All zombie stories come down to one basic question: If civilization suddenly began to fall apart, would you work to preserve whatever was left of it or act in ruthless self-interest and become a thinking version of a ghoul? This conundrum usually plays out onscreen with small groups of people wrestling with private moral dilemmas that affect whatever tiny community they happen to be a part of. Even when the tale is told on a wider canvas — as in both Dawn of the Dead films, the book and movie versions of World War Z, and AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead (about the origins of the plague in The Walking Dead) — it’s rare that storytellers take a panoramic view of the systematic process by which a society collapses.
That’s what makes the South Korean series Kingdom, currently airing in the U.S. via Netflix, so remarkable. It’s a zombie epic that feels like one of those domino displays that cover the entire floor of a warehouse, dazzling you with the intricacy of its cause-and-effect mechanics until the very end, when the last tile falls and you’re left with a flattened remnant of what used to be.
Directed by Kim Seong-hun (Tunnel) and written by Kim Eun-hee, Kingdom was inspired by a historical plague that swept through Korea during the Joseon dynasty, killing thousands in days. But in this telling, the disease is metaphorical as well as medical. This is a story about the effects of corruption and official incompetence and how the powerful trample the powerless in times of crisis.
Set amid political struggles and famine after a string of military defeats, Kingdom starts by literalizing one of the oldest metaphors for societal decay: The country is rotting from the top down because its king has become a demented monster. Everyone in the royal court is keeping the tragedy a secret, denying the obvious, or trying to leverage the situation for personal gain by acting in naked selfishness while claiming to implement the king’s orders. The official story is that the king has smallpox, but this diagnosis is belied by his rotting face, glottal growls, and tendency to snooze all day and feed on servants at night. (Like vampires and cockroaches, Kingdom’s zombies do their business under cover of darkness, then scuttle into hiding when the sun comes up.) The crown prince, Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon), the offspring of the king and a concubine, is next in line for the throne, but he can’t claim it because everyone says his father’s not dying, just sick. The king’s age-inappropriate wife (Kim Hye-jun) is pregnant with a child who will become the new heir — a scenario that strengthens the cover story about the king not feeling so well.
Meanwhile, in a clinic far from the palace, an ex-soldier patient named Yeong-sin (Kim Sung-kyu) and an intrepid female doctor named Seo-bi (Bae Doona), who trained with the king’s physician, watch as a famine-wracked populace goes ghoul. The infection rate accelerates when a well-meaning colleague makes what he thinks is a heroic decision to use the body of an outwardly dead person as meat for soup, telling the starving patients they’re tasting venison.
This early instance of nastiness establishes Kingdom’s distinctive aesthetic, which owes more to the satirical thrillers of directors like Luis Buñuel (The Exterminating Angel) and David Fincher (Fight Club, Gone Girl) than to the standard no-frills, flesh-munching horror flick. Because we know this is a zombie story from reading the summary, we realize there’s no way the soup that this nervous, evasive man prepares is made from deer, yet the storytellers still delay the expected shock (the doctor goes for a bowl and discovers a thumb in it). When the gross-out moment arrives, it’s more of a sick joke than a jump scare, inviting gallows laughter at the wild unfairness of it all, as well as confirming that human judgment is every bit as bad as we thought. As the series unfolds, growing more action-packed and conventionally exciting by the episode, it keeps employing this very effective strategy, driving home that this is not so much a story about what horrible thing will happen next as how the folks entrusted with running things keep allowing horrible things to happen in the name of short-term gain — or because they’re too petty, dumb, or vain to do what’s right.
Some of the characters’ arguments over strategy have the sting of comic allegory, as in a scene in which the physician and the ex-soldier tell officials at a fort that the hundreds of slumbering zombies on the grounds need to be burned because they’ll dig themselves out if they’re just buried. Onlookers from all social classes immediately object because they believe disfigurements get carried into the afterlife, so the idiot in charge entertains a compromise: They’ll burn the peasants’ corpses but bury the bodies of the nobles. As the epidemic widens in scope, unleashing tsunamis of sprinting zombies on the land, Kingdom turns into a mordantly funny epic about how large-scale governmental mismanagement is amplified by class inequities. There’s even a moment, after a zombie attack burns a seaside village to the ground and destroys most of its boats, when the survivors try to pile as many living people as they can onto the only remaining ship, and the peasants meet on the docks at the appointed time to discover that the ship has already set sail with only nobles onboard. “Is there a ship for us too?” asks an adorable girl who has no idea how the world works.
When Kingdom depicts caravans of refugees racing through dark woods as fast as they can, monsters nipping at their heels, it’s an action-horror movie par excellence, but when it ramps down and deals with the particulars of its world, it becomes something more disturbing and resonant: a parable about a society with a death wish that allows rot to spread a bit further every day because stopping it would require systemic changes that the living can’t stomach.
*This article appears in the March 18, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!