Zombie movies cross borders with ease, receive twists for local cultures

On the back of Korean hit Train To Busan comes another Asian zombie film, I Am A Hero, about a meek Japanese manga artist forced to be brave On the back of Korean hit Train To Busan comes another Asian zombie film, I Am A Hero, about a meek Japanese manga artist forced to be brave

Zombie shows are spreading across the globe with the same speed those undead monsters are attacking humans.

Like the wordless slapstick humour of Mr Bean, zombies make for an ideal international movie genre - visceral fear of rampaging hordes needs no explanation in any culture.

The zombie movie - which originated from the United States with the film White Zombies (1932) and popularised by classics such as Night Of The Living Dead (1968) - has indeed gone well beyond North American shores, infiltrating European and, more recently, Asian film industries as well.

This week, audiences will see a new zombie flick from Japan: I Am A Hero, which is a live-screen adaptation of Kengo Hanazawa's popular manga series.

It stars Yo Oizumi as meek manga artist Hideo Suzuki, who attempts to rise to the occasion and become a hero in zombie-infested Japan and not just in his imagination.

Fear transcends culture, race and nationality, and the threat of global destruction through a pandemic such as Sars or H1N1 is so real that zombie films tap the fascination that people have with it.

MR LESLIE TAN of Ngee Ann Polytechnic's School of Film and Media Studies

The movie comes hot on the heels of South Korea's zombie blockbuster Train To Busan, starring Gong Yoo, which clawed its way to the top of the box office not only in its domestic market, but also internationally, earlier this year.

In Singapore, the film directed by Yeon Sang Ho did so well that it is now the highest-grossing Korean film here to date, making more than $5.35 million.

These films add to the growing list of Asian zombie flicks, which includes Bollywood's Go Goa Gone (2013), the Hindi film industry's first foray into the genre; Thailand's Sars Wars (2004); and Taiwan's Zombie 108 (2012).

Singapore also made its own zombie movie four years ago - Hsien Of The Dead, directed by first-time film-maker Gary Ow on a budget of $350,000.

According to Mr Leslie Tan, course chairman for the diploma in film, sound and video at Ngee Ann Polytechnic's School of Film and Media Studies, zombie flicks will continue to become more popular the world over because of what they represent - a common fear that citizens of any country have of everything from mass infections to terrorism in this globalised world.

He says: "Fear transcends culture, race and nationality, and the threat of global destruction through a pandemic such as Sars or H1N1 is so real that zombie films tap the fascination that people have with it.

"Many new zombie films even eschew the traditional term 'zombie' in favour of 'infected', giving it a more identifiable slant for audiences in the light of these looming threats."

The idea that zombies are infected versions of modern-day human beings also makes them instantly more relatable than other old-fashioned movie monsters such as Bigfoot or the Chinese jiangshi, or the hopping zombie.

Zombies taking on local traits

Nanyang Technological University assistant professor Liew Kai Khiun, who has research interests in pop culture, says: "The Chinese jiangshi, dressed in Qing dynasty imperial robes, hark from a distant past.

"And unlike zombies that can be physically destroyed by humans, jiangshi can be contained only by spirit mediums."

Also in the works are a host of new zombie movies, including Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, the latest instalment in the hit franchise; World War Z 2, the sequel to the 2013 film starring Brad Pitt; and The Forest Of Hands And Teeth, based on the best-selling novel of the same name that will star Game Of Thrones' Maisie Williams in the lead.

Television hit The Walking Dead, one of the most-watched shows in the world, has also just been renewed for an eighth season earlier this week.

While zombie movie tropes are well-worn and done to death, it is up to the individual film-maker to make his movie unique and befitting local contexts.

Mr David Lee, 37, vice-chairman of the Singapore Film Society, says: "The rules of the game in terms of what zombies can or cannot do come from Western movie conventions.

"But film-makers are creative in adding their own social or political commentary to their films. I Am A Hero, for example, is very Japanese - it depicts the working class in Japan and how they cannot get out of their jobs. In a way, the living state for many of the movie's characters is already a zombie state."

In the same vein, home-grown director Ow borrowed the look and manner of his monsters in Hsien Of The Dead from American genre conventions - the rotting flesh of their bodies, the incoherent growling as they move and their eagerness to devour living humans.

But his film is, nonetheless, very much about the Singapore experience. That is because the zombies in his movie carry on with their day jobs and start preying on living flesh only if the human breaks some kind of rule, such as littering or jaywalking.

Ow, 36, says: "It's a humorous take on Singapore's sterile environment, featuring very obedient and compliant zombies."

Evolution of the undead

Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

Director: George A. Romero

Synopsis: When a zombie apocalypse breaks out, Barbra (Judith O'Dea) seeks refuge in a rural house with a group of strangers. While trying to protect themselves against being eaten by zombies, the humans must also deal with dissension among themselves.

What is different: White Zombies (1932) may have been the first movie made about creatures known as zombies, but it was Romero's Night Of The Living Dead that gave audiences the modern-day idea of the zombie - as flesh-eating and resurrected from the dead after getting bitten. Previously, zombies were portrayed on film as having been transformed that way by witch doctors.

Considered by film experts as one of the most important horror movies of all time, Night Of The Living Dead spawned five more zombie films between 1978 and 2009 to make up what is known as Romero's Living Dead series.

This film is so iconic, it also inspired several remakes, including one in 1990 by Tom Savini and another in 2012 by James Plumb. Two more reboots of the film are reportedly in the works, including Matt Cloude's Night Of The Living Dead: Genesis, which will reportedly bring back actress O'Dea.

Resident Evil (2002)

Milla Jovovich. PHOTO: MEDIACORP

Director: Paul W.S. Anderson

Synopsis: Based on the popular video game of the same name, amnesiac Alice (Milla Jovovich) and a group of commandos fight off hundreds of zombie- like scientists at a secret underground facility, while trying to contain the mysterious virus that mutated them from spreading to the outside world.

What is different: Not usually the top choice in a film critic's library, but Resident Evil is nonetheless worth mentioning simply because of its female lead Alice. An original character created for the film, she is an amalgamation of strong female characters taken from the video game and has since become one of the most iconic female action stars in film history.

28 Days Later (2003)


Director: Danny Boyle

Synopsis: Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes up from a month-long coma to discover that London has been overtaken by zombie-like victims of a virus.

What is different: Boyle's movie changed the game by making zombies move fast, really fast. That upped the stakes and thrills so much more, given how much harder it is for humans to run away from them.

Now, it has almost become the norm for zombie movies to feature fast zombies, from World War Z (2013) to the recent Train To Busan from South Korea and I Am A Hero from Japan.

Shaun Of The Dead (2004)

Director: Edgar Wright

Synopsis: Shaun (Simon Pegg) is an electronic shop salesman who leads a dull life until a zombie apocalypse occurs. He teams up with his friend, Ed (Nick Frost), to get his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), from her house and lead her to safety.

What is different: This parody has all the signature dry wit of Pegg and Wright (who also made the hilarious Hot Fuzz, 2007, and The World's End, 2013). They know their zombie movie tropes well and play with them for laugh-out-loud moments. Shaun, for example, does not notice there is a zombie apocalypse at first because he has a hangover.

Even though the film is meant to be a comedy, it does not stint on the gore, with one scene showing zombies disembowelling a human.

Warm Bodies (2013)

Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer (both above). PHOTO: SHAW

Director: Jonathan Levine

Synopsis: Zombie R (Nicholas Hoult) encounters human girl Julie (Teresa Palmer) and falls in love with her. So instead of eating her, he does the non-zombie thing and saves her life.

What is different: Here we have a romantic zombie comedy - a rom-zom-com. This one made lead zombie R more intelligent than usual, giving him the ability to have minor communication with his human crush and even the chance to become more human himself. It gave the usual star-crossed love story that much more, well, bite.

Train To Busan (2016)


Director: Yeon Sang Ho Synopsis: Divorced fund manager Seok Woo (Gong Yoo) takes his daughter on a trip from Seoul to Busan to see her mother. Chaos ensues when zombie-like passengers start re-populating in the small confines of the train they are on.

What is different: This is certainly not the first Asian zombie movie, but it is the Asian zombie movie that took the world by storm. Beyond its domestic South Korean market, where it shattered box-office records, it has done exceptionally well overseas, becoming the highest-grossing South Korean film in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. In Western markets such as the United States, rave reviews have also poured in for the movie, with trade rag Entertainment Weekly calling it "first-class throughout".

As with successful films, producers are looking to shoot a sequel and A-listers Song Joong Ki and Lee Min Ho are rumoured to star in it.

•Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee

•I Am A Hero opens in cinemas tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2016, with the headline 'Deadly charm'. Print Edition | Subscribe