Director Yeon Sang-ho's ‘Train to Busan’ was one of the biggest box office successes in South Korean history, maybe the best zombie movie of the decade and one of the most searing social commentaries of the 21st century.
The film wastes no time getting to the point - the build-up only takes a few brief scenes, then the madness captivates the rest. We see the outbreak from beginning, middle and end within the narrative’s run time. You have time to develop empathy for each character, their backstories, and connections to one another fleshed out in small bursts throughout the film. While the human condition is in question, the narrative also explores societal themes, which are all perfectly juxtaposed with gory yet skillfully crafted action sequences.
Coming from the same studio that gave us ‘Train to Busan’, Kim Sung-hoon’s ‘Rampant’ obviously has a lot to live up to.
In the Joseon dynasty, King Lee Jo (Kim Eui-sung, ‘Train to Busan’) is viewed as overly deferential to the nearby Qing dynasty of China. His son, crown prince Lee Young (Kim Tae-woo, ‘Joint Security Area’), engages in a plot to buy European arquebuses to drive away the Qing. The plot is exposed by sinister Minister of War Kim Ja-joon (Jang Dong-gun), who holds influence over the king and frames it as a rebellion. Kim meets the Europeans and learns that they have brought zombies (called "night demons"). Locked away on the arms dealer’s ship is an infected man in a cage - the patient zero of ‘Rampant’.
Meanwhile, the crown prince left a request for his wife Gyeong-bin (Seo Ji-hye) and unborn child to be brought by his younger brother Ganglim (Hyun Bin, ‘Confidential Assignment’) to China for their safety. Ganglim had previously been left out of Joseon's order of succession and grew up abroad in the prosperous Qing. The youngest prince returns with his (tiresome) companion Hak-Su (Jeong Man-sik, ‘Miracle in Cell No. 7’). They land in Jemulpo and are immediately attacked by Joseon assassins sent by Minister Kim and other ministers who are plotting a coup. The noise of the battle draws an attack by zombified villagers.
Ganglim is quickly joined by a noble group of rebels hellbent on defeating the zombie plague and putting an end to Joseon’s political corruption. A smug, shallow womaniser but a skilled warrior with a funky-looking sword, the prince inevitably learns the importance of fighting for something greater than himself - he becomes a leader who has earned the right to serve the will of the people.
So far, so similar to the action / horror series ‘Kingdom’ on Netflix. Luckily, the production design in 'Rampant' is exquisite, with grand sets for the towns and the palace, and elaborate traditional costumes that transport you back in time. The choreography is sometimes stunning, with the demons’ bodies twisting as they seize upon their victims, and the warriors flying through the battle and running up walls while lopping off heads with oversized weapons like there’s no tomorrow.
Although it is slick and polished, ‘Rampant’ feels reluctant to commit fully to the more intriguing aspects of its premise. It excels neither as a zombie film, nor a throne-room drama, while its clumsy subtext lacks any real bite.
Although it is slick and polished, ‘Rampant’ feels reluctant to commit fully to the more intriguing aspects of its premise. It excels neither as a zombie film, nor a throne-room drama, while its clumsy subtext lacks any real bite. There is an opportunity from some 'Train to Busan'-style bold sociopolitical statements and critiques of the South Korean social hierarchy, but 'Rampant' largely ignores them. The film avoids wading too deep into governance and the divide between the rulers and the suffering populace.
What is on offer is mild thrills and uneven pacing. Nobody in the cast transcends the limitations of their generic roles: the villain has no motivation, there is a goofy servant that serves as the comedy oaf sidekick, and a generic party of warriors (an archer, a swordsman, and a warrior monk) straight out of your average game of 'Diablo'. Prince Ganglim gets a small character arc as he must learn to grow out of his immature, rascal ways and accept his responsibilities towards his people.
Watching characters plot and scheme a political upheaval will never be as exciting as seeing a zombie invasion - unfortunately, this invasion seems to take forever to arrive. When it does, what it lacks in originality is made up for with gruesome visuals and cold-blooded savagery. The film calls these creatures "demons", but they seem to be a vampire/zombie hybrid. They can be killed by sunlight just like vampires, and you can kill them by destroying either the brain or the heart. Physically, though, they behave like traditional zombies. Essentially, they act as a thinly-veiled metaphor for the endemic corruption that ravages King Lee’s court but they are mainly just fodder for some relentless ‘Dynasty Warriors’-style hack-n-slash action, capped off with a final boss video game-type battle.
While ‘Rampant’ is a watchable zombie flick with a few exciting moments, it ultimately never reaches its potential due to poor pacing, stock characters, and uninspired writing.