Directed by Cho Il-hyung
Starring Yoo Ah-in, Park Shin-hye
Zombie movies stopped being weird a long, long time ago. And I don’t mean “millions of Milla Jovovich clones” weird — though before I fall into this visible trap for genre snobbery, is that any better or worse than Return of the Living Dead III’s zombie power loaders? To my mind, still, there’s a difference between Paul W.S. Anderson and Brian Yuzna. There’s a difference between in-groups and out-groups, the names made in the heyday — teeth cut, conventions defined, practical effects — who attach to a classic like Re-Animator, itself apiece with Evil Dead 2 and Dead Alive and the original Return of the Living Dead — the good ones. Whenever a zombie movie passes before my eyes — or I watch a zombie movie, whatever — all of this history trots out again for parade, all this embittered narrative and stolen history, borderline appropriation / vandalism of our darkest realms, us — genre champions — for coercion into the mainstream. What you call perhaps the last bastion against genre monopoly by superheroes I call… the rape of the natural world!
The story I like to tell is I declared myself long done with zombies in 2008, and two years later, The Walking Dead premiered. It’s not funny they keep coming back. I can’t stand it. I’m prejudiced and resentful and exhausted. And yet, in all this time, I never earnestly investigated why I detest zombies so. Well, here’s the reason: Resident Evil. Zombies are the first-stage enemy, the most boring. They’re not lickers or Tyrants or evil bugs. I’m a monster guy. But of course, zombies are only one third of the subgenre. Their mechanics are tinkered with the most of the thirds, on the matters of infection time and transmission, speed, residual intelligence. Then there’s the survivalist aspect, the fantasy of post-apocalypse and the logistics of defenses and weapons. Finally, the morality, not so much a big message at the end, but probably a moment where man is the real monster. I’m not describing the well-worn tropes — this is a list of complaints. Each new zombie movie introduces a single twist to this formula, making for a very slow-growing genre and in total effecting a challenge: “Can you make this interesting?” These tropes are scattered game pieces on the table, calling out for rearrangement toward some new compelling design. Admittedly, I still sometimes think, “What would I do in this situation?”
The story of #Alive is context. That’s exactly why it’s taken two paragraphs to mention the film in question. Where Yuzna and Gordon and Jackson and Romero, Raimi, Carpenter were making their beloved genre shlock in that precious golden age, we must be post-post-modern now. Shaun of the Dead should’ve been the end, right? What do we make of crossovers like Warm Bodies or the trollop vandalism of World War Z and Zombieland? Everything’s been done — not that that’s actually true, but we’ve long ago apprehended the scope of the leviathan and out came the challenge, the rearranging. #Alive is a contained thriller, making it accidentally timely amidst a global pandemic, but more intentionally it’s “for the social media age,” as proclaimed by somebody in a make-believe TV spot. The main character is a gamer loser, a strange amalgam of real-world Twitch streamer and old-school “lives with his parents.” Into the zombie panic, he posts a vlog and looks up survival tutorials — video in this case, like TikTok, saving us the scrolling through of those hated recipe preludes.
So there’s two twists on the formula, and I think they’re both effective. The problem is, for all their influence upon the plot, they bend back at the end toward the very limited payoff required by the subgenre. And that is my complicated frustration. The contained thriller aspect — in this case, the infection-friendly apartment buildings — make for clever suspense sequences and the fun revelation of survivalist utility in familiar mundanity, like chairs and climbing equipment. The social media component is answered by the heart of the film, the gradual, from-scratch relationship between the lead characters separated in space but thrust together by circumstance. The movie hits its peak with two beats: the quiet, sweet moments of connection followed by the daring action in and around the zombie obstacle with emotional stakes well-established. It’s simple, but hey, there’s that puzzle-pieces charm. The more elemental, the better, I guess. In this case, the simplicity predictably tilts the film’s priorities, affirming a few binaries; performance over character, immediacy over depth — it’s the sort of tuning that tempts one to say “genre exercise.” Maybe it’s all the running we see. And it works. It’s exciting.
The relationship skips a few steps, though, even nearly reversing its players. Park Shin-hye plays a confident, athletic survivor, in contrast to Yoo Ah-in’s schlub. I appreciate that part of the fantasy — and our gateway to the problematic — is witnessing the transformation of an outcast in the old world to a victor in the new. God, how I wish for that new world for me. I’d be a god! The gamer’s development here ekes out of vague movements (is he selfish and then becomes less selfish?), and his abilities hardly improve. In fact, when we see how Park Shin-hye’s character has been surviving, his own futile efforts take on a further comedic dimension, and he never does learn to eat slowly. Yoo Ah-in really sells the ecstasy of food on an empty stomach. Where his character does improve is his bravery. Where before he chose suicide, he’s now persuading another against it. Bravery it is, then. However, I don’t know if that was the original problem, and I don’t know how well that plays into the relationship part. In practice, his bravery might even reduce her (full disclosure: I suffered a zombie film for Park Shin-hye, if you were wondering. I was). In the end, the two survivors must survive. That is their ultimate verb — not connection. The arc vanishes. And where the clever solutions to deadly problems play out inside the contained thriller zone, their zombie movie journey inevitably pushes them out.
This is a subgenre structured by a meme-like continuity — don’t say “zombie” — which has over time shed its ancestral memory. Where Shaun of the Dead is exhaustive with references, something like Zombieland seems to respond to “the zombie” as a figure in pop culture. Maybe that movie had its references, too — Night of the Living Dead isn’t unknown — but it also had Bill Murray as himself — irrelevant! — and also Jesse Eisenberg joking about Facebook — prescient. And forget cinematic roots — can we call “don’t say ‘zombie’” an erasure of the genre’s Haitian origins? We journey on, withstanding deconstruction and reconstruction like the rules don’t matter anymore, and wash up on the unlikeliest shores: South Korea. Of course, South Korea is not the terminating point, but its Train to Busan is indeed one of the very best zombie movies. #Alive feels like a shout that the earlier film wasn’t a fluke, in the year Train to Busan’s sequel released to lukewarm reception. Oh, I’m sorry, Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula. Bleck! Bit too anthropomorphic. Where Train to Busan likely didn’t pay homage to its genre forebears, swiping ideas instead from the still-hot bile that is the World War Z movie (which, I swear to Christ, ended with “This is just the beginning,” that limp eel), it’s a satisfying movie because it maximizes the conventions. Doesn’t break the rules, it exercises them. Remember?
Is that the best we can do? I mean, the puzzle pieces don’t change. You’ll always put the pieces together. Any less, and it’s one of those Resident Evil sequels or a sequel to the remake to the sequel, like Day of the Dead: Bloodline, which I imagine is a corrosive assault on the senses, unenthusiastically staged. #Alive doesn’t thread the needle as well as Train, doesn’t fold its unique qualities neatly into the oppressive regulations of the formula. It’s a well-made movie, accounting for its details within precise compositions, engineering moments toward maximal emotional consequence. The South Korean difference, as I’ve observed. Of course, then I worry again, this time that the undead are infecting my most beloved international film industry. South Korea doesn’t repeat itself. They do their one John Woo action movie (Shiri), their one monster movie (The Host), and about a billion revenge movies. They’re weird, like what zombie movies used to be. I’m not worried they’ll keep making zombie movies, but that they’re repeating past success or cashing in on commercial pretense (it’s a fucking Netflix front-pager with a hashtag in the title). Blast, it’s not a real concern, especially not in the face of our actual infectious crisis and its ruinous effects on film, but it’s something or other.
For my part, Park Shin-hye. Helping me cut through all this confusion between zombie movie hipsterdom and zombie hatred is that most clear motivation. Yoo Ah-in is great here — this is the first I’ve seen of him, actually, missed out on Burning — a goofball to the end, but yes, the actress was the draw. I really like her character, and I like the dynamic it creates with the shaggy manchild. The K-drama butterflies were fluttering when he — obviously — kept his thumb on the walkie-talkie so she catches him grumbling about her. Oh, so cute! Park Shin-hye is a beloved star in South Korea, which I measure by she’s a doctor in a show called Doctors, the only scene of which I’ve seen is her beating up girls in a nightclub? So she gets to be a toughie no matter the circumstance, I guess. And while there’s one part in #Alive I didn’t love, it is preceded by her chopping up zombies with a climbing axe like reboot Lara Croft. In my headcanon, she’s checking that off her actress to-do list. At some point, everyone wants to chop up zombies. I’m happy for her. But this, for me, is the last goddamn time.