Not just moving corpses
"Aahh… Uggh…" are among the grotesque sounds zombies make as they writhe. They snap their entire bodies including the necks, arms and waists as if their bones are broken. They do not avoid obstacles and head straight toward people. The person unluckily bitten by a zombie is doomed to become one.
"K-zombies," or zombies appearing in Korean movies, are gaining popularity not only among Korean viewers but also those around the world. Even the COVID-19 pandemic has failed to dent the global popularity of K-zombies.
The blockbuster "Peninsula" (2020), which depicts the Korean Peninsula being overtaken by zombies, has been exported to 190 countries and topped the box offices of Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Mongolia. As of Aug. 7, it sold 3.59 million tickets in Korea as the cinematic draw.
"Kingdom" (2019-20), a Netflix drama in which an epidemic turns people into zombies during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), has received positive reviews worldwide. With two seasons under its belt, the drama has subtitles in 27 languages and was dubbed into 12 in being available for streaming in 190 countries. Foreign media and fans have called it "the best zombie series ever," with one comment saying, "This is how a zombie series should be made."
The start of the global boom for Korean zombies was the 2016 hit "Train to Busan," which attracted 10 million viewers and was exported to about 160 countries. It showed how K-zombies could successfully invade the global film market.
Unique movements of K-zombies attract global movie fans
In the West, zombie-themed films such as "Night of the Living Dead" (1968), "Dawn of the Dead" (2004) and "World War Z" (2013) and the ongoing U.S. TV series "Walking Dead" have long been loved by audiences. The genre exerted little influence in Korea, however, until "Train to Busan" came out in 2016.
Experts say Korean zombies gained global attention thanks to their unique movements and characters that differ from their Western counterparts and solid acting.
Choung Myung Seob, the author of several zombie novels who is considered a "zombie expert," said zombie movements are crucial.
"Korean zombies are fast and display acrobatic movements," he said. "Korea's unique bbali bbali (hurry, hurry) culture speeds things up and thus adds more suspense in the eyes of the viewer."
"Whereas foreign zombies move simply, the movements and postures of Korean zombies have been improved a level through research," he added. "Because Korea is a newcomer to zombie films, it had much data to actively make good use of."
Yeon Sang-ho, the director of consecutive zombie hits such as the animated "Seoul Station" (2016), "Train to Busan" and "Peninsula," said about the characteristics of K-zombies, "They don't feel simply like monsters or living creatures. They seem like they were humans just like us -- our neighbors or peers -- until just a little while ago."
So Korean zombies have a different background than those depicted in foreign films, who seem like creatures that need quick elimination.
Jeon Young, a dance choreographer who designed zombie movements in "Train to Busan," "Kingdom" and "Peninsula," said that Korean zombie actors "move bizarrely without computer graphics and dynamically bump and run."
"All that is combined with the worldviews of Korean zombies and Korea's distinct traditional elements, and this is why foreigners are obsessed with K-zombies," he added.
How K-zombies are made
A throng of zombies aggressively head straight toward a sighted target to attack. They indiscriminately run and twist their bodies without rules. Actors maintain the basic frame of zombies but adapt their acting to fit the concepts of zombies unique to each work as created by a director and a choreographer.
Jeon based zombie movements in "Train to Busan" on rabies and those in "Kingdom" on sleepwalking. He told actors in the former to violently shake their heads instead of behaving in a refrained way, and those in the latter to thrust their heads and chests forward first without using their hands.
In "Peninsula," he choreographed more aggressive movements by zombies who walked on all fours. They seem to be the same zombies on the surface but have hidden details.
Actors playing zombies receive training for three to four months, getting training in walking, expression, how to look when attacking humans, performing the seizure when transforming into a zombie, and other movements and acting. They also need makeup that takes more than two hours to apply.
# Easy K-zombie tips
"Can I be a K-zombie, too?"
Actor Han Sung Soo, who played a zombie in "Train to Busan," "Kingdom" and "Peninsula," said the first thing to do is to let go of oneself. The moment self-consciousness takes over and one thinks, "What am I doing?" that person will move like a human and won't look like a zombie.
It's important not to use your arms.
"When told to imitate a zombie, most people intentionally fidget their arms but doing that makes you look like a fake zombie."
"Lower your arms and head. And trudge wearily like that to become the most basic zombie. Don't go out of your way to create something. Just let go of yourself."
"What if you encounter a zombie?"
On what to do if confronted by a zombie, Choung said, "Don't think of fighting one. First, run away. Find a safe place and await rescue. For that, prepare in advance a bag of food to last a few days and items usable in an emergency."
"There's no possibility of encountering a zombie in real life, but this is what I'd advise if you do."