Halloween comes but once a year, and with the full moon at its zenith there’s no better time to unearth the UK Anime Network’s live-action category from its long deathless slumber than with a new zombie flick. Some years ago Korean cinema made an explosive impact on the zombie-horror genre with the breakout smash hit Train to Busan but can #Alive revive that atmosphere to a new dark unlife?
In #Alive we follow Oh Jun-U, a guy who really is not prepared to survive the zombie apocalypse. He’s no versatile adaptable woodsman or tooled-up streetwise commando… he’s a Twitch livestreamer and lives his entire life in his dark bedroom lit only by the neon tubes of his top-end gaming rig. He lives in a tower block right in the middle of urban Seoul, so when the zombie outbreak happens he really does have nowhere to run – the corridor outside his apartment is packed with zombies and too narrow to evade them, and the street is too far down to drop to – and it’s packed with zombies too. Jun is trapped in his own apartment but while that may be a normal day for him it’s different when you no longer have an obliging mother restocking the fridge for you. How long can Jun survive when all he’s got to live off are no more than whatever packets of ramen are left in the cupboards?
#Alive has caught some critical attention – after debuting this June it’s become one of Korea’s highest-grossing new movies of 2020 and of course it’s been well-timed to become a capital-T Topical film: the scenario of someone being stuck indoors from a plague outside providing an excuse for critics to start spouting off about all their coronavirus lockdown bugbears. With multiple scenes of the zombies jumping on top of and chewing people, though, I’m more concerned about #Alive’s irresponsible violation of social distancing!
Perhaps more interesting than whatever Covid Caterwauling the film might provoke though is the story of its origins. #Alive is a Korean film but it also has a Western counterpart – another 2020 zombie movie from the USA called Alone. You can see the resemblance with their exasperating titles – #Alive’s hashtag making online links difficult (note its absence in the review title!) while Alone is a blandly generic title shared by lots of other films, not least a completely unrelated thriller directed by Universal Soldier’s John Hyams which also came out this year so even searching for “Alone 2020” might not get you the right movie. However, both #Alive and Alone share more DNA than just awkward names because they’re actually both in a sense the same movie – each one is a separate parallel production of the same screenplay “#Alone” written by Matt Naylor – he has had a small career in writing, editing and producing television documentaries before now but these movies are the first result of a feature-length script from him. Alone only came out just over a fortnight ago in mid-October and it hasn’t made its way onto online streaming services yet, but when it eventually does it might be interesting to compare the two like how different settings of a theatre production can completely change the play. Whether you’re watching either the Korean or the American version though, be aware that both are re-treading (I haven’t seen the source, so I don’t know if it’s fair to call them rip-offs without the opportunity for a direct comparison) the 2018 French zombie movie The Night Eats The World which put out this concept well before either of them, but which itself could be seen as only dialling down the scale of the trapped-in-an-apartment-block (as opposed to just trapped-in-an-apartment) movies the Spanish [•REC] and its 2008 American remake Quarantine. The virus is spreading between films as fast as it does between the zombies!
What is immediately striking about #Alive is that it knows that it’s just the latest in a very long-standing genre and it also knows that you know what to expect and so sees no reason to bore you with the same regurgitated set-ups. #Alive wastes absolutely no time in getting straight down to business. The first zombie attacks occur by the fourth minute of the movie, and that includes the time it takes to run through the production idents! Really, the brief scene of Jun’s day is a masterclass in leanly efficient visual storytelling of his dull routine beforehand – his general fecklessness shown in how he fell on top of his bed still in his clothes the previous night, he overslept by hours, his mother went out and left him behind with a note and some money to buy groceries, but he sits down to his computer instead and then we’re off to the races.
Another striking thing about #Alive is despite its infuriating hashtag title, online connectivity actually is not that important for large parts of the movie. In the zombie manga I Am A Hero the meek inherited the Earth because the always-online geeks were safe indoors on their computers while all the responsible people outdoors were eaten by zombies - #Alive takes the opposite approach because the computers only serve to highlight Jun’s isolation as signals black out and internet connectivity fails. There’s one darkly ironic sequence where technology actively conspires against Jun – he tries to use the FM Radio function on his smartphone to pick up emergency broadcasts but he has no audio cable to use for an aerial because he only has modern, top-range, convenient wireless headphones! There is one plot hole too – Jun is able to distract the zombies from another survivor by using the apartment phone to trill, but how could this be done when the electricity had been out for days? Connectivity comes back towards the end of the movie when the survivors’ phones start trilling with stored alerts as they re-enter the mobile signal area and signify their return to civilisation – that would have been fine on its own, but unfortunately the movie overeggs the pudding and turns the ending into an overly sentimental finish with social media messages from survivors being visualised all over buildings. I can deal with a happy ending to a horror movie, not everything has too be futilely downbeat, but this still over-exaggerated was far too neat, pat and uplifting, it soured the effervescent sense of relief with the cloying sense of schmaltz instead.
You would assume that #Alive would mostly be a cheap zero-budget film given that it is probably filmed in people’s actual flats (one place where a lower budget does come through is a night-time city shot which clearly shows cars driving on a highway even through the city’s supposed to be dead), but one pleasant surprise of the movie is the impressive presentation. The opening sequence depicts the zombie virus ravaging people’s bodies, rampaging through their tissues and necrotising their blood vessels in a manner that recalls the opening credits of Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead but does so much more slickly. The actual zombies themselves look amazing. George Romero made a startling admission in an interview once where he said that, despite his reputation as a master of tactile, physical horror he actually much preferred using CGI for zombies – real extras were almost impossible to direct because all they wanted to do was elbow their way to the front of the camera, excited to be in a film. #Alive definitely doesn’t have that problem and the make-up artists in the crew definitely deserve special recognition, they have really transformed the living dead into diseased mutants that with their blackened flesh and bleeding gums are not only gruesome but look actively savage and threatening just to see them on the screen.
None of the actors emote terribly profoundly – Jun’s actor is remarkable for keeping up a gormless expression even weeks into the apocalypse – but their acting impact may be limited by a dub which cheerfully disregards lip-flaps and makes no real effort to match the characters’ actual talk, along with a dub script which drops a number of additional F-bombs that aren’t present in the subtitles. Nonetheless all of the cast are quite game for the action sequences of #Alive which also work well within the constraints of the setting – as with Train to Busan, narrow corridors and a lack of guns compel some alternative approaches to fighting through zombie hordes. One opportunity for horror is missed, though - in one scene Jun imagines his family returning home. He hugs his mother, and the dream fades. It would have been more nightmarish to have his mother zombify and rips his head off while he was trying to imagine her again.
#Alive is an efficient zombie movie, easily wrapped up within ninety minutes. It’s an accessible movie for the genre – while there are plenty of blood smears on the walls there’s little in the way of actual gore (no characters having their guts being pulled out in the manner of an …of the Dead movie) and even the biting is fairly bloodless so the well-made zombies will be appreciated by horror buffs while more squeamish family members won’t be scared off if a group of you are watching it together. It doesn’t take full advantage of the characters’ psychological troubles from isolation and it won’t revolutionise the genre but it remains decent filler to banish the shadows on a cold windy night in.