Picture a nation already gripped by political chaos that finds itself afflicted by a plague so new that no one understands its properties yet. Its ruler is a demented senior whose underlings use his decline as camouflage for their own agendas. As citizens turn against each other, medical experts operating on the scientific method study the pandemic and present their latest findings to officials at every layer of government. They are met with indifference, stupidity, naked self-interest, and craven pandering to higher-ups. Things keep getting worse. The body count rises. There’s no end in sight.
This is the world of Kingdom, an engrossing South Korean zombie series set in the 16th century. Watching its 12-episode, two-season run right now is an eerie experience, because although it started shooting in 2017 and debuted on Netflix last January, it seems to have predicted the future. On top of being a fast-paced horror epic in historical garb, Kingdom mirrors the disastrous mishandling of the 2020 pandemic (particularly in the United States) with such withering irony and pitch-black humor that it seems to be riffing on headlines you read five minutes ago.
Written by Kim Eun-hee and directed by Kim Seong-hun and Park In-je, Kingdom starts in the royal palace at night. An underling is commanded to slip a bowl of blood through the crack under the red curtain of the king’s sleeping quarters. We hear guttural grows and animalistic shuffling and scratching. Then the underling gets yanked under the curtain by the king, who has become a flesh-eating ghoul subsisting on servants and peasants. We soon learn that the king’s inner circle has been keeping his condition a secret and presenting their own schemes as the king’s wishes.The main focus of their treachery is Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon), the king’s son and anointed successor. The Queen Consort (Kim Hye-jun) is pregnant with the king’s child; if the prince gets whacked or imprisoned, her baby will assume the throne and allow her and the traitorous Chief State Councilor (Ryu Seung-ryong) to run things on the infant’s behalf.
The prince and his bodyguard Mu-yeong (Kim Sang-ho) travel to a remote province to investigate reports of a strange disease that’s been spreading at the border, and meet two physicians, Seo-Bi (Bae Doona) and Yeong-Shin (Kim Sung-kyu), who have been researching a phenomenon that they identify as zombiism (although they don’t use that word). It’s here that Kingdom distinguishes itself as more than a rehash of the usual elements. This is a story about a pandemic that could be contained were it not for the selfishness and thickheadness of the people running the country. Its real villains are authority figures who fail the people they’re supposed to protect.
The zombie film has been a petri dish for satire and allegory ever since George Romero bracketed the late ’60s and late ’70s with politically resonant midnight-movie classics: 1968’s Night of the Living Dead (channeling Vietnam, domestic protests, and racial unrest) and 1978’s Dawn of the Dead (a satire of Me Decade selfishness and consumerism, set in an abandoned mall). Subsequent practitioners chose their own distinct targets. Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake — released three years after 9/11, a year into the Iraq War, and months ahead of President George W. Bush’s reelection — was inflected (or infected) with xenophobic panic, envisioning hordes of Others overrunning the suburbs, and prefacing its story with fragmented, impressionistic credits that opened with a wide shot of Muslims praying. Jim Jarmusch’s loopy 2019 comedy The Dead Don’t Die recreated small-town dynamics in the Trump era. In one scene, a MAGA-hat-wearing right-winger is surrounded by undead versions of neighbors he despised when they were alive. The first zombie who tries to take a bite out of him is Black.
But what makes Kingdom stand apart is its spooky prescience. Like all zombie stories, it’s a moral tale about society imploding because of a “disease.” And it’s about the choices the uninfected make to ensure the survival of their loved ones and civilization as a whole (or protect their own interests). But because the standard ghoul-flick elements are framed by political satire and misanthropic humor, you come away thinking of it as the story of a plague made worse by officials’ corruption, incompetence, and refusal to listen to science. Despite the swords and horses and stovepipe hats, it feels like a nightmare of now — or a premonition of where we’d be just one year after its U.S. debut. It’s as if George Romero had started making movies in the late 1950s, and debuted with a zombie film about an insular, reactionary, violence-driven society that commits to an endless, unwinnable land war in Asia.
In Kingdom, doctors study a new disease’s victims, separate fact from speculation and rumor, and come up with suggestions that they believe will slow the infection rate. Then they present what they’ve learned to functionaries and military people, who thwart, ignore, or undermine them. When the doctors figure out that flesh-cravers have to be locked up to prevent them from biting the living, they’re laughed at, which of course leads to a zombie attack. One of the same men who ignored their advice tries to blame them for the carnage and jail them. When the doctors figure out that the zombies hibernate during the day, they recommend reducing the zombie population by beheading and burning them in their sleep. They’re told that this is an impossible request because, according to faith, a dead person enters the afterlife with the same body they had when they passed on. After a long, increasingly desperate argument, the authorities offer a compromise: They’ll burn the bodies of the peasants, but bury the nobles.
These scenes are as agonizing as they are appallingly funny — not just because we know from watching zombie films that certain things just aren’t done, but because we’ve seen our heroes putting in hard work only to have it ignored by fools. Men and women of reason keep getting kneecapped by laypeople who are in thrall to “gut feelings,” or who cling to existing laws, customs, and rules because they can’t accept that the world they once knew is gone. It’s impossible to watch these scenes without recalling how President Trump and certain U.S. governors decided months ago to declare the pandemic over and “reopen the economy,” despite the death toll passing 100,000, and plague historians and pandemic scholars warning that impatience and overconfidence always lead to new infections.
Despite Kingdom’s distant roots in actual Korean history, viewing the series in 2020 is as infuriating as reading the news, particularly in scenes where scientists concerned about the survival of a civilization are overruled by self-interest, superstition, and cronyism. These human roadblocks could be anti-vaxxers citing conspiratorial Facebook posts as “evidence,” or Trump supporters insisting that COVID-19 is only a threat to very old or sick people, which means there’s no harm going to Applebee’s, a pool party, or church. The show might as well be set in Arizona.
True to science, the heroes also learn that, like all diseases, this one mutates in response to human countermeasures, changes in climate and terrain, and other factors. Which means that what was true last week might change, necessitating a shift in tactics — and a new round of conversations with officials who belatedly accepted the last set of observations, and believe that a change in the pandemic’s narrative must mean that the doctors didn’t know what they were talking about the first time.
The application of basic science to nightmare imagery lets Kingdom continue into a second season after reaching a satisfying stopping point at the end of season one. Of course, like any second season of a TV show, this one only exists because the first was a success. But if you know anything about real-life plagues, it seems plausible that the ghoul disease would go dormant for a while and then return, because that’s what diseases do. Just ask polio.
A sustained critique of inequity binds the drama together. Disparities in social class and political influence let one group help itself to resources that were supposed to benefit everyone — as illustrated by a grotesquely funny scene where a band of peasants flees a zombie horde and runs to a dock in hopes of boarding an escape ship, only to discover that nobles have already set sail in it. Ignorance, self-interest, and moral cowardice keep eclipsing science and reason. Kingdom’s greatest horror is its belief that plagues may come and go, but you can’t cure human nature.
*A version of this article appears in the July 20, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!