My feelings on the zombie genre are so mixed.
On the one hand, zombies are scary and zombie movies, when done well, can be genuinely disturbing. Zombie movies deal with the inevitably of death. Whenever someone dies, we always say that they’re at peace. “At least, they’re not suffering anymore,” we say. Zombie movies suggest that there is no peace after death. Instead, the suffering of life is just replaced with nonstop hunger and savagery of death. Meanwhile, the living don’t even get a chance to mourn their dead before they’re forced to kill them again. Zombies are relentless and they used to be our friends and family. That’s one reason why zombies haunt us in a way that certain other monsters never will.
At the same time, when it comes to zombie movies, there’s just so many of them! Seriously, it seems like there must be at least a hundred zombie movies released every year. We’ve seen so many scenes of the dead running through empty city streets that it’s hard not to get cynical. The first time you see a reanimated corpse eat its parents, it’s disturbing. But, by the hundredth time you’ve seen it, it’s just expected. We now live in an age where every disaster is compared to a “zombie apocalypse.” Even non-horror fans know about zombies. The days of zombies being obscure are over. They’re now firmly a part of pop culture and, as a result, they’ve become a bit annoying.
I say all this because, in many ways, #Alive is a standard zombie film. This South Korean film opens with Joon-woo
(Yoo Ah-in) in his apartment, playing video games. When reports come in of something strange happening in the streets of Seoul, Joon-woo goes out to his balcony to see what’s happening. What he sees is a world gone mad, one in which hordes of growling people run through the streets, biting down and feeding on anyone who gets to close to them. Yes, the zombie apocalypse has begun and Seoul is apparently right in the middle of it.
And don’t get me wrong. The zombies are indeed frightening and there’s an exciting sequence where Joon-woo has to force one out of his apartment. It’s all very well-directed and well-acted by Yoo Ah-in but it’s not anything that we haven’t seen before. At this point, audiences have seen so many zombie rampages that if a real one ever breaks out, the uninfected will probably start bitching about how different it is from what the movies led them to expect.
What sets #Alive apart is the way it captures the feeling of being totally isolated and alone. Trapped in his apartment with only a limited amount of food and with no way of knowing whether or not his family is still alive, Joon-woo tries to maintain his sanity. Joon-woo is isolated from the outside world. He’s quarantied himself. Occasionally, he steps out on the balcony and sees if the zombies are still outside. (They are.) Occasionally, he checks the news to see if there’s an end in sight. (There’s not.) As the days pass, Joon-woo finds himself tempted to surrender to his despair.
But what if Joon-woo isn’t the only person left alive in his apartment complex? What if, on the other side of the complex, there’s a woman named Kim Yoo-bin (Park Shin-hye) who is trying to catch Joon-woo’s attention so that he’ll know that he’s not alone and that she’s willing to help? And just how much of a risk is Joon-woo willing to take to end his isolation?
That’s a question that feels especially relevant today, at a time when so many people are isolated, either voluntarily or by doctor’s orders. When a newscaster describes the zombies as being infected, it’s impossible not to think about what’s currently going on in the world. When Joon-woo discovers how truly difficult it is to be alone and unable to leave your home …. well, that’s the way many people have felt this entire year. Though #Alive was filmed before the pandemic lock-downs, it feels like a movie about our current times. As such, it has a power to it that it might not have had if it had been released at a different time. Like everyone, Joon-woo struggles with fear and despair. But, at the same time, he never allows himself to forget that he’s not dead yet. He’s still alive and there’s still hope.
#Alive is a film about how difficult it can be to live while everyone around you is obsessing on death but it’s also a film that encourages its viewers to embrace life, no matter how difficult or frightening the situation. It’s a film about the dead that ultimately has a lot to say about what it means to be alive.