Zombie for Sale
directed by Lee Min-Jae
starring Jung Ga-ram, Uhm Ji-won
The past few years the zombie movie had been beaten to death. The desiccated corpses from the imaginations of George Romero and Lucio Fulci had become either meaningless foes for invincible heroes to wrack up XP in video games and video game inspired movies or punching bags for increasingly unfunny comedy. Even properties like The Walking Dead that tried to do right by reanimated corpses ultimately failed them. When all seemed lost South Korean filmmakers have picked up the pieces and breathed new life into genre with films that stay true to zombie lore while also injecting old tropes with some fresh ideas. Some like Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan (2016) plays things straight and gritty, Lee Min-Jae taps the comedy vein for his 2019 film Zombie for Sale. A funny, scary, and heartwarming mix of family and horror tropes that despite borrowing from endless sources manages to become something unique and wonderful.
Zombie for Sale aka The Odd Family: Zombie on Sale, centers on the hard-luck Park family eeking out an existence in a nearly defunct gas station outside a tiny town in rural South Korea. The Park clan subsists mostly on low level cons including spiking the road to cause accidents so they can swoop in with their tow truck and charge exorbitant repair fees. One morning a stranger arrives in town, a zombie who has escaped from a pharmaceuticals lab that got shut down when their synthetic insulin test went awry. The hapless zombie, eventually named Jong-bi in honor of a recently deceased pet rabbit, encounters a large dog he intends to make a meal of but instead gets chased by the dog in a gag that becomes a hilarious runner through the first act of the film. Jong-bi wreaks some minor, unintended, mayhem before finding refuge in the Park’s garage. That evening the family realizes that the patriarch of the family has been bitten by the zombie and the internet gives them the lowdown on what’s about to go down and they do the only sensible thing and lock their father in his travel trailer and wait for the transformation. The next morning he has transformed, not into a flesh eating zombie but into a younger and healthier version of himself, full of energy. The family is confused but all of the dad’s older friends are delighted if a bit jealous so they too want a zombie bite. The Park family are not shy about monetizing the situation and charge the oldsters to stick their arms into their makeshift zombie bite glory hole for their shot of youth serum. Everything is going great until dad, with renewed vigor, decides to take the family’s zombie cash and head to Hawaii, meanwhile all the people who have been bitten by Jong-bi start to exhibit symptoms other than a spike in vitality and soon the town and especially the Parks’ gas station are overrun by a zombie apocalypse.
The trick with horror comedies is finding the right balance to not take too much of the horror away in pursuit of jokes. Once the townspeople start turning, the zombie menace is quite real and there is actual tension and stakes in the attack even if at one point the zombies are being attacked with a bundle of roman candles. The Park family and their familial dynamics are mostly played for laughs, but by the time the real horrors show up you are so invested in their simple pursuit of a better life, however innoble the tactics, you cannot help but root for them in their quest to save themselves and by the coda at the end, they are working to save all of Korea from the Zombie hordes, and of course get paid for it.
Zombie for Sale boasts numerous outstanding extra features on the Blu-ray. The best of these features is Eat Together, Kill Together: The Family-in-Peril Comedy a well-researched and captivating video essay by critic and producer Pierce Conran which posits a family in peril comedy sub-genre in South Korean cinema that includes Best Picture Oscar winner, Parasite (2019, Dir: Bong Joon-ho). The essay will have you making notes of movies you need to add to your watchlist. These films drop tight knit families in dark situations far beyond their control that are leavened with social commentary and humor.
Sam Ashurst and Dan Martin from the Arrow Video Podcast jump in with a nifty audio commentary track for the film Since they co-host a podcast together they already have instant, conversational chemistry which serves the loopy film they’re discussing quite nicely. Dan Martin’s visual effects career allows him to provide some keen insight into the production of the film and provide some context to inside jokes like the zombie eating heads of cabbage, as crunching heads of cabbage is an old Foley sound effect choice for munching flesh in traditional zombie films. The pair also get into where Zombie For Sale fits stylistically into modern Korean cinema which is all about combining different film genres in unexpected ways.
Arrow has done admirable work in getting the film to western shores so quickly and hopefully Lee Min-Jae’s take will breathe some much needed life into the stale genre by adding heart to zombie movie instead of the steady diet of gore and irony that have plagued the genre for the past decade.