A decade ago, AMC's The Walking Dead rejuvenated the zombie horror genre, created a worldwide phenomenon, and launched a franchise that continues to this day. Ten years in, however, that show has gotten long in the tooth and recent seasons have left many fans dissatisfied. While other similar offerings (like Syfy's Z Nation) have come and gone in the meantime, last year's South Korean zombie series Kingdom offered a fresh take that proved there may still be some life left in the genre. As the show returns for its second season on Netflix, here's a rundown of just a few of the factors that set these Korean zombies apart from their domestic brethren.
Ever since George A. Romero set the template for the modern zombie thriller with the original Night of the Living Dead, most of that film's successors and knockoffs have followed suit, taking place in contemporary settings (relative to when they were made, of course). Watching modern society fall apart in the wake of an undead uprising is a chief preoccupation of the genre. The rare exceptions that shift the action to the distant past, like Army of Darkness or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, have tended to be comedic in nature and have treated the presence of zombies in historical times as a joke.
Kingdom is set in medieval Korea, during the Joseon era in approximately the 16th Century. While the series does have some comic elements, notably a rather cartoonish depiction of corrupt government officials, the show is mostly a straight drama that takes its monsters seriously. The zombies are dangerous, merciless, and terrifying. They pose a real threat not just to the main characters, but to the entire country, and possibly the world.
Both the foreign locations and the time period offer plenty of exotic color for Western viewers and a refreshing change of pace from other recent zombie dramas. The heroes have few guns, and must fight the undead with swords, bows, or martial arts. The costumes are also very eye-catching, especially all the elaborate hats.
Over the years, The Walking Dead has fallen into a rut of repeating the same simple formula over and over again. In addition to fighting off zombie attacks, the characters' efforts to find sanctuary or rebuild society are inevitably threatened by some antagonist group with a charismatic leader. From the Governor, to Negan, to Alpha, the show tries to raise the stakes by making the villains more psychotic and evil, but the conflict always boils down to basically the same thing.
Kingdom complicates its drama by adding a layer of political intrigue. We learn in the pilot episode that the king of the dynasty is Patient Zero, the first zombie. Desperate to cling to power, his young widow and her father locked him in the royal palace and hid his condition, telling his subjects that the king is still alive, just feeling a little under the weather. Even Crown Prince Yi-Chang (Ju Ji-hoon), the king's son from a previous marriage, is kept in the dark. Their plan is to keep the ruse going for a few more months, until the pregnant queen can give birth to an heir who will supersede Yi-Chang's claim to the throne. However, when Yi-Chang grows suspicious of his father's absence, he sets out to prove that the king is in fact dead. To thwart this power play for the throne, the queen declares him a traitor and orders him executed.
All this scheming is set against the backdrop of a zombie plague spreading across the nation. As the queen's regional officials struggle to keep it under wraps in order to maintain their own political power, Yi-Chang fights to get the truth out and save his people. That story is a lot more complex and interesting than the repetitive cycle of villain groups on the more famous zombie series.
Lumbering hordes of zombies slowly lurching toward their victims is a trope of the genre that filmmakers try to subvert from time to time. We've seen running zombies before, in movies like 28 Days Later or Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake. That in itself isn't necessarily new. Kingdom mixes up the mythology by adding other new rules for the undead. The zombies in this show not only run, they reanimate almost immediately after death. Their fast and hard attacks add a great deal of tension to the frequent action scenes.
Most intriguingly, the Kingdom zombies are only active at night. As soon as the sun comes up, they run away to hide, and their bodies appear completely lifeless during the day. This not only gives the living characters a respite and time to strategize, it creates a suspense-building countdown clock for the next attack.
Perhaps the biggest knock against The Walking Dead these days is simply that the show has been running too long. After ten seasons, usually sixteen episodes a piece, the series feels like it's been on forever. Add five seasons of Fear the Walking Dead and another spinoff on the way, and its clear the suits at the AMC would love nothing more than to run a constant rotation of Walking Dead all year round. For fans who have been with the franchise since the beginning, this gets to be a slog. Watching The Walking Dead sometimes feels more like an obligation than entertainment.
In contrast, Kingdom has short seasons of just six episodes each. That makes for a very quick binge that doesn't have time to wear out its welcome, and it leaves fans hungering for more.
In years past, the presence of subtitles was seen as a deterrent to mainstream acceptance in the American market. Perhaps the recent Oscar win for Korean drama Parasite will open the doors for wider exposure to foreign movies and TV. Although Kingdom may not have much in common with that film other than language, it's a very fun spin on a familiar genre and should have pretty wide appeal.
Season 2 of Kingdom is now streaming on Netflix.
Josh Zyber has written about TV, movies, and home theater for the past two decades. Most recently, he spent more than nine years managing a daily blog at High-Def Digest.