Director: Kim Sung-hoon
Notable Cast: Hyun Bin, Jang Dong-gun, Lee Sun-bin, Kim Eui-sung, Jeong Man-sik, Seo Ji-hye, Jo Woo-jin, Jo Dal-hwan, Kim Tae-woo
There was a strangely empty place left after the massive international success of Train to Busan. This may have to do with how different the film industry in South Korea is from Hollywood, but if a film like that had dropped here in the US there would have been a saturation of the market in similar zombie films – which has been the case since the release of The Walking Dead, but I digress. Yet, in terms of zombie films from South Korea, the international releases have been relatively non-existent. That is, until Rampant. What makes Rampant such an intriguing film is that instead of doubling down on the familial core and traditional zombie tropes like Train to Busan, this film aims to be more a genre mash up of a lot of very popular South Korean genres. Rampant is not just a zombie film. It’s a political thriller and it also features plenty of sword clashing action set pieces that would be comfortable in a wuxia style period film. This is where Rampant becomes the ambitious film that it is. It’s a brilliant blend of genres, powered on charismatic performances, and layered with some great set pieces which makes Rampant one of the most unique cinematic experiences in 2018.
The best way to really dig into Rampant is to look at all of the genres that it is intertwining to see how it approaches each one. Considering the manner that the film is being promoted, it’s fitting to start with how the film works as a zombie film. Granted, keep in mind that this film treats zombies in a very Eastern manner. They don’t feast on the flesh of their victims, instead they drink blood and the monsters are unable to be active during the day time because the sun burns their flesh. Those familiar with Eastern undead lore will know that often vampires and zombies are represented as the same or at least in similar ways and Rampant definitely uses that classic approach as the core approach to their monsters, which are referred to as demons by the various characters. The sequences of zombie attacks are very much modern in style, using that insect like approach that works so well for the thrills in Train to Busan (and didn’t work for me in World War Z) and the visual/special effects are high quality to deliver the scares. The zombies are not the prevalent force they might have been, thanks to the other genre focuses that we will get to in a second, and the film rarely uses them in more intimate settings (outside of a fantastic tight quarters sequence in a jail) to give a claustrophobic feeling as much as larger sequences of zombie spectacle. Visually, it creates a lot of great dynamics though. In terms of zombie films, Rampant is not nearly as focused on the horror elements as expected, but it does use them for other factors which is what we will look at next.
Truthfully, the zombies are used more as a tool for the film’s political thriller narrative and plot than for the horror sequences that do thrust the characters from one setting to the next. Rampant is, first and foremost, a social and political commentary about corrupt power and the disconnect from the ruling class to the working class. This part is surprisingly well executed. Occasionally it can be heavy handed with its messages, having characters straight up say things like ‘the people do not serve the king, but the king serves the people’ or something of that ilk, but the use of zombies as a parallel for spreading corruption is a lot of fun. Naturally, the film does play coy with how that all fits together, particularly in the final act as a singular villain starts to take shape in the plot, so it does have some intrigue to it that is open to interpretation. One of the big reasons that this part of the film works so impressively is that director Kim Sung-hoon has a knack for bringing out a lot of emotion in the ensemble cast even if the focus of the film seems intent on being a blockbuster. It doesn’t quite reach the levels of heartstring tugging that Train to Busan achieved, mostly due to the larger scope and cast that means key characters get less screen time, but seeing them navigate the horrors of zombies and the horrors of inept leadership is well balanced and quite impressive.
The last part of style that Rampant uses is that of a martial arts wuxia style swordsman tale. Our hero, the arrogant and quite humorous prince, plays the wandering swordsman with plenty of charm and anchors the film. As he stumbles into the approaching zombie apocalypse, he teams up with a team of expert zombie hunters that round out the heroes of the film. Not only do they get to hack, slash, and pierce plenty of undead demons with their blades and arrows, but the film even throws in a sword wielding ‘zombie king’ for the final act for our main hero to have a one on one duel with – on the roof of a burning building nonetheless. While this part of the film is more in line with the tropes of the genre it is using and leans heavily into the action spectacle of its blockbuster focus, it’s a welcome addition to add to the normal zombie and political thriller elements.
As expected with most of the South Korean blockbusters that make their way to North America, the execution of Rampant is damn near pristine. Between the strong visuals, which are not too dark the night sequences which is a huge pet peeve of mine, and the great performances from the cast, this film powers its more complicated narrative with strong production values and a fantastic sense of navigation between the genres. It can feel a bit long in the tooth in some sequences and perhaps there are a few missed opportunities due to the larger ensemble focus, but the sheer ambitious blending and effective key moments make Rampant one of the most unique cinematic experiences of the year. The use of vicious horror, exciting action, and thoughtful political intrigue make Rampant a massive success. If it opens close to you in a theater, see it.
Written By Matt Reifschneider