The biggest problem you could possibly face being a Korean filmmaker with aspirations of crafting a zombie film is that there’s absolute no way in hell you’re going to approach the sheer pulse pounding thrills of Train To Busan. It’s a task as insurmountable as crafting a L.A. crime epic in the shadow of Heat, or trying to avoid The Exorcist when dipping your toes into the realms of possession horror, e.g. utterly fucking impossible – but that’s not to say people should try…
Stepping into the firing line is Cho Il-hyung’s techno-savy, survival thriller #alive, a film that prides itself by tackling a zombie flick where a sole survivor of a mysterious pandemic that turns it’s victims into slavering ghouls, has all the technical mod cons to try and prolong his life for as long as humanly possible.
Young Oh Joon-woo lives in an apartment complex with his family and is essentially the typical streaming video gamer you see in these kinds of films in that he has an untold amount of electrical gadgets and not a whole lot of interest in what’s going on outside his window. However, he gets a crash course in the latter when a virus starts turning people into the kind of dribbly, sprinting, shrieking flesh eaters we’ve now seen a hundred times before and in no time at all Oh is completely cut off from the world and sealed in his apartment as a bitey apocalypse rages outside. Being the sort of kid who’s never really had to look after himself before, certain important survival tactics whizz clean over his head, such as having the discipline to ration his food or not let in panicking neighbours with suspicious bites on their hands… Somehow making past these noticable speed bumps, Oh then starts to succumb to depression and hopelessness thanks to the combination of phone lines and internet connection crapping out and him finding his way into his father’s drinks cabinet; and inevitably he starts to renege on his earlier, stubborn pledge to stay alive – but temporary salvation is at hand in the form of tough Kim Yoo-bin, a young girl of Oh’s age who lives in the complex directly opposite his and the two form a relationship despite the cavernous physical distance between them.
However, no matter how much good advice Kim can impart, food and safety are becoming noticably scarce and the two form a plan to get themselves out of their apartments in an attempt to get rescued, but upon leaving their respected sanctuaries they soon find that they’re not the only survivors…
Based of an existing film called Alone (the original screenwriter also helped develop this version), watching #Alive in 2020 while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to drag on immediately draws some obvious parallels (although at the time of writing there’s no sign of a zombie outbreak – but who knows, there’s still time, it’s only November, after all) as we watch Oh struggle to maintain an existence sealed within the four walls of his parent’s apartment. The lure of online gaming and making impassioned posts soon falls by the wayside as the situation slowly gets more and more dire and watching this spoilt kid blunder through entry level zombie rules is somewhat refreshing in a genre where Norman Reedus has been casually skewering wandering corpses for the best part of a decade.
Our leads are nicely likable – something that’s imperative considering how much time we have to spend with them – but despite the sheer amount quality alone time we get to spend with Oh, we never really get a feel for him as character beyond briefly pining for his missing family and some alcohol-fueled mood swings. Similarly, Kim also remains somewhat of an enigma; a capable young woman who’s reclusive nature and knowledge of various survival techniques hints at a bad childhood, but who isn’t fleshed out enough beyond being Oh’s savior. It’s not a fatal mistake, but when it comes to a layabout character being forced to confront his responsibilities in the form of a wall of snarling zombies, it falls far behind such gold standards as Shaun Of The Dead.
In comparison to the extraordinary prevalent premise, it’s kind of odd that the zombies in #Alive are so basic, with their basic rules and habits lifted wholesale from other movies without seemingly any attempt to mix them up. They shriek, contort and sprint like they’ve been caught short and are making a frantic break for an undead port-a-loo, but they don’t stand out at all against the sprawling, all consuming mobs of 28 Days Later, World War Z and – yes – Train To Busan, which robs the film of some of the originality that it basic concept contains.
Generic zombies aside, the film also takes a turn into predictability when the couple finally make a break for salvation when their food and gadgets fail them and run headlong into a subplot about a surviving neighbour that feels like it’s staggered in, rasping and bleeding, from another movie. It feels like padding, flown in to stretch out the brief runtime, but only succeeds needlessly complicates matters when the film should be sprinting breathlessly to it’s finish.
As I mentioned before, it’s tough not to be so hard on a film that can’t help but live in the long shadows of the movies that have obviously inspired it and when it’s trying to mine itself for orginal ideas #Alive is a perfectly solid entry in a bloated genre; but regrettably treads an overly familiar path in it’s search for something new.