While South Korean zombie movies can be traced back to Beom-gu Kang’s cult feature A Monsterous Corpse (1981), the sub-genre didn’t become a phenomenon until Yeon Sang-ho made the high-octane Train to Busan (2016). Earning a staggering $98M from an $8.5M budget, that film inspired a resurgence of local interest in the zombie genre.
With the likes of One Cut of the Dead (2017) and Netflix’s Kingdom making the genre feel fresh again, first-time director Lee Min-jae arrives with an equally unique premise. Seamlessly weaving together comedy, horror, and heartfelt drama, Gimyohan gajok / The Odd Family: Zombie for Sale (the original title) relishes in playing against established rules of the zombie genre. Tackling the subject matter with a sense of humour, Min-jae crafts an entertaining “zom-com” that fans of Shaun of the Dead (2004) will certainly enjoy.
When a pharmaceutical company is exposed for carrying out illegal testing on humans, one of their test subjects escapes near the rural town of Poongsan and becomes a zombie (Jung Ga-ram) unhurriedly moving towards civilisation. Meanwhile, the pariah Park family are running a failing service station on the outskirts of the town, with Joon-Gul (Jeong Jae-yeong) and his wife Nam-Joo (Uhm Ji-won) providing for their family by scamming passers-by. After the approaching zombie bites Man-Deok (Park In-hwan), he becomes revitalised and full of life, so the family hatch a plan to exploit this unexpected fountain of youth and allow locals to pay to be bitten.
Each actor brings a unique charisma to their characters, creating authentic chemistry between the family members. Jeong Jae-yeong strays away from the hard-face demeanour he portrayed in Confession of Murder (2012) and Broken (2014), to play hen-pecked goofball Joon-gul, being entertainingly hapless when it comes to hustling others for money. Uhm Ji-won (Hope) plays his formidable wife Nam-joo who, although heavily pregnant, proves she’s handy with a frying pan—being almost as manic as the chain-smoking landlady from Kung Fu Hustle (2004). Kim Nam-gil (Memoir of a Murder) plays middle child Min-Gul, who’s returned home after being fired from a job in Seoul, while Lee Soo-Kyung (Rainbow Eyes) plays the socially awkward youngest daughter Hae-hul, who’s embarrassed by her family.
South Korean comedies are known for their quirkiness, and the Parks are a strange, amusing, and surprisingly close bunch. Their relationships are the source of much of the absurd hilarity. Living out in the “boonies” of Poongsan, Joon-gul and his wife survive by causing car accidents and charging the victims extortionate rates to fix the vehicles at their garage. Meanwhile, patriarch Man-deok is a degenerate gambler who cheats his own friends. Similar to Kim Jee-Woon’s The Quiet Family (1998), their dynamics are dysfunctional and flawed, yet such degenerates work perfectly in this strange setting. Their wisecracking and weird antics provide the majority of the laughs and add to the family’s overall charm.
Jung Ga-ram (The Poet and the Boy) plays Jjong-bi, the zombie at the heart of the story, a slow-witted monster kept just as happy with cabbages covered in ketchup as he is by human flesh. Similar to Jonathan Levine’s Warm Bodies (2013) or My Boyfriend’s Back (1993), Hae-gul is the only one who seems to see a young man still residing somewhere inside the zombie. Min-jae ensures this thread is sweet and innocent, which keeps it fresh and funny. The pair have several near-kisses, a quirky date, and make grand romantic gestures. One particular scene sees sweeping music swell as the pair tumble precariously into a cabbage patch. It feels strange to root for a romance where one of the participants is an ungainly zombie.
Co-written by director Min-jae and his wife Jeong Seo-in, Zombie for Sale has excellent comedic chops thanks to its witty script and playful energy. Each character is fully fleshed out without a note of falsehood to them, demonstrating the strength of the writing. It’s obvious how much thought and care the two have taken writing each scene. Admirably, the director steers clear of the traditional blood and gore, instead biding his time until the climax. What the director does so well is allow audiences to get to know the ways of the characters, and keeps using them to maintain some comedy through the tenser moments. A weaponised frying pan used by Nam-joo combines the slapstick comedy and zombie lore delightfully. Another great visual gag sees the ‘worldly’ Min-gul explaining the threat of a zombie by whipping out a Zombie Survival Guide book.
Once the Park’s discover anyone bitten by Jjong-bi becomes healthier and seemingly immortal, Zombie for Sale plays out similarly to Alejandro Brugués’ Juan of the Dead (2011) in how the family sees dollar signs in an undead creature tied up in their barn. After deciding to turn it into a business opportunity, they offer the elderly citizens of Poongsan new life in exchange for cash and a bite wound. Arguably, using one zombie as a source for a number of gags does become a little tiresome. Regardless, the pacing is so consistent that the 112-minute runtime never feels like it’s dragging. The blend of madcap energy and comedy coincides perfectly until events take a turn for the worse in the finale.
Min-jae runs with the social commentary, putting a novel spin on the genre. The quirky style of humour reverberating throughout Zombie for Sale is also present in several recent pieces of South Korean cinema, most notably Parasite (2019). Similar to Bong Joon-ho’s Academy Award winner, there’s an exhibition of entrepreneurial flair by the impoverished Park family. What is perhaps the most unique element of Zombie for Sale is the way it toys with the idea of the male obsession with virility. By opening the feature with a brief exposition explaining a pharmaceutical company has been conducting illegal experiments, Min-jae is highlighting the irony of pharmaceutical companies exploiting the vulnerable.
Although Zombie for Sale is primarily a comedy, it respects the conventions of the traditional zombie feature. Inevitably we find our way to the mass-infection, outbreak scenario, which has come to define the genre. The slapstick nature of the fight for survival during the finale evokes memories of Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland 2: Double Tap (2019), as we see the Park family gearing up for war wearing duvets and pots and pans to protect themselves from bites. Thanks to Min-jae’s excellent direction and stellar cinematography by Cho Hyoung-rae (The Merciless), the fight scenes soar with beautiful dramatic flair—most notably Man-deok’s wedding ceremony that plays out like a live-action version of Corpse Bride (2005). The gorgeous set pieces and vibrant splashes of colour compliment the crazy antics.
Ultimately, Zombie for Sale is a lighthearted and cheeky addition to the zombie genre. It walks a fine line between Shaun of the Dead and Warm Bodies. Lee Min-jae’s directorial debut isn’t groundbreaking but it stands apart from the regular zom-com. If you’re anticipating something with more horror elements, you could be disappointed, but with its array of comical characters and a new take on the genre, Zombie for Sale is a creative addition to the sub-genre everyone always thinks has been done to death.
SOUTH KOREA | 2019 | 112 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | KOREAN
Blu-ray Special Edition Features:
- High-Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation. Presented in the original aspect ratio of 2:35:1, the 1080p digitally sourced image shines on Blu-ray. Zombie for Sale is another impeccable new release from Arrow Video that pushes the format towards its limits. Rural scenes leap from the screen during daylight scenes, with fields of yellow flowers and thick blades of green grass that show the quality of Cho Hyoung-rae’s cinematography. Close-ups reveal expert detail on skin tones and clothing textures, while interior scenes of the service station and barn showcase the image’s beauty further. Finer details such as weathered timber and rusted metal are clearly visible in the background. Black levels are fine within some lower light interiors and dark nighttime exteriors. The finale involving a series of fireworks looks magnificent, with each fireball offering a splash of colour amongst the dark night sky.
- Original uncompressed Stereo and 5.1 DTS-HD MA options. With optional English subtitles, Zombie for Sale offers an energetic DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix in the original South Korean language. Although the audio track will not test the muscle of your audio system, the sound designers have created a variety of atmospheric effects that echo through the entire sound field. There’s a wide array of ambient environmental sound FX that surround the rear speakers including gentle winds, birds chirping and dogs barking in the distance. The track proves capable of handling bursts of heightened activity during the final act with zombie moans and exploding fireworks enriching the experience. As expected the dialogue is clean and crisp with no balance issues to report.
- Newly-translated English subtitles.
- Brand new audio commentary with filmmakers and critics Sam Ashurst and Dan Martin.
- Q&A with director Lee Min-Jae from a 2019 screening at Asian Pop-Up Cinema in Chicago, moderated by film critic and author Darcy Paquet. A 27-minute Q&A with director Lee Min-jae at the 2019 screening of Zombie for Sale at the 9th annual Asian Pop-Up Cinema in Chicago. The director opens the film festival by expressing his love and admiration towards the godfather of horror, George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead). He speaks candidly about the cast during the production of his feature. Stating they call made a concession for each other in order to portray a realistic family unit. The director also briefly discusses the scriptwriting process with his wife. Comically saying the character Nam-Joo is a reflection of himself. While answering questions from a small crowd, he goes into detail about the dialect of the town Poongsan, discussing how the dialogue created much of the comedy in South Korea—which unfortunately may have been lost in translation for Western audiences. The feature serves as a short and sweet insight into the reception of the film.
- ‘Eat Together, Kill Together: The Family-in-Peril Comedy’ A new video essay by critic and producer Pierce Conran exploring Korea’s unique social satires. A 19-minute video essay of Pierce Conran exploring the family dynamics of South Korean cinema and the influences of Hollywood features in the country. He gives a wonderful and in-depth insight into the revival of South Korean cinema and how it has influenced modern-day directors. He discusses how Western cinema such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry (1955), Jacques Tourneur’s The Comedy of Terrors (1963), and the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996), have all influenced the South Korean New Wave. Due to this, directors such as Bong Joon-ho and Ra Hee-chan (Going by the Book) lead a resurgence of the nation’s film industry. It’s a detailed and interesting analysis of South Korean film that features many pictures that are criminally overlooked in Western culture.
- Making-Of Featurette. A hilarious short four-minute feature that introduces the audience to the Park family and Jjong-bi. With English subtitles, its a satirical interpretation of the thoughts of Jjong-bi. The zombie gives a brief rundown on the characters. Whilst also discussing his experience in starring in a feature film.
- Behind-the-Scenes footage. This Making Of special feature is comprised of two segments: the first gives a brief introduction to the characters of Zombie for Sale in hilarious fashion, while the second segment shows some hilarious outtakes during production.
- Original Trailer.
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly-commissioned artwork by Mike Lee-Graham.
- FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Josh Hurtado.
Cast & Crew
director: Lee Min-jae.
writers: Lee Min-jae & Jung Seo-in.
starring: Jung Jae-young, Kim Nam-gil, Uhm Ji-won, Lee Soo-kyung, Jung Ga-ram & Park In-hwan.