the pandemic, it looked a lot like the fictional city from his comic book, which he said would be cut off and abandoned by the central government, along with all survivors. The image of shipping containers stacked in central Seoul in 2008 by a president fearing democratic protests was fresh in his memory.

“I wanted to draw the best representation of Korea,” he said. “I merged into the history of South Korean society that I experienced.”

Zombies are everywhere in South Korea, feeding on fears and anxieties

A scene from the 2020 movie “#Alive”, about the survival of a zombie outbreak in one of the countless apartment complexes in the country. (Netflix)

Kim, the cultural studies specialist, published last fall a 504-page treatise on zombies, their ontology and their resurgence in the era of neoliberalism called “Zombiology.”

For him, the young zombie cannon from South Korea is distinguished by the fact that many stories are concerned not only with the human struggle for survival, but also with the birth of the living dead. They imagine poor populations on the margins of falling victim to a viral epidemic – much like in today’s world. In the hit Netflix series “Kingdom”, starving peasants of the war-torn Chosun dynasty turn into zombies after unwittingly eating human flesh. In the 2016 animated film “Seoul Station,” Patient Zero is a homeless man bleeding on a sidewalk between the legs of rushing commuters, no one stopping to help.

“In other countries, it’s about how quickly you kill zombies. This isn’t necessarily the case for Korean zombies. You feel for the zombies and bemoan the humans preventing them from. come in, ”he said.

If South Korea’s zombies resonate elsewhere, Kim said it was because they touched upon universal themes of class and inequality, much like the Oscar-winning film “Parasite.”

“Zombies are often seen as ignorant, oblivious slaves who just follow,” he said. “But they can turn the world upside down. They can spur a revolution.”

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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