The idea of exploiting the undead for capital gains is a concept that filmmakers have examined occasionally down the decades. Films like I Walked with a Zombie dealt with Haitian legends of reanimated corpses being used as slaves. George A. Romero was perhaps the first to use them as a metaphor for consumerism, following that logical thread through to the ‘zombie theme park’ of Land of the Dead. And the Billy Connolly-starring Fido sees the revenants as household servants. The knockabout Korean horror comedy Zombie for Sale features a young zombie used as a miracle cure. It’s an intriguing conceit that gets overwhelmed by both a lapse into generic chaos, and set-pieces that echo better, more inventive films.
The Park family make a living scamming the few customers who find themselves at their remote, ramshackle petrol station. When they come across a zombie inadvertently created by a pharmaceutical company, they smell a money-spinner. It turns out that a bite from “Jjong-bi” has a rejuvenating effect, and it isn’t long before before the elder residents of the village are enjoying a second youth. The teeth marks on their arms seem like a small price to pay, at first.
Dysfunctional families are a familiar feature of South Korean genre cinema. Films like Kim Jee-woon‘s The Quiet Family, through to Bong Joon-ho’s all-conquering Parasite are centred around clans stuffed with charming rogues that go to outlandish lengths to flourish in a system they see as being stacked against them. Zombie for Sale deals with this anti-capitalist undertone head on. Both the Parks and the faceless corporation (who never appear in search of their error) are products of a deep-set rot to different extents. Initially, the film plays with our innate connection with the underdog as the family begins to achieve their modest ambitions.
There are also tentative sparks between Jjong-bi (Jung Ga-ram) and the Parks’ daughter Hae-gul (Lee Soo-kyung). This brings to mind the likes the likes of Warm Bodies, Life After Beth and Nina Forever. The romance is initially of a parallel importance to Jjong-bi’s status as a cash cow. However, once the chaos is unleashed at the hour mark, however, our patient zero is largely forgotten except for a sentimental moment of self-sacrifice. While Warm Bodies was far from perfect, it had an actor of Nicholas Hoult‘s calibre to locate the necessary human spark. Jjong-bi remains a blank. It’s also indicative of Zombie for Sale‘s biggest failing; as a grab bag of zombie tropes that are entertaining enough, but simply recall superior films.
For example, there are moments where the family pretend to be zombies themselves, and a scene in which Hae-gul fends off a horde of undead with a hedge strimmer. If you’re going to reference Shaun of the Dead and Braindead directly, you need more than a tribute. Apart from one excellent scene at the gas station filmed like a rave, there’s precious little invention on show. Even the premise, which plays like a comedic spin on Brandon Cronenberg‘s Antiviral – in which consumers pay to be infected with the diseases suffered by their favourite celebrities – is simply a setup for the largely bloodless, increasingly slapstick action. With the balance firmly tipped toward comedy, there is also a real lack of tension.
Zombie for Sale is fleetingly diverting, and entertaining enough that it’s been an audience favourite wherever it’s been screened on the festival circuit. It’s well shot and there is a nice, jaunty Danny Elfman-esque score with adds to the lighthearted tone. It’s also hard not to warm to dialogue like: “I’m not delicious! Go away!” However, with a runtime just shy of two hours, much more could have been in terms of expanding both its themes and characterisation. It’s not dreadful, just simply not as infectious as its glowing reputation would have you believe.
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 6 Jul 2020